Strasbourg, 24 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Chechnya has dominated the first day of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly's autumn session in Strasbourg -- but not in the way the assembly had hoped it would.
Yesterday began with the formal cancellation by the assembly's Executive Bureau of a controversial committee hearing on prospects for long-term peace in Chechnya. The decision was made only hours before the hearing had been scheduled to begin in the afternoon.
Assembly President Leni Fischer explained that, because both of the committee's chief invitees -- Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed and Chechen rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov -- had indicated they couldn't come, the hearing had been put off to a later date. She spoke of early November or "any other time convenient to the Russian parties."
Mrs. Fischer, a German Christian Democrat, tried to put the best possible face on the what she called a "postponement." She said that, in a letter she received Saturday, Lebed had said he was too busy to travel to Strasbourg this week but was "more than willing to come" at some future time. Maskhadov had also indicated he would be available later, she said.
Fischer indicated, too, that other Russians and Chechens might attend the future hearing. She said that it might take place while a meeting of the Council's Committee of Ministers -- the organization's chief executive organ -- was also being held. That would make it possible, she suggested, for Lebed and Maskhadov to have direct contacts with top officials from the Council's 39 member states.
All this, however, could not stop most objective observers from drawing the obvious conclusion: The Parliamentary Assembly had tried to carve itself a role in the Chechen peace process, but only got its fingers cut up in the process.
The assembly's strong interest in Chechnya goes back to early last year, when it gave its green light to Russian membership in the Council of Europe only after Moscow had pledged to work for an early end to the war in the rebellious republic. The same day it approved Russian entry, the assembly set up a special committee on Chechnya, whose members quickly put themselves in touch with both Chechen rebels and Russian officials concerned with the war.
They sought to use their own good offices in the cause of Chechen peace, even though another, larger multi-lateral organization -- the 53-state OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) -- was already charged with that task and had a mission installed in Chechnya's capital Grozny.
A year-and-a-half later, the assembly's special committee sensed an opportunity to play a role in what briefly seemed to be an unfolding Chechnya peace process. After Russian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed and Chechen rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov agreed to a cease-fire, the committee dispatched its chairman, Swiss conservative Ernst Muehlemann, to Moscow. While there, he invited both Lebed and Maskhadov to address a closed-door hearing during the assembly's autumn session. Both men accepted the invitations, the hearing was publicized and the assembly appeared to have found its role.
This appearance lasted only about two weeks. By mid-September, officials in Moscow were publicly grumbling about the Council of Europe's "interference in Russian internal affairs." Then the criticism sharply escalated with a letter sent to the assembly by the head of Russia's delegation to the assembly, Vladimir Lukin, who is also the chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Relations Committee. Lukin attacked Muehlemann personally and threatened a Russian boycott of the assembly session if Maskhadov was allowed to speak at the hearing.
Lukin's attack brought a quick riposte from Council President Fischer, who reminded Lukin and other Russian officials of their commitment to seek a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict when the country was made a member of the Council. She also reminded them of an old Council of Europe commandment: "Human-rights issues are never strictly (national) internal matters."
By then, Russian doubts and Russian internal politics had made it clear the hearing would not take place when and how it first conceived by the assembly. But it was not clear until yesterday that Chechnya would nonetheless dominate the meeting's first day and possibly the rest of the week-long assembly session as well.
Today Lukin scheduled a press conference that could sharpen even further the Moscow-Strasbourg quarrel. And later in the day, Ruslan Chimayev, the foreign minister of the Chechen separatist government, will reply to Lukin with a press conference of his own at a local hotel. (That's because a three-member Chechen separatist group now present in Strasbourg has been allowed by the Council to visit its headquarters and to mix with delegations and journalists, but it has not been granted any "official status.") No wonder, then, that some assembly members are now wondering whether the war of words in Strasbourg, among Russian parliamentarians and Chechen separatists, could go on all week.
If it does, it will overshadow some important scheduled assembly debates and speeches. Already yesterday afternoon, an address by Portuguese President Gorge Sampan ended up being sandwiched between two rounds of strong rhetoric on the assembly's Chechen imbroglio by some 15 members.
Most speakers in that debate regretted the collapse of the hearing, warned the assembly against being "intimidated" by the Russians and defended the idea that, since Russia's admission to the Council, "Chechnya is no longer an internal problem for Russia, but a European problem " But one or two others, notably Russian ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, railed at the assembly for failing to understand that Russia's presence in Chechnya had "saved hundreds of thousands of lives...and ended terrorism in that republic."
The same fate of being relegated by the Chechen controversy to relatively minor importance could overtake a speech by Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, due to be delivered at noon today -- but likely to be upstaged by Lukin's press conference an hour earlier. And, a similar destiny could be in store for discussion of several major subjects: a second Council of Europe summit meeting (today), the humanitarian situation of displaced persons in Georgia (today), the Mid-East peace process (Wednesday), migration and refugees in Europe (Friday), and some others.
In short, this was first and foremost the Parliamentary Assembly week that wasn't for the Chechnya hearing. But it is also fast turning into a week largely dominated by quarrels over Chechnya -- between Russians and Chechens and, perhaps more important, between Council officials in Strasbourg and Russians officials in Strasbourg and Moscow.