Leaders from Russia and the European Union are meeting in Helsinki today for a long-planned summit that was supposed to focus on a strengthening of their partnership. But as civilian casualties mount in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia will likely have to defend its claim that its actions in Chechnya are only anti-terrorist operations.
Moscow, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The one-day summit in Helsinki was initially conceived as a way for the European Union to hold out a hand toward Russia, wary of the union's enlargement into Central Europe. However, after an apparent Russian rocket attack against the center of Grozny last night was covered heavily in the Western press, the war in Chechnya will certainly strain the atmosphere of goodwill.
Explosions in the center of Grozny last night killed at least 60 people, including women and children, and maimed and wounded scores more. Russian authorities denied responsibility until today, when they said the Grozny market was targeted because it was selling weapons.
Until yesterday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who are representing Russia in Helsinki, seemed set to discuss a closening of ties with the EU, confining the discussion of the Chechen issue to a minimum. But an EU spokesman said yesterday that it won't be possible to "do business as usual," and that the summit's emphasis would be on Chechnya.
A Finnish official said the EU expects Putin to present a plan for a political settlement of the conflict.
In addition to the human rights issues that concern the EU, the war in Chechnya also raises military aspects. U.S. officials say Moscow now has hundreds more armored vehicles on its Caucasian flank than it is allowed to have under the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).
Russian authorities, however, insist the summit will go on as previously planned. Evgeny Voronin of the Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL: "The agenda is to discuss relations between the EU and Russia. Chechnya is not and cannot be on the agenda, since it is an interior problem."
Quoting unidentified Russian Foreign Ministry sources, the Russian news agency Interfax ran an exceptionally long article yesterday on the issues on the agenda for the European Union meeting. Those issues include cooperation in the fields of technology, energy, nuclear industry, and space exploration. Russia also plans to discuss its participation in the reconstruction of Yugoslavia, and a long-awaited loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The Foreign Ministry's Voronin agreed, however, that the EU summit could be a chance to, in his words, "expound again Russia's view on the Chechen issue -- that it is a simple fight with terrorism."
He said he was not worried about the European Union's reaction, since he said many countries had voiced support for Russia's efforts to fight terrorism. The Foreign Ministry spokesman was referring to a joint declaration on terrorism signed by ministers from the Group of Seven nations plus Russia, who met in Moscow this week to discuss crime-fighting cooperation.
The declaration does not refer to Chechnya specifically. But the Interior Ministry has portrayed the anti-terrorism declaration as a gesture of support by Western nations for Moscow's policy in the North Caucasus.