Negotiators from most of the nations of Europe are continuing talks in Geneva today on a new conventional arms control treaty for the continent. RFE/RL's Roland Eggleston reports that Russian military operations in Chechnya are at the center of a dispute that threatens to derail the talks. But he reports that diplomats are still hopeful an agreement can be reached, perhaps within hours.
Vienna, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Arms negotiators in Vienna hope to complete work tonight on an important new treaty controlling the deployment of troops and conventional weapons in all parts of Europe.
But negotiators from several countries tell RFE/RL that there are still unresolved problems arising from Russia's military intervention in Chechnya and the talks could continue until late tonight. Among those raising questions are Azerbaijan, Georgia and some other countries in the region.
The major issue is the fact that the number of troops, tanks and other weapons that Russia has sent to Chechnya far exceeds the number it is permitted to deploy in the North Caucasus under the new conventional arms treaty, or CFE as it is generally known.
Russia has acknowledged that the forces it now has in the North Caucasus exceed the number it is allowed to deploy. But it claims that it has supreme national interests in Chechnya which justify its breaching of the limits. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said earlier this week that once the crisis is over it will comply with the CFE obligations.
Diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity said today that several countries were concerned about this argument. They say some countries have told the closed-door negotiations that Russia's justification for breaching the limits should not be accepted. They say they fear Moscow might try to use it again in other situations.
A senior U.S. diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, tells RFE/RL he is "reasonably sure" that the differences would be resolved today, but says the talks could continue late into the night.
Yesterday's session did not end until 0200 today with several issues still unresolved.
If the document is approved by the negotiators in Vienna it will be sent to the capitals of the 30 countries involved in the talks for a final study by their governments. If all goes well, it will then be signed by the heads of government in Istanbul later this month during the summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Negotiators speaking to RFE/RL today said they preferred not to speculate on what would happen if the complete document is not approved by the negotiators in Vienna. They stress that the Istanbul Summit would still take place because the arms negotiations are technically separate from the OSCE. Only 30 of the 54 OSCE members are involved in the arms negotiations.
The Russian delegation in the negotiations is said to be stressing a number of positive statements made recently by Prime Minister Putin. Earlier this week he made a statement declaring that Russia would honor the new treaty on conventional forces and accepted all the commitments expected of a member of the OSCE. Russia has also provided some information about the number of troops and weaponry it has deployed in the North Caucasus. However not all countries are satisfied that Moscow has given all the facts. Moscow has also said it will allow international inspectors to monitor the situation but only when it is "physically possible" -- a condition which is not satisfactory to some countries.
The North Caucasus is part of what is called the "southern flank" of the CFE Treaty. There is also a "northern flank," which includes the St. Petersburg military district and some other Russian-controlled areas plus NATO countries such as Norway. Ten nations are affected by the CFE Treaty agreements on these flank regions.
When the negotiations started, Russia wanted all restrictions lifted on its deployment of forces in these flank areas, particularly the Caucasus. Countries in both regions objected that in theory this could allow Moscow to station all its forces on one flank or the other, posing a serious threat to peace and stability in that area. Eventually a compromise was reached allowing the temporary deployment of extra troops in the flank regions in times of crisis. The negotiators in Vienna say Russia has far exceeded the temporary limits allowed under this provision.
Among those raising questions in the negotiations now underway are Norway, representing countries in the northern flank. Other questions are coming from Azerbaijan, which has often questioned Russia's position regarding the CFE Treaty. In some previous negotiations Azerbaijan has insisted on a separate statement being included in the final document of the talks setting out its individual position on some issues.
However diplomats in Vienna told RFE/RL today that no country would have this right in regard to the new CFE Treaty. Its provisions have to be accepted totally by all 30 participating countries. Equally -- all countries are expected to honor those provisions.
Among the countries involved in the Vienna talks are Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova -- along with NATO members and all the European members of the former Warsaw Pact. The only nation from Central Asia participating is Kazakhstan -- and its participation involves only a limited part of its territory. The Baltic States are not involved, nor are neutral states.