Russia's military campaign in Chechnya dominated today's first session of the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Istanbul. U.S. President Bill Clinton and other Western leaders criticized Russia's military campaign and called for immediate negotiations. Russian President Boris Yeltsin put up a forceful defense of Russia's actions.
Istanbul, 18 November 1999 -- The OSCE summit in Istanbul today anchored the Chechen conflict firmly at the center of international political attention.
At the summit's first session, held in the splendor of a former sultan's palace by the Bosphorus, a series of Western speakers rose to express concern at civilian suffering in the conflict, and for an immediate end to the fighting.
But the discussion was led off by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who strongly defended the campaign against Western criticism:
"You [the West] have no right to criticize Russia over Chechnya. We are standing up to a wave of terrorist acts which have swept through Moscow and other cities and villages of our country. 1,580 people -- peaceful citizens -- have suffered. The pain of this tragedy is now being felt by thousands of families in all corners of Russia."
He rejected the idea of early peace talks and told Western leaders that instead of criticizing, they should understand Russia's position:
"There will be no peace talks with bandits and killers! We are for peace and a political resolution to the situation in Chechnya. And for this, the complete liquidation of bandit formations and the elimination of terrorists is necessary. Russia has the right to count on the understanding and support of Europe and the OSCE."
Yeltsin was followed by European Union Commission President Romano Prodi, who did not cloak his comments in diplomatic language.
Addressing his remarks directly to Yeltsin, Prodi said: "We condemn the use of force in Chechnya. Stop the military campaign and launch dialogue immediately."
U.S. President Bill Clinton, speaking later, chose to ignore Yeltsin's forceful tone. Clinton said Americans want Russia to overcome the "scourge" of terrorism, and he said Americans understand Russia has a right to its own territorial integrity. He also said the United States wants to see a strong and democratic Russia.
But Clinton questioned the path Russia has chosen in Chechnya:
"Russia has faced rebellion within and related violence beyond the borders of Chechnya. It has responded with a military strategy designed to break the resistance and end the terror, [But] the strategy has led to substantial civilian casualties and very large flows of refugees."
Clinton said most of Russia's critics deplore extremism in Chechnya and support the objectives of Russia to preserve its territorial integrity and end the violence. But, he said, they question the means:
"What they fear is that the means Russia has chosen [will] undermine its ends, that if attacks on civilians continue, the extremism Russia is trying to combat will only intensify, and the sovereignty that Russia is rightly defending will be more and more rejected by ordinary Chechens."
Finland currently holds the presidency of the European Union and speaking on its behalf, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari also criticized Russia's military campaign in Chechnya.
"The European Union condemns the excessive use of force in Chechnya, which has given rise to severe hardship in the civilian population. The EU urges Russia to observe its commitments under international humanitarian law, and the OSCE code of conduct. Unhindered delivery of international humanitarian assistance should be assured. It is the EU's view that the military solution to a basically political problem is neither acceptable nor attainable. We strongly underline the need of a dialogue between the Russian government and the elected leaders of the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, to seek a political settlement. They should seriously consider using the good offices of the OSCE."
Today's addresses also included an exchange between Clinton and Yeltsin over Kosovo. Yeltsin had said in his speech that he rejected the new concept of what he called "humanitarian interference" in other countries' affairs. He said everyone knew the consequences of that. He referred directly to what he called "the aggression against Yugoslavia led by the United States."
In addressing that issue, Clinton said he respectfully wished to disagree. He said Yeltsin must consider what happened in Bosnia, where many thousands of lives were lost because the international community had not acted quickly enough. Clinton said that in Kosovo, by contrast, most of the people are back in their homes today.
Clinton and Yeltsin were to meet after the summit plenary session for bilateral talks which were also expected to dwell on the Chechnya issue.