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OSCE: Summit Ends With Russian Concessions

The Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ended today, and the leaders of its 54 states are returning home. Now, says RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke, comes the big question: What did they achieve in their two days of talks?

Istanbul, 19 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE is the pre-eminent international security organization for setting norms for the behavior of its member states, toward one other and toward their own citizens. But as such, the OSCE works through cooperation and consensus, not compulsion. That's important to keep in mind, when asking what was achieved in Istanbul.

The most important issue at the summit was Russia's military campaign in its breakaway republic of Chechnya. The proceedings were enlivened by having both Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton addressing the issue directly in their speeches.

Clinton reminded Yeltsin there is no logic to fighting terrorism in Chechnya with military means so indiscriminate that they alienate virtually the entire population.

Yeltsin, delivering his speech, presented a formidable sight. Stern and decisive in demeanor, he said that Russia would not accept interference in its own affairs, and he called on the OSCE to support Moscow's military efforts to rid Chechnya of terrorism.

Behind the scenes, however, the picture was different. Negotiators from the various delegations battled until the last two hours of the summit today to find the right words for the summit's final declaration. As adopted, the declaration contains only 13 lines on the North Caucasus, and the word Chechnya is not even mentioned.

But those 13 lines clearly contain significant concessions by Russia. For one thing, they commit all members -- including Russia -- to respecting OSCE norms. That means respecting the human rights of those in the North Caucasus region. For another, the final statement underlines the importance of easing the suffering of the civilian population. That covers the pressing international concern about the plight of Chechen civilians and refugees.

Most important, the final statement says that all OSCE members agree that a political solution to the Chechnya problem is essential. And the same passage says that OSCE chairman Knut Vollebaek will be allowed to visit the region -- a longstanding international demand.

In other words, what appears to have happened in Istanbul is that Russia has committed itself to abiding by a number of OSCE demands in the Chechen conflict. In doing so, Moscow is helping to undermine the traditional idea that national sovereignty is paramount in any serious conflict situation. While OSCE members expressly stated that they do not wish to interfere in Russian affairs, they have in fact managed to move Russia towards OSCE norms -- the values of democratic, civilized societies.

The summit declaration also refers to a renewal of political dialogue in Chechnya. Vollebaek was asked what that meant.

"The agreement, I guess, is about two hours old, so we haven't really studied it carefully, and we haven't started discussing how we should implement it. But, as you say, it talks about the political role and it even talks about the dialogue. But if you should have a dialogue, you have to find someone to have this dialogue with, so of course there has to be representatives of Chechens with which we have to talk. And as you will know also, there are legally elected representatives of the Chechen people, and I suppose it would be normal to address them."

Vollebaek said he is optimistic that the process of finding a political solution to the Chechen conflict can begin.

Other participants expressed satisfaction and relief at the summit's outcome. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that the summit had moved Russia toward ending the war in Chechnya. He felt that the non-provocative way the other delegations had negotiated with Russia had achieved the breakthrough. That's why, he added, the Russians had not dug in their heels.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau told RFE/RL that the final declaration was not easy to achieve.

"It is the result of very long and hard work which began two days ago, when, for our part, as French [people], we thought we could not let the summit be wasted, could not let it go by as if nothing was happening in Chechnya."

Rabisseau said that France would not have signed the final declaration if Russia had not made the concessions it did. That was probably true of a number of other nations as well.