After lengthy wrangling, The European Union has issued a strongly-worded statement condemning Russia's use of immoderate force in Chechnya. The statement, formulated by Union leaders at a summit in Helsinki, foreshadows possible punitive economic measures against Moscow. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports from the Finnish capital.
Helsinki, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's announcement that Moscow had engaged in talks with leaders of the breakaway republic of Chechnya appeared to indicate a degree of flexibility by Moscow in the conflict.
Putin said on Friday that the government had established direct contact with the Chechen leadership with a view to opening political negotiations on a settlement. But Putin said the Chechens have so far rejected Moscow's conditions for a political solution to the three-month war.
Putin's announcement of the dialogue comes at a time when international pressure is growing on Russia to halt the bloodshed and the suffering of civilians in the Caucasian republic. The U.S. and many EU leaders had been making increasingly critical statements on Moscow's military campaign.
Late Friday, the European Union criticized the Russian military campaign. In a declaration on Chechnya the Union's leaders called on Russia not to follow through on its warning to civilians of the Chechen capital Grozny that they must leave the city by today or face increased bombardment.
The summit also appealed for Russia to allow the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to the conflict region, and to start a political dialogue with Chechnya, among other things. More concretely, the EU leaders decided that the whole spectrum of the Union's relations with Russia, including aid and assistance under many programs, should be reviewed. For instance the Tacis assistance program, which has supplied Russia with more than $1.3 billion since 1991, will be limited next year to specific areas such as support for civil society and nuclear safety. Further, some provisions of the E-Russia Partnership and Cooperation agreement will be suspended.
British officials have been making some of the strongest statements on the Russian campaign in Chechnya, and Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday called it "brutal and totally out of proportion".
EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten told a press conference that there could be no business as usual with Russia while civilians are suffering and dying in Chechnya. Patten said Moscow had repeatedly broken promises on the situation, and he called the EU's actions a strong and clear message to Moscow.
However, Patten was forced onto the defensive at the press conference, with some journalists referring to the measures as weak. He admitted the EU is in an awkward situation, in that there are not many levers available to concretely pressure Russia. He added that any military-related moves are out of the question. But Patten said that the EU statement amounted to more than just words:
"This is not just a firm condemnation of Russian behavior, ... we have looked at our existing instruments for cooperation with Russia, we've gone through them all, and we've proposed reviewing or suspending parts of them. And it seems to me that in the context of the relationship we've tried to develop in the last few years, this goes a pretty long way."
Patten also said that Russia's trade relations with the EU were under review:
"Russia has a 10,000 million euro [trade] surplus with the European Union. There are a number of areas where at the moment, Russian authorities are in breach, in our judgment, of the provisions of our trade agreements. For example, the steel agreement, with its proposal on the taxation of nonferrous scrap. There are other trade disputes we have with them on alcohol, on insurance, on banking and other matters, so those are all issues that we'll now want to pursue vigorously with Russian authorities. I repeat that I don't think that any of our citizens in the European Union think that we can proceed as though it was business as usual."
In remarks to RFE/RL shortly afterwards, Denmark's Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen also came to the defense of the summit decision:
"I think it is a very strongly-worded declaration, we use expressions like 'we totally condemn' the Russian behavior in Chechnya and its attacks on cities there, so I think this is a very strong declaration".
Russian officials in Moscow immediately reacted to the EU's moves by saying that it would have no impact on what happens in Chechnya, which they say is an internal Russian affair.
Despite that assertion, and Moscow's brusque rejection of what it sees as all foreign interference, the criticisms of the United States, the European Union and Muslim nations may be taking their toll on Moscow's determination to pursue the war in Chechnya its own way.