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Russia: Yabloko Criticizes Proposed EU Sanctions

Russia's reformist Yabloko party has criticized an EU proposal to slap mild sanctions on the country over Chechnya. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow that the party could be trying to broaden its support base by criticizing both the war and the West's opposition to it.

Moscow, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Yabloko party, traditionally one of the harshest domestic critics of the Kremlin, says international economic sanctions won't work in ending the country's military campaign in Chechnya.

The European Union this week turned to proposing mild sanctions as a way of voicing its disapproval of the Chechen conflict. EU foreign ministers agreed to consider suspending about $90 million of funding for Russia and to freeze another $60 million of trade agreements.

In addition, the Council of Europe, a multinational body that promotes human rights, has criticized Russia over Chechnya. The council's Parliamentary Assembly met yesterday (Thursday) in Strasbourg to consider what stance to take -- including possibly suspending Russia's membership in the council.

Yabloko deputy Aleksei Arbatov, outlining his party's position, tells RFE/RL the West is free to express its opinion on Chechnya, but he says outside pressure and sanctions are "unacceptable interference" in Russia's domestic affairs.

Arbatov, a member of the State Duma's Defense Committee and a specialist on international affairs, says Chechnya is an internal affair. He says pressure to put an end to the war can only come from inside Russia:

"The war in Chechnya can be stopped and peace will come only when [Russian] public opinion, the media and the Russian parliament change their position on the war. [Meanwhile], in the present conditions, obvious pressure on Russia -- and particularly the threat of sanctions -- will harden public opinion under the banner that 'Russia isn't Yugoslavia, so you won't get away with it.' It makes the work of party leaders, political groups and civic forces, which are seeking a solution to the situation on the North Caucasus by stopping the war, extremely difficult."

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman (Aleksandr Yakovenko) immediately criticized the proposed EU sanctions as "inappropriate." The spokesman said they would harm the EU as much as Russia.

Our correspondent says Moscow generally reacts to foreign criticism of the military action in Chechnya by saying foreigners are "misinformed" about the nature of the conflict.

The West has focused its objections on what it says are disproportionately high civilian casualties. Russia, meanwhile, says the military campaign is justified as an anti-terrorism operation.

Arbatov says that even though Yabloko opposes international interference in the Chechen conflict, the party is still strongly opposed to the war:

"We are concerned about the interests of the civilian population in Chechnya, who are Russian citizens whatever their nationality, and about our army, which was dragged into yet another butchery. [We propose to] cease the senseless storming of Grozny -- not only because it's going to cost us another few thousand soldiers' lives, horrible destruction and the death of civilians. But foremost because from a military point of view, the operation doesn't make sense. [We propose to] create three rings in Chechnya, three blockade rings -- that same sanitary cordon with which this operation began before growing into this senseless slaughter."

Yabloko called for a similar plan in November, proposing a political solution based on Russian military threats. Although the plan was far from an all out call for peace, Yabloko has been harshly criticized by Kremlin allies for what they call a betrayal of Russia.

Political scientist Yevgeny Volk, who works for the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that Yabloko is trying to balance its stance on Chechnya by opposing both the war and the West's reaction to it.

Volk says Yabloko is trying to follow the general movement of public opinion. This is especially important ahead of the presidential election in March. Yabloko's leader Grigory Yavlinsky is one of the candidates in the March 26 vote and is a longshot against the frontrunner, acting President Vladimir Putin.

Volk says that if Yavlinsky fares poorly in the election, his party's future may be in doubt. Yabloko scored low in parliamentary elections in December, a fact that was partly attributed to its criticism of the popular Putin.

Volk says that while Yabloko is still trying to portray itself to voters as the genuine democratic opposition, even it cannot completely resist what he calls the "Putin effect."