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Europe: Council's Assembly Acts To Suspend Russia Over Chechnya

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly yesterday called on the organization's member states to begin the process of suspending Russia's membership in the organization because of its conduct of the war in Chechnya. At the same time, the assembly suspended the voting rights of Russian delegates to the chamber. RFE/RL correspondent Joel Blocker reports.

Prague, 7 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A key body of the Council of Europe has called for suspending Russia from the 41-nation organization without delay unless Moscow demonstrates immediately what the council calls "substantial, accelerating and demonstrable progress" in making peace and ending human-rights abuses in Chechnya.

The council's Parliamentary Assembly acted late in the afternoon (Thursday) in a formal recommendation (effectively, a resolution) adopted by a large majority. The text cited Russia's failure to seek an unconditional cease-fire and political solution in Chechnya as well as to end its alleged massive human-rights abuses.

Three months ago, the assembly had demanded the same actions from Moscow. Today, in recommending Russia's suspension from the council, the 291-member assembly underlined that Moscow had not responded at all to its appeals. Its recommendation was voted by more than two-thirds of those present in the assembly, with only 14 votes against and one abstention.

Earlier in the evening (Thursday), the assembly also suspended the voting rights of Russia's 24-member parliamentary delegation. That immediately triggered a walkout by the delegation, whose chairman, Dmitri Rogozin, said: "We regret what has happened." Yesterday, Rogozin said that suspending Russia would be a blow to Moscow's aspirations for closer ties with European institutions and might lead to a new East-West iron curtain on the continent.

The assembly's recommendation for action to suspend Russia's four-year-old membership in the council was addressed to the organization's Committee of Ministers, its chief decision-making body. The assembly asked the committee to report back to it on the question of Russia's membership before the assembly's next scheduled plenary session, in June. Only the council's Committee of Ministers -- acting upon a recommendation from the assembly -- can suspend a member-state.

The import of yesterday's resolution was summed up for RFE/RL by Estonian assembly member Kristiina Ojuland, vice chairwoman of the assembly's Political Committee, which drafted much of today's text: She said:

"This is now the message to the Russian government [from the council's] Committee of Ministers: If the Russian government does not take measures immediately -- let that be clear, immediately -- then [the] Committee of Ministers -- taking into account the statutes of the Council of Europe -- should start the process of suspension of Russian membership in the organization without delay."

The four-hour debate preceding the vote was an emotional one, with both many Russian delegates and representatives from Chechnya attending. At one point, emotions boiled over and Russian delegate Gadzhy Makhachdev of Daghestan, a republic neighboring Chechnya, traded punches with Chechen representative Nagap Tutakov -- a special envoy of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov -- as he left the assembly chamber.

Britain's Lord Judd -- who led an assembly fact-finding mission to Chechnya last month -- told his colleagues that their governments had shown what he called "feebleness" in dealing with the alleged Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. Most Russian assembly members who spoke urged the assembly to withdraw its recommendation for suspension. But Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov said that "the most severe sanctions should be taken against my country." Kovalyov's remarks evoked loud applaud from the assembly.

Most assembly members from Central and Eastern Europe who spoke condemned Russia's conduct in Chechnya. Poland's Tomasz Wojcik asked: "How man people have to be killed and raped before we give a minimum sign [of disapproval]?"

Council officials (unnamed) described the recommendation as one of the toughest -- if not the toughest -- public criticism yet by a multinational organization of Russia's conduct during its seven-month military campaign in Chechnya. Some diplomats in Strasbourg also found the text quite undiplomatic in the bluntness of its language.

The diplomats pointed particularly to the recommendation's explicit references to alleged "disproportionate, indiscriminate" bombing of Chechnya's civilian population, summary executions of [Chechen] civilians" and what it called "daily violations of human rights, including murders."

But both council officials and diplomats at the organization said there was little chance that the council's Committee of Ministers would move quickly -- if at all -- to suspend Russia. They cited considerations of "realpolitik" that would prove, they said, to be paramount. But they agreed today's action by the Parliamentary Assembly was an important landmark in international reaction to the war in Chechnya.

The Council of Europe monitors human rights, the rule of law, and democratic practices in all of its member states. In its 51-year history, the organization has never formally suspended a member-state, although in 1969 -- after a military coup d'etat -- Greece was effectively forced out of the council for five years. In addition, from 1981 to 1984, the Parliamentary Assembly suspended Turkey's delegation to the assembly after a military takeover in that country.

Today, the assembly acknowledged human-rights violations have been, and are still being committed by both sides in the Chechen conflict. But it said that the assembly "cannot accept that a member state's failure to comply with the Council of Europe's standards is justified by the behavior of its adversaries."

The assembly's text also said that "Russia has violated some of the most important obligations under both the [Council of Europe's] European Convention on Human Rights [and] international humanitarian law." It recommended that European Human-Rights Court -- the council's most important subsidiary organ -- consider the alleged human-rights abuses in Chechnya.

The assembly recommendation also said that Russian authorities ought to allow journalists free access to regions of Chechnya not close to actual combat zones. It cited violations of the human rights of journalists by the Russians, including the detention earlier this year of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky. Babitsky met with an assembly delegation member last month in Moscow.

On Tuesday, Babitsky testified by a video linkup with the assembly's political committee. He told its members the Russian military had approved mass murder and systematic torture tactics against the ethnic Chechen population. Speaking on RFE/RL last night, Babitsky summed up his testimony to the committee:

"[I told them that] the war in Chechnya was, in my opinion, a criminal war, that in Chechnya, crimes against humanity took place which should become an issue for a public, international investigation."

Yesterday, the assembly appeared to act more in keeping with Babitsky's view than with the official Russian version of the war as one directed only against what Moscow calls "bandits and terrorists."