Washington, 30 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A dispute on Russian policy in Chechnya between the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which represents the legislatures of the member countries, and that body's Committee of Ministers, which includes officials from their executive branches, highlights the ability of parliamentarians to speak out on issues their governments prefer to avoid.
But that distinction, which has long existed at the level of individual states, may become more serious when it occurs in international bodies. On the one hand, it threatens to undermine the messages of those groups as a whole. And on the other, it may both undercut the ability of member governments to retain control of their foreign policies and reduce their willingness to participate in such supranational groups.
The dispute between European parliamentarians and European governments over Russian actions in Chechnya has been brewing for months, ever since the assembly voted two months ago to suspend Russia's voting rights there. But it flared up Thursday when that body voted 130 to 1 in favor of a resolution stating that Moscow's efforts to address human rights abuses in Chechnya have not yet produced any "convincing and tangible results."
In the same resolution, the parliamentarians added that the failure of the governments represented in the Committee of Ministers to denounce Russian behavior in Chechnya was "totally unacceptable." The legislators appear to have been angered by committee officials who said this week that Russia had made progress in Chechnya and that the Parliamentary Assembly would soon allow Russian parliamentarians to resume work in Strasbourg.
Not surprisingly, Moscow officials have welcomed the softer line of the European governments, seeing it as the official position of Europe -- even as all but two of the Russian legislators continued their boycott of the Parliamentary Assembly, a body the Russian government and foreign ministry have castigated for its past criticism of Russian actions in the North Caucasus and elsewhere.
Such divisions between European legislators and European governments clearly send a mixed message to Moscow and potentially to other governments that the Parliamentary Assembly may want to condemn in the future at times when Council of Europe member governments prefer to abstain from any criticism.
That not only allows the Russian government or other objects of attack to pick and choose what they want to hear, but it creates a situation in which those being criticized may misread the messages that institutions like the Council of Europe as a whole actually want to send. Such misreadings in turn are likely to contribute to miscalculations.
The most serious consequences of such divisions between parliamentary and executive branch groups at the international level are likely to lie elsewhere.
First, the existence of these two very different kinds of bodies may lead to a kind of irresponsibility on the part of each, with parliamentarians feeling they can speak out because their governments won't and governments concluding that they need not say anything because their parliamentary body is doing the talking.
Such conclusions thus effectively limit the moral influence the international group as a whole can exercise, and they could undermine popular support for participation in international groups which appear to be so fragmented and divided.
Second, the ability of parliamentarians to speak out may have the effect of highlighting the unwillingness of governments to condemn other governments -- a kind of free masonry of the powerful -- and thus undermine the authority of those who refuse to speak out in the eyes of their own citizens. That risk is perhaps especially great because many of the members of the Parliamentary Assembly are representatives of opposition parties who would only be too glad to see their own governments lose popular support and fall.
Third, such actions by European parliamentarians may make some European governments less enthusiastic about taking other cooperative steps over which they would not have effective control -- or even tolerating the kind of statements the Parliamentary Assembly has made lest they interfere with national foreign policy priorities.
In many ways, the parliamentarians really did and do speak for the European people on the question of Russian violation of human rights in Chechnya, but the silence of the governments involved sends a very clear message that despite the effort of the Parliamentary Assembly to change the situation, these governments and not its members and those whom they represent retain the dominant position in relations both among nations and among states.