The Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meets today in Bucharest -- with Chechnya, Kosovo, Moldova and other issues on the agenda. But RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports the opening day primarily will be devoted to the saga of one man: Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky.
Bucharest, 6 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE long has been critical of Russian actions in Chechnya. Just yesterday, on the eve of a five-day Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Bucharest, its leading troika of foreign ministers renewed pressure on Russia to abandon its troubled military campaign in Chechnya and cooperate in seeking a political solution to the conflict.
Today, in a ceremony loaded with symbolism, the OSCE assembly -- not to be confused with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that met two weeks ago -- is virtually certain to rub salt in the Russian wounds.
The assembly will present its year 2000 Award for Journalism and Democracy to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. But Babitsky will not be there in person to accept it.
Babitsky, a Russian citizen, angered Russian authorities last year with his candid and critical coverage of the war in Chechnya.
His work made him a well-known figure to RFE/RL's listeners in the Russian Federation and in neighboring countries, and to his fellow journalists there and in the West. When Russian military authorities arrested him last January in Grozny, however, and the Russian leadership in Moscow followed his arrest with more than a month of contradictory statements and secrecy as to his fate, they transformed him into an international cause celebre.
Governments, international organizations, and human rights and press freedom groups clamored for news of Babitsky and demanded his release. Later, the International Press Institute in Vienna said the clamor probably saved his life.
Babitsky is at home in Moscow but stands indicted of using false documents. Babitsky says the charge is a set up staged by the military in Chechnya.
The Russian government now has ignited another round of criticism by refusing to issue Babitsky travel documents so he can accept his OSCE award. He is to be represented at the ceremony today by his wife, Lyudmila.
Yesterday, the troika of the foreign ministers of Norway, Austria and Romania -- the past, present and future holders of the yearlong rotating OSCE presidency -- lamented the Russian refusal to let Babitsky travel freely. They also, as they put it, "took notice with concern" of a series of Russian government actions against independent news organizations.
Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a press conference that the OSCE regrets Babitsky's absence. "Let me only say that we can only very deeply regret that Mr. Babitsky could not come, and I still hope that tomorrow we might have a good surprise that he would come here. And in any case, I think it was a good decision of the Parliamentary Assembly and especially the president to invite his wife," she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly has said in public that he recognizes the value of, and supports, free and independent journalism in Russia.
Yesterday, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith, said in a statement that Russian authorities are punishing Babitsky for his reporting. Another commission member, Congressman Steny Hoyer, said the travel ban shows that officials are afraid that Russian citizens will learn how their government operates.
Smith is leading a U.S. delegation to the meeting in Bucharest and will participate in the award ceremony. RFE/RL President Thomas Dine is to join the U.S. delegation.
The troika of OSCE foreign ministers identified a number of other issues of concern as the Parliamentary Assembly begins the Bucharest meeting.
Leading the list is the war in Chechnya, followed by continued violence and crime in Kosovo, and the conflict in Georgia's South Ossetia. The ministers said elections in Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina will comprise the main challenge this fall for Southeastern Europe.
The ministers said also that Belarus still remains unprepared to conduct a free and fair election in the fall as scheduled. They said that, despite OSCE assistance and advice to Belarus, they could see, in the words of their statement, "no significant progress." The statement says Belarus needs a democratic electoral code, access of the opposition to state-run news outlets, and other basic measures.
(The Romanian Broadcast Service provided audio and other assistance with this report.)