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Russia: Council's Assembly Restores Russia's Voting Rights

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has voted to restore Russia's voting rights in hopes the decision will foster a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict and improve the human rights situation in the region. Although European representatives were unanimous in condemning abuses committed by Russian troops in the war-torn republic, the majority of them agreed to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt by ratifying the credentials of its new delegation. The Russians reacted quickly and positively.

Strasbourg, 26 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, has voted to reinstate Russia's voting rights despite widespread concern about human rights violations in Chechnya.

After a four-hour-long debate on a report on recent developments in Chechnya presented by Britain's Frank Judd, the co-rapporteur of the assembly's political affairs committee, 88 representatives yesterday voted to restore Russia's rights in the assembly. Twenty assembly members voted against the decision and 11 abstained. Representatives also agreed to ratify the credentials of the new Russian delegation in the 43-member pan-European body.

Moscow's voting rights were suspended last April after Judd presented a report harshly criticizing abuses committed by the Russian troops on Chechnya's civil population.

In his report this year, Judd noted that "Russia has not acted in accordance with the Council of Europe's principles and values in the conduct of its military campaign in the Chechen republic."

But Judd told the assembly yesterday that he is in favor of restoring voting rights because he had seen developments recently in Chechnya that he said were encouraging:

"There have been a few developments which provide some limited grounds for encouragement: Progress towards the re-establishment of state institutions in the Chechen republic, especially in the sphere of civilian administration, the judicial system and the local police, with increased involvement of the Chechen people themselves in those institutions."

Judd said the assembly and the Russian parliament should work together to try to find a peaceful solution to the 15-month-long war in Chechnya. He said:

"Of course, we must say what is wrong in Russia, but the challenge to us, in the Council of Europe, is how we continue, however difficult the struggle, to fight for human rights in Chechnya, and in the Russian Federation as a whole."

Russian reaction was swift and positive. Deputy Foreign Minister Yevgeny Gusarov was quoted today by Interfax as saying that Russia sees the decision "as an understanding by European deputies of the need and desire to cooperate with the Russian side on the Chechnya question."

State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov also welcomed the move. He said Russia is interested in resolving "every problem in Chechnya quickly, thoroughly and in a civilized manner."

In his report, Judd notes that "serious grounds for concern about human rights still exist within the Chechen republic and that consequently the overall situation is not yet satisfactory." But he says he believes that some people in the Russian Federation "are willing to work for a solution to the conflict in conformity with the Council of Europe's standards and values."

Judd said that he had noted a reduction in the number of Russian checkpoints and an increase in the number of checkpoints manned by both the Russian federal forces and the Chechen police.

Judd also said he had taken note of President Vladimir Putin's decision, announced last Saturday (20 January), to withdraw some troops from Chechnya. The number of army soldiers deployed in the breakaway republic should be brought down to about 40,000 from a current 90,000 within the next few months.

While most of the PACE delegates supported restoring Russian voting rights, many said they believe the council should still exert pressure on the Kremlin to come to a peaceful agreement with the Chechen separatists. Speaking yesterday on behalf of the Assembly's liberal group, Estonian representative Kristiina Ojuland stressed the need for continued pressure:

"Russia has failed to apply most of the recommendations made by the Council of Europe since the very beginning of the conflict and any measure toward lessening pressure would be premature and would signify the Council of Europe's approval of Russia's conduct of the conflict."

The international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, or HRW, earlier this week issued a critical report on the situation for civilians in the breakaway republic.

A fact-finding mission conducted by two HRW researchers in Ingushetia in November and December of last year concludes that violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws have not lessened.

The report, distributed to reporters attending the PACE current session, reads that contrary to Russian claims that the Chechen population is returning to normal life, these violations "have become routine" and civilians "continue to live in a stranglehold of fear."

HRW also noted that Chechen rebels target civilians who cooperate with the Russian administration and bomb Russian positions in densely populated areas.

In its resolution adopted yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly also urged Chechen fighters to respect human rights and international humanitarian law. The assembly called for the release of all hostages detained by rogue rebel groups.