The Russian government announced this week that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is closing its Chechnya mission. Despite ongoing reports of rampant human rights abuses by Russian troops in the war-torn republic, the Kremlin says the mission's closure is possible because the situation in the region has returned to normal. Representatives from Chechnya's separatist government, meanwhile, say they do not regret the change, as the OSCE played a passive and largely ineffective role.
Prague, 2 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- At midnight on 31 December, the mandate of the six-member Chechnya mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe officially expired. The expiration came after Russian and OSCE officials failed to reach an agreement on renewing the mandate of the mission, which is located in the north Chechen town of Znamenskoe. The decision came quietly, with little protest from either Russian authorities or Chechen separatists.
But despite Kremlin assurances that the OSCE's role had waned, thanks to growing stabilization in Chechnya, the question for many observers remained: Why was the mission so abruptly terminated even as reports of human rights violations remain abundant?
OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy said: "The mandate of the mission was until the 31st of December, and Russia wanted to change the mandate. And because the OSCE is a consensus organization, in which all 55 countries have to agree, there was no agreement, which means the mission will automatically lapse."
Murphy said the OSCE mandate in Chechnya went back to 1995 and was wide-ranging. "[It] was to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to assist with the delivery of humanitarian aid to victims of the crisis, to assist the authorities and international organizations with refugees and displaced persons, to promote peaceful resolution of the crisis and the stabilization of the situation in the Chechen Republic, and to support creation of mechanisms guaranteeing the rule of law," Murphy said.
Murphy did not comment on what proposals were put forward by the Russian officials during the two days of talks in the run-up to the mandate's expiration, but he said they were not acceptable for the OSCE.
Official Russian statements on the issue offer some insight. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 31 December that the OSCE had failed to assess the new reality in the breakaway republic, where he said the situation was returning to normal. Ivanov insisted that Russia is working to restore peace and stability in Chechnya with a planned referendum on a new constitution and new presidential elections.
Chechen rebels appeared to have little regret about the mission's closure. Yesterday, France's AFP news agency quoted an unidentified spokesman for Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov as saying that the mission was "inactive" and that "repeated complaints from the Chechen side against abuse and violence against civilians by Russian federal forces fell on deaf ears."
A message posted on chechen.org, a separatist website, reads, "the myth of the OSCE presence is finally over -- thank God."
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov's chief emissary, said the OSCE's passive policy toward human rights violations in Chechnya led to the mission's closure.
Speaking from London, Zakaev said the OSCE mission focused on reported improvements in the republic, repeatedly glossing over allegations of widespread atrocities by federal troops. Zakaev is currently fighting extradition to Russia, where he faces charges of abetting terrorism.
He said that by removing the OSCE mission, Russia is looking to change the nature of the debate over Chechnya. "[Russia] wants its daily punitive operations against the residents of Chechnya to be acknowledged not in the context of human rights violations but in the context of the war against terrorism. That is what Russia now wants to get from the European Union and from the whole world community," Zakaev said.
Ruslan Badalov is chairman of the nongovernmental organization the Committee of National Salvation, which works to support Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. He said his experience in the region left him with the belief that the OSCE mission did little to ease the plight of civilians there. He said the building where the OSCE mission was located was guarded by Russian special forces and that the monitors were isolated from much of what was happening in Chechnya. "It is good that it happened this way," he said. "There is no sense in having such a poorly functioning, invisible, inactive organization in Chechnya," Badalov said.
OSCE spokesman Murphy does not agree with Badalov's assessment but admitted that the mission faced serious problems in Chechnya. "Well, it was a small mission, and I know that the staff worked very hard to fulfill the terms of their mandate, but, of course, the conditions of work in Chechnya were extremely difficult because of the situation there," Murphy said.
Will the situation get worse now that Europe has lost its official eyes and ears in the breakaway republic? Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, said it is hard to imagine that the war -- now in its fourth year -- could grow any more devastating. "Is it possible to make the situation any worse than it is now? I think that the situation is already so horrible that there is no way it can get any worse," Aslakhanov said.
However, some European politicians are already concerned about the absence of human rights monitors in Chechnya. Yesterday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said in a statement that Germany would, along with its EU and OSCE partners, "insist that the OSCE group be accepted again in Chechnya as soon as possible."