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Russia: OSCE Hopes U.S. Efforts May Allow It To Stay In Chechnya

The Chechnya mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) closed this week when its mandate expired. But diplomats say the United States is seeking to persuade Russia to accept a new mandate before the mission's employees leave Chechnya in March. From Vienna.

Vienna, 3 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) say it had no option but to close its mission in Chechnya because negotiations on extending its mandate past the 31 December deadline had broken down.

Officials said the OSCE had been negotiating for months to reach an agreement with Russia which would allow the continuation of the mission, which first went to Chechnya in 1995, during the first Chechen war.

The United States had been particularly active in pushing to keep the mission open. Shortly before Christmas, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov discussed Russia's criticism of the mission during Ivanov's visit to Washington. U.S. diplomatic sources say Powell and Ivanov have spoken several times since then but were unable to reach an agreement on a new mandate by the 31 December deadline.

OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy says there was no formal decision to end the mission. Its mandate simply expired because the agreement of all 55 members of the OSCE was needed to renew it and there was no such consensus. "There was no actual decision required. The mission had a finite life. A decision was necessary to extend it or to create a new mandate. In the absence of consensus, there was no decision."

According to OSCE officials, the mission -- located in the northern Chechen town of Znamenskoe -- has now stopped work. Its head, Finnish diplomat Jorma Inki, his five international staff members, and local assistants have begun packing the office's files and are preparing to ship out their equipment, including the mission's armored cars. The OSCE has agreed with Russia that the closure should be completed no later than 21 March.

Diplomats in Vienna are reluctant to comment on the situation because they hope negotiations between the U.S. and Russia will continue and that the dispute will be resolved before the OSCE office finally closes. In Moscow this week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told reporters that Russia does want continued cooperation with the OSCE but insisted on what he termed a "correction" in its operations in Chechnya.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov -- a frequent critic of the OSCE's activities in Chechnya --- said on 31 December that the organization had failed to understand the new reality in Chechnya, and that the situation there was returning to normal and Russia was working to restore peace and stability.

But German diplomats say Moscow wants to weaken the OSCE's human rights activities in Chechnya and leave it to focus mostly on coordinating humanitarian assistance in the region. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a German diplomat said, "In Russia's view, a new mandate should limit the OSCE to providing relief aid." German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is among the European Union leaders who insist the OSCE mission be reopened in Chechnya as soon as possible.

The original 1995 mandate listed the first priority of the OSCE mission as "promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." It said the mission should also seek to establish the facts when these rights and freedoms were violated. Other tasks included fostering the development of democratic institutions and processes, including the restoration of the local organs of authority.

Later paragraphs covered the tasks which Russia now insists should be the focus of OSCE activities in Chechnya. They include facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to victims by international and nongovernmental organizations. The mission was also asked to assist the Russian Federation and international organizations in ensuring the speediest possible return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes.

The OSCE oversees dozens of relief and economic projects in Chechnya. But it has angered Russia by criticizing Russia's armed forces for abuses against Chechen civilians.

Russia's dissatisfaction with the mission came into the open in November 2000 at a meeting in Vienna of the 55 OSCE foreign ministers. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov vetoed the final statement because it called for an independent investigation of alleged atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. The draft statement deplored the continued loss of life and the material damage in Chechnya and called for the prosecution of all those responsible for atrocities against civilians and other violations of human rights. In an address to the other foreign ministers, Ivanov criticized what he perceived as an "exaggerated" OSCE focus on problems in the former Soviet Union and particularly the conflict in Chechnya.

Despite Russia's veto, the criticisms became public knowledge. The then-chairwoman of the OSCE, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, repeated them in a personal statement which was not subject to a veto.

Diplomats in Vienna said the OSCE mission had always been at the center of efforts to end the conflict in Chechnya, which has cost thousands of lives. When it first went to Chechnya in 1995 it scored several successes. In 1995 and 1996 it was credited with helping broker cease-fire agreements. But these achievements were soon swept away with the outbreak of new fighting.

In December 1998 the mission was compelled to withdraw to Moscow because of the deteriorating security situation. Only after a hard struggle was it permitted to return to Chechnya in June 2001. Officials at OSCE headquarters in Vienna have not commented on criticism of the OSCE by the Chechen separatists. They have accused the OSCE of not being active enough in condemning atrocities and say its presence in the breakaway republic was a sham. The French news agency AFP this week quoted an unidentified spokesman for Chechen separatist President Aslan Maskhadov as saying the OSCE turned a deaf ear to protests against abuse and violence by Russian forces.

But senior OSCE officials say the organization is committed to helping find a solution to the Chechnya crisis and hope Russia will allow its mission to return.