#10 - JRL 7229
Events Soften Criticisms Over Chechnya
June 19, 2003
By ROBERT H. REID
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) - Europe's once robust criticism of Russia's war in Chechnya has fallen victim to the fight against terror and the need for better ties as the European Union prepares to expand to Moscow's doorstep.
The conflict in a remote corner of Europe became a major issue for European governments after President Boris Yeltsin sent Russian troops back to Chechnya in 1999 following apartment house bombings in Moscow.
During a security conference in Turkey soon after the Russian incursion, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder bluntly told Yeltsin that ``war is no way to eliminate terrorism.'' French President Jacques Chirac termed Russia's move ``a tragic error.''
However, the tone changed after Sept. 11, 2001. Russia's claims that Chechen fighters are part of the global terrorist conspiracy resonated among leaders and a public terrified by the image of Islamic extremists.
Chechen actions such as the hostage-taking at a Moscow theater last year and recent suicide bombings have transformed the image of the rebels from freedom fighters to terrorists.
``Definitely the events of Sept. 11 have played a role in softening criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya,'' said Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office.
Soon after the 2001 attacks, President Vladimir Putin moved quickly to pledge Russia's support for the war against terrorism. That support helped Washington win approval for military facilities in former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan during the fighting in Afghanistan.
At the same time, Russia's restrictions on international journalists reporting from Chechnya have helped limit images of Chechen suffering in Europe's media. Russian authorities also prohibit interviews with rebels in the Russian media.
Despite the restrictions, the European Union and other European institutions remain concerned about Moscow's heavy-handed tactics, which critics believe only deepen Chechen and Muslim anger.
The Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, which includes representatives from 44 national parliaments, has called for creation of an international war crimes tribunal for Chechnya despite strong opposition from Moscow.
``Chechnya is for us very important,'' said Roman Jakic, chairman of the Council of Europe's political affairs committee. ``I'm seeing the involvement of the European Union to make sure this tragedy is not forgotten.''
At the government level, however, priorities have changed. European Union clearly do not want to sacrifice the prospect of better relations with Russia to an issue like Chechnya over which they feel they have little influence.
``I always raise the issue of Chechnya with President Putin, but I do so in a way that also recognizes this point - that as a result of terrorism coming out from extremists based in Chechnya, the Russian people have also suffered a very great deal,'' British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the need for good relations with Russia is becoming ever more important for the Europeans. Next May, the European Union will expand to Russia's borders when it takes in 10 new members, most of them from the former Soviet Bloc.
That will involve the EU and Russia in a broad range of issues including border protection, combatting organized crime, trade, and visas.
France, which had been among the strongest critics of Russia's role in Chechnya, needs Russian support to maintain its influence in the U.N. Security Council, where Paris and Moscow banded together to try to stop the Iraq war.
European Union states rely on Russia for one-fifth of its energy needs, and European companies are the major foreign investors in the Russian economy.
``Especially when it comes to the situation in Chechnya, we have certainly seen some influential member states choosing to side with Russia for higher strategic purposes,'' Gabrielle Juen of Amnesty International's Brussels office said.
As a sign of the change, the statement issued after the EU-Russia summit in May condemned ``any kind of violence'' in Chechnya but specifically cited ``terrorist acts,'' a clear reference to attacks by Chechen rebels. No mention was made of widespread allegations that Russian soldiers have killed, raped and robbed Chechen civilians.
``The last EU-Russia summit demonstrated that the EU as well as the international community in general does not want to sacrifice its generally good relations with Russia,'' Neistat said.