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Chechnya: Europe Lashes Moscow

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has stern words for Russia and its own ministers.
By Tanya Lokshina
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, last week delivered a stern rebuke to Russia for continued human rights abuses in Chechnya, and criticised recent legislation curbing Russian non-governmental organisations.



Russian parliamentarians resisted large parts of the resolution and brushed off its significance.



Groundwork for the resolution was laid by Rudolf Bindig of Germany who served for several years as human rights rapporteur on Chechnya, regularly visited the republic and worked closely with the human rights organisations Memorial, Demos and the Moscow Helsinki Group.



Bindig retired last year but has remained in the assembly with the rights of an honorary member, which meant that the resolution was proposed on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights by the Dutch deputy Erik Jurgens.



Resolution 1479 (2006) was critical of the Russian government for failing to address the human rights situation in Chechnya. It stated that “violations still occur on a massive scale in the Chechen Republic and, in some cases, neighbouring regions in a climate of impunity”.



The resolution noted with concern harassment suffered by recent appellants to the European Court of Human Rights and their lawyers. In a recent case, being monitored by human rights organisations, Mekhti Mukhayev from the village of Zumsoi, whose family submitted a case to the European court, was detained by security forces on December 30 and is still being held.



PACE also lambasted the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers for failing to take robust action on the issue of Chechnya, despite repeating urgings from the assembly to do so. The resolution lamented, “The Assembly fears that the lack of effective reaction by the Council’s executive body in the face of the most serious human rights issue in any of the Council of Europe’s member states undermines the credibility of the Organisation.”



In their defence, the Russian delegation insisted that the situation in Chechnya was improving rapidly and cited a number of recent developments, including the recent election of a new parliament, a reduced level of kidnappings (with 65 abductions last year, half the number the year before) and socio-economic improvements.



They said there was no war in Chechnya, merely “terrorism on a massive level” and a state programme combating it.



Leonid Slutsky of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR, complained that Bindig had not even mentioned the recent parliamentary elections, although he had been present at the ballot and had not made any critical comments about it at the time.



Konstantin Kosachev from the Unified Russia faction accused Bindig of failing to consult the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities in Grozny and ignoring positive developments. He said that Bindig’s report and the resolution “will play into the hands of the forces who desire destabilisation in Chechnya”. Another Russian delegate, Akhmar Zavgayev, brother of a former pro-Moscow ruler of Chechnya, went even further, accusing Bindig of “sympathising with terrorists”.



The Russians insisted that Russia wanted to be part of the Council of Europe but, in the words of another delegate, Valery Grebennikov, “not as a boy to be beaten but as an equal partner”.



Overall the debate was less acrimonious than the previous one on Chechnya held in October 2004, when the Russian delegates debated every paragraph and argued every point.



This time a farcical note was injected into proceedings by the famously eccentric Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the LDPR, who treated the assembly to a rambling discourse on highland geography.



Zhirinovsky argued that a German could not on principle write a report on Chechnya, as Germany did not have any highland peoples. He said Chechens were highlanders and “Eurostandards” did not apply there.



Zhirinovsky said the problem of Chechnya was unresolvable, “Tell us how, give the recipe! [They are] a mountain people. Where has there been a peace settlement with a mountain people? Look, Turkey has been fighting the Kurds for 50 years.”



The most dramatic clash took place over an amendment proposed by, amongst others, Christos Pourgouridis of Greece, Lydie Err of Luxembourg and Walter Riester of Germany in which they proposed a paragraph talking concerns over official curbs on NGO activities.



“The Assembly expresses concern that the recently adopted law on the legal status of civil society organisations falls short of the standards of the Council of Europe. The Assembly is also concerned about reports on administrative and judicial harassment of some non-governmental organisations,” ran the suggested paragraph.



The Russian delegation strongly objected to this amendment and even won the support of Andreas Gross, the Swiss deputy who was formerly rapporteur on Chechnya and now, jointly with Kosachev, head of the Russian delegation, chairs the assembly’s round tables on the issue.



However, the amendment was adopted so the assembly formally voiced its criticism of the new legislation on NGOs, prompting an indignant reaction from Kosachev, who later called the amendment “an insult to Russia and a disgrace for the Council of Europe.”



Human rights monitors were broadly pleased with the passage of the resolution and in particular its recommendation to resume monitoring of the human rights situation in Chechnya.



Aaron Rhodes, director of the International Helsinki Federation, commented, "It’s excellent that the members of PACE recognize the magnitude of the crisis in the Chechen Republic and its importance for the whole European community, but it remains to be seen whether or not Russia will take the required steps.”



Russia has ignored recommendations like this before and the Committee of Ministers has a record of not taking action on Chechnya.



The Russian delegates are confident that in May Russia will assume the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, giving it added legitimacy in Europe’s foremost human rights forum.



Tanya Lokshina is chairperson of Demos Centre in Moscow.

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