Lord Judd 'Disagreeably Surprised'

The Council of Europe restores Russia's voting rights, suspended in the wake of the September 1999 invasion of Chechnya

Lord Judd 'Disagreeably Surprised'

The Council of Europe restores Russia's voting rights, suspended in the wake of the September 1999 invasion of Chechnya

Forewarned that Lord Judd's latest report on Chechnya was at best lukewarm, Moscow slashed its delegation to last week's Council of Europe session by half, prompting local observers to describe the trip as a "reconnaissance mission".

In the event, Russia won back its voting rights with Lord Judd himself explaining that the only alternative was "to sit with our arms crossed and do nothing".

But the Russians were understandably cautious. Last April, the delegation was subjected to overt threats from Chechen representatives and stormed out of the session. PACE subsequently suspended Russia's voting privileges in protest against alleged human rights abuses in the rebel republic.

Lord Judd's recent visit to Chechnya did not bode well for the Russian delegation. After touring the Nadterechny district, the remand prison in Chernokozovo and the capital Grozny, the PACE delegate said that little had changed in the region since his trip last year.

The liberal daily Sevodnya wasted no time in spreading the news. "Lord Judd was disagreeably surprised by two things," it wrote. "Firstly, the appalling living conditions of the Chechen refugees and, secondly, the total lack of court sentences imposed on those found guilty of crimes against the Chechen population."

During his visit to a tent camp in the Nadterechny district, Lord Judd had the opportunity to express this "disagreeable surprise" out loud. "It is very bad that people are forced to live in a tent camp during the winter cold," he said. Such pearls of wisdom could be compared to the banal Russian maxim: it's better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.

One can understand Beslan Gantamirov, the flamboyant mayor of Grozny, who refused to meet with Lord Judd during the recent visit.

"I'm just outraged," Gantamirov told journalists. "Tell me, where was PACE with its human rights charter when Maskhadov's regime was carrying out public executions in Chechnya? Why did PACE keep silent when slavery and hostage-taking were big business here?" These are rhetorical questions which Lord Judd would be hard pushed to answer.

But President Vladimir Putin wasted no time in anticipating the Council of Europe's displeasure. Days after Lord Judd's visit, President Putin met with Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the civilian administration in Chechnya, and agreed that the number of Russian troops in Chechnya should be reduced.

Sure enough, on January 22, the Russian president ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. According to the new plan, a regular army division of 15,000 men will remain on active service supported by 7,000 interior ministry troops. Russian officials explained that the major rebel units had already been annihilated and estimated Chechen forces at a (highly optimistic) 1,000 fighters.

In a parallel move, Putin appointed Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, as supreme commander of all operations in Chechnya, indicating that the Russians will now focus on tactics aimed at flushing out the guerrillas whilst keeping civilian casualties to a minimum.

And, last Thursday, on the day the Council of Europe was due to vote, the Russian government allocated around $500 million towards rebuilding the Chechen economy and restoring law and order.

But such timely gestures aside, Kadyrov's point is well made. It is not the army which is fighting in Chechnya today.

Last April, PACE demanded an end to the military campaign in Chechnya. Of course, there are still refugees living in tents, there are still ambushes on federal convoys, there are still random abductions and the occasional assassination of a Chechen official who has thrown in his hand with the Kremlin.

But there are no more large-scale military operations - and the Kremlin has proven that, if it is not treated as a "schoolboy who can be sent out of class", it is prepared to cooperate with the European peacemakers.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.

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