Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, both the Russian Federation and the European community have been preoccupied with concern for the state of affairs in the Republic of Chechnya.
At issue is the major difference in the way Europe and Russia see the concept of possible secession and the military/political actions such a concept generates. This difference will play itself out time and time again in the evolving relationship between Russia and the European Union.
The current conflict in Chechnya has its roots in the first war of secession in the Russian Federation, born as a new entity after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ethnic and political discontent, brewing beneath the surface of normalcy in Chechnya in the last decade of the U.S.S.R.'s existence, exploded into open conflict after 1992. On the one hand, the unrest that led to the first Russian military invasion in 1994 was the result of a Chechen domestic drive for independence. On the other hand, many of the events were manipulated and controlled to a certain extent from Moscow. While at first the Russian government tried to address the mounting pressures politically, the increasing disorder in the entire country has made the familiar military solution more and more possible.
Since the Chechen drive for independence was at first at least a nominal political manifestation, the European Union has insisted on a political resolution to the conflict. Meanwhile, Russia regards its military actions in the republic as justifiable on the grounds that between 1992 and 1994 the military option was the only one available in order to restore Russia's control. Throughout the past decade, the E.U. and Russia sparred with each other politically on the issue of Chechnya. This seeming antagonism did not prevent them from cooperating on other issues, such as international trade and Iraq.
Beginning with the start of Vladimir Putin's presidency in 2000, Russia wanted closer ties to Europe with no interference over how Moscow conducts its affairs in Chechnya. But Europe's insistence on a political solution to the conflict and respect for human rights runs squarely against Russia's security concerns in the restive republic. At present, Moscow does not see its war in Chechnya as something that can yet be adequately handled by political means. Its military solution is not working either, and there are indicators that Chechen fighters and their supporters can gain an upper hand over Russian troops at will. This was demonstrated by the summer attack by Ingush and Chechen formations against Russian military installations and posts.
Moscow sees its involvement in Chechnya as a war to prevent the Caucasus region from disintegrating into unruly, disorderly states buoyed by ethno-nationalism and possibly Islamic fundamentalism. Chechnya's secession from the Russian Federation can be a catalyst for such unwelcome conditions. This level of discomfort has led the Russian government to label Chechnya as a "criminal terrorist state" in the three years of its de facto independence from 1996 to 1999, when Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya following a negotiated political agreement. Many in Russia saw this agreement as humiliating and clearly undesirable.
At present, Putin cannot risk another such agreement with the Chechen forces that he clearly cannot defeat. It would again be tantamount to the surrender of Russian forces to an enemy that now unleashes terrorist attacks against Russia's civilian population.
Europe, on the other hand, continues to criticize Russian actions in Chechnya, especially on the issues of human rights. In April 2004, Russia complained over a critical draft U.N. human rights resolution on Chechnya, proposed by the European Union. The draft condemned human rights violations in Chechnya and expressed concern over civilian difficulties in getting authorities to investigate rights abuses.
This September, tensions between Moscow and the E.U. over Chechnya culminated in a row, when the E.U. foreign ministers demanded that Moscow provide them with information into how the Beslan hostage crisis could have occurred. Moscow saw this statement as clear interference in its internal affairs and has reacted defensively, calling the E.U.'s inquiry an "insolent and deeply offensive" act. True to their desire for political resolution, the Europeans wanted the Russians to undertake a political task of understanding Chechen opposition. Yet Moscow has stated time and time again that it will not yet seek a political solution to the conflict, and will not attempt to negotiate with Chechen militants or their allies and supporters.
The future differences over Chechnya between the E.U. and Russia are crystallizing into a pattern. The European community blames Russia for a deplorable human rights situation in Chechnya, accusing the state of neglecting one of its main duties. Furthermore, European pressure for a political solution in the republic is growing. There are signs that Russia is trying to come to terms with its European neighbors. It has recently held elections for a Chechen president to replace Akhmad Kadyrov, assassinated in an attack earlier this year.
These elections were crucial for Putin to demonstrate that stability on the executive level can be at least marginally maintained in the republic. The Russian military is trying to clamp down on its troop practices in the republic, holding a public trial of Colonel Yuri Budanov for the alleged murder and abuse of Chechen civilians. Still, the tension over the republic between the two powers is ever-present.
During an October 2004 meeting of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (P.A.C.E.), the member states did not recognize recent Chechen elections as legitimate, dealing a blow to Russia's difficult efforts to restore control. In a repeat of the April 2004 U.N. resolution disagreement, the Russian delegation criticized P.A.C.E.'s choice of language in the P.A.C.E. resolution on Chechnya and the way it refers to Chechens fighting Russian forces. The European choice of words labeled these Chechens "certain fighting formations," while the Russians unsuccessfully tried to change it to "bandit groups tied to international terrorism."
Both choices reconfirmed their respective views on the military conflict in the republic. "Fighting formations" carry greater international legitimacy in an area that has tried and is still trying to secede from a larger state, while "bandit groups" can be deemed illegitimate on the international arena. The European resolution further used strong language in urging the Russian Federation to end human rights abuses on the territory of the republic, with certain P.A.C.E. representatives even speaking of "hidden state terrorism" on Chechen territory.
The Russian delegation openly disagreed with many other aspects of the P.A.C.E. reports and resolutions. Still, the European powers give credence to the Chechen government in exile, thereby promoting the possibility of that government assuming control over secessionist Chechnya. Newly elected Chechen President Alu Alkhanov tried to call on P.A.C.E. and the European powers to recognize the real source of terrorism in Chechnya, referring to the presence in the assembly of the representatives of rebel Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, who is blamed by Russia of major terrorist attacks, including Beslan.
Given the uncertain state of affairs in Chechnya, and the possibility of more terrorist attacks against Russian territory and civilians, Putin will be left with an almost certain choice of more forceful actions in the restive republic. Such decisions will run counter to Europe's commitment to a political settlement in the Chechen war. Putin's recently proposed political changes in light of the Beslan incident will increase his resolve not to settle the Chechen issue politically, especially after the criticism his administration sustained in the handling of the Beslan hostage crisis.
There are indicators, however, that point to Europe's coming to terms, at least nominally, with Russian actions in the republic. While openly criticizing the Russian government, P.A.C.E. pledged to work with President Alu Alkhanov. This by no means shows that the European powers recognize Russian actions as legitimate, yet even this small step opens the door to possible agreement on a major point of contention.
Yet, as long as Russian forces continue to fight in Chechnya without clear military victory over Chechen fighters and without properly addressing the issues of human rights, Europe will continue to insist on a political solution to the conflict. This difference will continue to play itself out in the halls of Europe for years to come.
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