War darkens Russia's European vision

Integration with Europe appears unlikely after rebuke about Chechnya

April 09, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Russia's decade-long dream of finding a place for itself within Europe has been growing dimmer for some time, but now the war in Chechnya has brought about a very public rupture and warnings of a new Iron Curtain descending on the continent.

Last week, the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, which was set up to safeguard human rights in its member nations, voted to recommend the suspension of Russia's membership unless talks to end the fighting in Chechnya begin. And it immediately deprived the Russian delegation of its voting powers.

The rebuke provoked a quick and angry response.

"We should sort things out in Chechnya on our own, and we will sort things out," Nikolai Koshman, the Kremlin's representative for Chechnya, said Friday. "If anybody tries to come here and impose on us his own solutions, this will be a very dangerous undertaking."

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the government's spokesman on Chechnya, said Russia was immediately halting visits by the Council of Europe to the area of the conflict.

The Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexi II, accused the West of maintaining a double standard and said he feared that Russia was going to be subjected to the same treatment as Yugoslavia was last year.

A television commentator, Mikhail Leontiev, heaped abuse on Russia's severest critic within the council, the British delegate Lord Judd, resorting almost entirely to convict slang in his tirade.

The vote -- and the subsequent angry walkout by the Russian delegation from the session in Strasbourg, France -- demonstrated Russia's failure to achieve its goal of joining an integrated Europe. Ten years ago, before the Soviet Union had fallen apart, hopes were high that Russia and Europe could break down the old divisions. Russians talked of becoming a "normal" country.

President Boris N. Yeltsin pursued that goal wholeheartedly. Russia's application to join the Council of Europe -- not the most forceful or outspoken of organizations -- was accepted in 1996, and the nation gratefully came on board.

All has turned sour since then. NATO expanded eastward, over Russian objections. The Russian economic collapse of 1998 badly hurt European investors, even as Russia's well-connected business tycoons secured their immense holdings. NATO's war in Kosovo last year gave rise to deep misgivings within Russia.

Criticism from West

Now the war in Chechnya has provoked intense criticism from the West -- especially Western Europe -- because of the scale of the destruction there and widespread reports of murder, rape and looting by Russian forces. And, with the vote in the Council of Europe, the West for the first time has taken concrete action against Moscow.

"Russia will not fall down on its knees and beg," Leonid Fituni, director of the Global and Strategic Studies Institute, said Friday. "We have been trying to cooperate with Europe for 10 years. It took us great effort to join Europe. That vote, though, will remind us of something -- 15 years ago we weren't friends with Europe at all, but the whole world respected us."

Fituni said that for the West to ostracize Russia now would be to make the same mistake as the victorious allies did when they imposed the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty on Germany after World War I.

"Germany," he said, "became not only strong but aggressive, and the result was a second world war."

Oleg Mironov, Russia's human rights commissioner, said the Council of Europe's action threatens to divide Europe with a new "Iron Curtain," in remarks that were echoed by several officials.

Popular war at home

Russia portrays the conflict in Chechnya as a legitimate struggle against terrorists and bandits, and an internal affair. The war continues to be popular among the public, and it vaulted Vladimir V. Putin into the presidency. Russian officials complain that the West seems to overlook atrocities committed by Chechen rebels in its zeal to condemn Moscow's tactics -- which have created tens of thousands of refugees and flattened scores of villages and towns.

The Russian military is considerably more tolerant of casualties than its Western counterparts. If thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed and wounded since the fighting broke out in August, few in Moscow appear to be perturbed.

Russia takes strong exception to the developing idea in the West that the internal affairs of a nation are not off-limits when a certain level of abuse is reached. It helps explain what underlies Russia's new estrangement from Europe.

`Outdated understanding'

The West is infected with anti-Russian sentiment, said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, but Russian leadership is also to blame.

"First of all," he said, "for its outdated understanding of sovereignty -- for failing to understand that it is impossible to use force as one likes in the modern world and say this is our sovereign problem. And, secondly, for paying little attention to the problems of the civilian population and refugees."

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