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What are we to do about Russia - Part I

Posted by Helen Wednesday, September 08, 2004

In the wake of the horrific events in Beslan in Northern Ossetia in Russia the question has become even more urgent than before. Yesterday’s Times carried an article by the paper’s Foreign Editor, Bronwen Maddox, which pointed out that the Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot’s seemingly crass statement (see Dutch Presidency offends the Russians) was not really that at all. It was, according to her, despite the subsequent attempts on the part of Mr Bot to explain away his implied criticism of the Russian security apparatus, a sign of things to come. With the entry of ten new members, eight of whom are former Communist colonies, the EU is likely to change its attitude to Russia from constant fawning to something slightly more critical and adversarial.

Ms Maddox has a point. The EU is beginning to find that this year’s enlargement is having unpredictable effects on many policies. (When I say unpredictable, I mean not predicted by the supporters of enlargement and europhiles in general. Some of us have always been aware of the fact that, for instance, the common foreign and security policy will be a much more difficult proposition when there are the pro-American East Europeans to be taken into account. Equally, it was always clear that attitude to Russia will have to change.)

It is, apparently, the Baltic states, themselves repeated victims of Russian (or Soviet) methods of political pacification, who had insisted on Bot asking for an explanation of the botched operation in Baslen. The Latvians, who are being furiously attacked by Russia for their alleged disregard of the rights of ethnic Russian citizens, were particularly active.

Ms Maddox may have got something right. She managed to get several other things wrong. In the first place Mr Bot’s comment was not unique. In an extraordinary but wholly comprehensible fashion the Russian government and Russia as a country, as opposed to the people whose nearest and dearest had been imprisoned, tormented, murdered and have now been spirited away to unknown hospitals, have not received any of the sympathy they should have had in the wake of such a horrible occurrence.

Secondly, Ms Maddox, despite past service as a correspondent in the USA, seems to be unable to gauge American attitude to Russia. It is not true that the EU has been tougher on the Chechnyan issue. By and large, the EU and most of its members have, until now, made no representations at all. On his many visits to his friend Vladimir, Tony Blair did not raise the subject once. How different from Colin Powell’s angry article after his last visit earlier this year.

President Bush has not been particularly outspoken on the subject but many around him have been. Nobody around Mr Blair has said a single critical word. But then President Bush and his advisers have also been vociferous on the subject of Russia’s propensity to sell arms and nuclear material to Iran and North Korea, not to mention its close and hitherto unexamined relationship with Saddam Hussein. Several highly placed Russian names crop up in the documents to do with the food for oil scandal.

Since 2001 Russia has desperately tried to have it acknowledged by the West that the Chechnyan war is part of the world-wide war against terrorism, though it has also refused to give too much support to the West.

The truth about the Chechnya is far more tragic and complicated. It says something about the obsession with the wrongdoings of America among the West European chattering classes a.k.a. media and politicians, that so little attention was paid to this nightmare that is now threatening to engulf the whole country with unpredictable consequences for Europe.

Who, for instance, among all those who made loud noises about the iniquities of Guantanamo, noticed that seven Russian citizens (Chechnyans) have been handed over to Russia, despite their protests, to disappear from view? The eighth is still in American hands and has pleaded to stay there. Is this important? Surely yes, if you think that the prisoners or Guantanamo are all innocent by-standers. Even if one does not think so, one must prefer some sort of an open and transparent system.

How much attention has public opinion in Western Europe, particularly, sad to say, Britain, paid to the flagrant breaches of human rights or even ordinary human behaviour on the part of the Russian authorities, army and security services in Chechnya? How much have we heard of the fact that there have been no investigations at all of the various terrorist and supposedly terrorist acts carried out in Russia, Ingushetiya, Dagestan, Ossetia?

Even after the bloodbath of last Friday President Putin has refused to have an enquiry as he had refused it after the messy storming of the Nord-Est theatre in Moscow. According to the BBC’s website (a very useful source of information on the subject of Chechnya):

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed calls for both a public inquiry or talks with Chechen rebels.
He said: "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet.
"Just ask yourself that and you will have no more questions about our
policy in Chechnya."

The idea that an enquiry is tantamount to bringing terrorists to power is breathtakingly Russian. They have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Who actually shot many of the children? The terrorists or the Russian security forces who stormed the building? And, as several newspapers, goaded by events into furious criticism, pointed out, the result of President Putin’s policy is precisely the opposite of what he keeps promising. It is the terrorists who seem to be more and more in control of events.

Little enough has been said in western Europe about the fact that the media is not allowed anywhere near the vital areas and journalists who make their way into Chechnya or the refugee camps in Ingushetiya are arrested and harassed. Even now, most journalists will say vaguely that well over 100 people were killed as a result of Chechnyan (we think) terrorists taking over a theatre in Moscow and holding the cast and audience as hostages.

One can go on enumerating all these failures on the part of the West. Have these failures led to the appalling tragedy that unfolded before our eyes last week?

I am not suggesting that this is all the West’s fault or the EU’s fault. It is clear who are the main protagonists. But it is time for us to ask ourselves whether there is anything we can do and we cannot ask, let alone answer that question without examining what has been happening in Russia and what the European Union’s attitude has been.

To be continued tomorrow