Friday, September 17, 2004

And another summit

This one was limited geographically and thematically. It was an Austro-Baltic Security Summit and took place in Vienna last week. Called by Ernst Strasser, the Austrian Interior Minister, its main task was to consider the problems caused by the flood of refugees from Russia or, to be quite precise, Chechnya and the surrounding region.

This year Austria, always the first port of call for refugees fleeing oppression and violence in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe has already received over 4,200 applications from Russian national asylum seekers. Apart from the strains on the country’s finances, there is the worrying problem of security. The messy situation in the Caucasus makes it impossible to work out who is a genuine refugee and who a potential terrorist (and who might be both). Not only have President Putin’s policies not been much help in the fight against terror, they have actually created another and, possibly, more dangerous plague spot.

In the meantime Austria, the Baltic states and the new member states of the European Union (though for some reason they did not participate in the summit – perhaps they are having one of their own soon) have to deal with the problem.

They came up with an ingenious solution: let us have refugee camps in other countries so they “do not come to Europe”. Herr Strasser, bizarrely, suggested Iraq and its neighbouring countries, echoing a recent proposal by the incoming Italian Home and Justice Affairs Commissioner, Rocco Buttiglione, of holding camps in North Africa. Quite how Iraq, with its own problems would cope with refugee camps is not entirely clear. One would have thought the potential security problem would be even more serious there.

The general agreement among a number of European interior ministers is that these putative holding camps should be as near as possible to the places of origin for the refugees. Whether this is to ease the refugees’ plight or that of the possible recipient countries is disputable.

The Lithuanian Interior Minister, Virgilijus Bulovas, came up with a better suggestion. The obvious place to have a refugee camp for Chechnyans (and, presumably, in the near future, Ingushetis and Dagestanis, not to mention Ossetians of various kind) would be Ukraine, the country that, this week marks the fourth anniversary of the murder of Heorhiy Gongadze, a troublesome journalist, supposedly the victim of President Leonid Kuchma.

The other news from the Ukraine is the suspected poisoning of the opposition presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Strangely enough, it was in Vienna last week that doctors foundMr Yushchenko’s suspected food poisoning to have been actually caused by chemical substances.

Ukraine is a country whose economics and politics are in a mess and who is falling more and more under Russian influence, with the EU helplessly looking on. Saddling it with a refugee camp is hardly the most sensible idea. Of course, this might become the Good Neighbourhood Policy that is supposed to work out some ways of helping countries like Ukraine and Moldova that are on the EU’s borders and are in danger of becoming failing states. For instance, the EU could give money for the camps. Of course, the money would probably disappear but, as a sideline, the Ukrainian government could extract money from the refugees as well, threatening to hand them over to the tender mercies of the FSB and the SpetzNats. All sorts of possibilities present themselves. The summit participants do not seem to have been particularly imaginative.

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