Russia » Politics

The Chechnya Factor in Russia-E.U. Relations

The recent terror attacks in the Russian Federation have transformed the country's security environment and people's sense of vulnerability in profound ways.

While the attention of the world has focused on the Russian federal investigations and the security repercussions, the country has once again been reminded of the deep differences that exist between itself and the Western world on the way the Chechen conflict is viewed and analyzed. Most importantly, Moscow has been reminded that the European Union and Russian Federation are approaching the issue of recent developments in Chechnya from entirely different points of view. There are indicators that the attack at Beslan was a symbolic watershed in the relations between the rising power of the European Union and an embattled Russian Federation.

The relationship between the E.U. and the Russian Federation regularly occupies headlines in the Russian media. Politicians in the Russian Parliament debate the extent of the relationship with the E.U., and many ministers talk of either "joining Europe" or establishing their own sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, thereby driving towards the still-distant goal of multipolarity. Economically, it makes sense for Moscow and Europe to cooperate, since Russia is the source of cheap fuel and natural resources. The E.U. is a major source of investment and one of Russia's main trading partners. Both entities could join forces in a quasi-alliance to balance U.S. influence, though their attempt to stave off the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unsuccessful. Still, similar political cooperation will be attempted in the future, as the E.U. and Russia share concern over U.S. global influence in economic, political and military affairs.

Russia-E.U. Relations

Yet the issue of Chechnya has always been the thorn in the side of the seemingly close cooperation between Russia and Europe. The main sticking point is the E.U.'s insistence on a political resolution to the conflict, while Russia regards its military actions in the restive region as the only way to put conflict, and terrorist activities it generates, to rest. In the very beginning of the second Chechen war, in October 1999, both sides engaged in heated arguments in Helsinki, as the E.U. urged Russia to avoid disproportionate use of force and to negotiate with Chechen political leaders. Back then, the E.U. voiced public concern about the deteriorating security situation in Chechnya, especially the lack of safety for Chechen civilians caught between the Russian federal troops and Chechen fighters. Putin wanted closer ties to the European Union on Russia's terms -- with no interference over how Moscow conducts its affairs in Chechnya.

In the five years since that meeting, the issue of Chechnya still generates major ripples of discontent between otherwise close partners. The E.U., championing human rights issues, simply cannot let Russia continue what it regards as human rights violations on a consistent basis in Chechnya. The E.U. cannot turn away from the issue of Chechnya, even if it feels that its efforts are producing no effect on Moscow. The E.U.'s recent expansion into the former Soviet European satellites has been preceded by the drive to transform the human rights records of these countries closer to the European standard.

While the aftermath of that drive is still unfolding in many of the new member states, Europe is putting additional pressure on Turkey -- long desiring to join the E.U. -- to improve the situation with its Kurdish minority in the aftermath of a low-scale civil war that cost thousands of lives.

To Brussels, political solutions to conflicts are more preferable to military ones. Currently, the E.U. is an economic powerhouse first and military entity second. In fact, it is still trying to develop its own U.S.-style military rapid reaction force in order to retain a degree of independence from Washington in the future resolution of military conflicts. It is presently unwilling to respond to conflicts in military terms, and does so in limited capacity as part of the United Nations. The E.U. maintains strong economic ties to numerous states around the world, and can exert its influence most successfully in economic terms. The history of massive military conflict on the European continent and the horrendous loss of life in two world wars made Europe more averse to military-style solutions to disputes.

On the other hand, Moscow does not see its war in Chechnya as something that can yet be adequately handled by political means. There are no indicators that its military solution is working either, but Moscow sees Chechnya in a profoundly different light than Brussels. It is a war to stave off a breakaway province in the restive Caucasus region that is always ready to implode in a series of breakaway, secessionists and ethnic wars. Moscow also sees it as a region that breeds terrorist attackers who now carry their strikes against Russia with impunity not dreamt of ten years ago.

To Moscow and Putin, the Chechens they are fighting are terrorists who now enjoy connections to al-Qaeda and perhaps other terrorist entities. Moscow argues that it is a just war to bring order to a province that has become a "criminal terrorist state" in the three years of 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 civilian men, women and children. The solution, then, is to intensify its involvement in Chechnya, while at the same time avoiding external criticism in how to handle the affairs there.

But external criticism continues to emanate from the E.U., especially on the issues of human rights. In April of this year, Moscow 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 human rights abuses. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov stated that the draft was "politicized," calling it an "encouragement of sorts to terrorists."

In addition, the tensions between Moscow and the E.U. over Chechnya culminated in a huge row this September, when the E.U. foreign ministers demanded that Moscow provide them with information into how the Beslan hostage tragedy could have occurred. Moscow saw this statement as a clear interference in its internal affairs, and has reacted angrily and defensively, calling the E.U.'s inquiry an "insolent and deeply offensive" act. While both sides tried to smooth over this incident by later calling it a "misunderstanding," the issue over how each side views the Chechen conflict again bubbled to the surface.

The E.U. was concerned that President Putin wanted to reinforce security troops in the province, prepping up the military already on the ground. In official comments, the Europeans wanted Russians to undertake a political task of understanding the opposing point of view. But 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.

Even if the Russian side has overreacted to the European inquiry, its response highlights the degree of sensitivity it attaches to the tragedy in Beslan and to its internal affairs in general. European Union representatives attempted to further smooth over its inquiry by stating that the information regarding Russia's handling of the hostage crisis should be helpful in learning from each others' mistakes, but deep resentment will continue to simmer in Russia over what it saw as Europe's insensitivity to the hostage tragedy.

Russia-U.S. Relations

Moscow's resentment towards Europe over the fundamental differences in handling Chechnya is also applied to the United States. Following the Beslan tragedy, the U.S. expressed willingness to hold talks with Chechens who seek independence. The Russian foreign ministry spokesman called such talks with Chechen rebel leaders "absolutely unacceptable," even suggesting that such course of action could harm bilateral relations.

In the eyes of Russians, these Chechen leaders are behind the recent terrorist attacks in the country. But while the U.S. can also advocate an eventual peaceful settlement in Chechnya, Moscow and Washington share a closer security relationship and understanding following the September 11 attacks on American soil, and the recent terror attacks against Russian civilians. This does not seem to change even as the U.S. granted asylum to a former Chechen rebel leader, Ilyas Akhmadov, whom Russians have implicated in terrorist activities. Yet, even this fact did not stop Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov from saying that it is easier to find grounds for an understanding with the U.S. than with some European states on the issues of fighting terrorism. The U.S. presidential statements that America stands side by side with Russia as the two countries fight terrorism reinforce this working relationship between the two states.

Conclusion

As President Putin proposes policies that would give him much more power within the Russian Federation, the U.S. has stressed its support for Moscow's struggle against terrorism. Putin's policies would eventually lead to more forceful actions in Chechnya and to specific decisions that run counter to Europe's commitment to a political settlement in the Chechen war and its support for human rights. The European Union will continue to hold a magnifying glass to the Chechnya situation, and will certainly hold Russia to a higher standard of responsibility in the future.

Russia will react in a defensive, even angry manner, just as before. This seems to be the major point of contention in the relationship between the Russian Federation and the E.U. While both can negotiate various economic and political issues, Chechnya was and will continue to remain an issue of major contention. Putin's increase in power will strengthen his resolve not to settle the Chechen issue politically, especially after the criticism his administration sustained in the handling of the Beslan hostage crisis. U.S. support for Russia's war against terrorism will move the political solution to the Chechen conflict further in the background. Europe, on the other hand, will continue to insist on the political solution that is currently becoming less and less likely. It is not conceivable that the E.U. will abandon its criticism of Russia's actions in Chechnya. This issue will continue to be major point of conflict between the two powers for years to come.

Report Drafted By:
Yevgeny Bendersky