26 January 2001
The Situation in the North Caucasus
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am grateful to you for this invitation to take part in the discussion on the situation in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.
That the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe should show an interest in events in this region is understandable.
There are some parliamentarians who, having regard for the complexity of the issues involved in the Caucasus, are genuinely trying to get to grips with what is happening there, and to obtain objective information.
There are other parliamentarians who are afraid of the negative impact of the current situation in the Chechen Republic on stability in this turbulent region.
I know that there are also some who would like to take advantage of our temporary problems to express harsh criticism of Russia. But these people are of course isolated individuals, and they are not the ones who set the agenda in the Council of Europes Parliamentary Assembly.
The views and intentions of the Russian Federation as regards resolving the situation in the Chechen Republic are transparent and high-principled. We have nothing to hide.
Evidence of this can be seen in the letter that I sent in response to the request by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr W. Schwimmer, in accordance with Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reply contains a full report on the Chechen question, and you are welcome to read it.
At the same time, some parliamentarians continue to accuse the Russian Federation of violating human rights in the Chechen Republic. I would like to point out here that in order to violate rights, these rights must have existed in the first place.
Which of you present here today is willing to state that even one of the Council of Europes standards has been observed in the Chechen Republic in recent years? Various delegations have gone there, including from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and an OSCE group was even assigned there on a permanent basis. The latter was forced to leave the region, however, fearing for its own safety. Russia has done nothing to obstruct its activities, and indeed, just recently agreed to the appointment of a new group leader.
I hope that those of you who have visited Chechnya will have the courage to admit that I am right when I say that the people there never enjoyed any rights or freedoms. Judge for yourselves. The introduction of sharia law, public executions, the slave trade and the complete removal of social, economic and other rights surely speak for themselves. How does all this fit in with the high principles of morality and democracy?
And besides, we can only speak of human rights in their full sense when some effort is made to observe the main one, namely the right to life, which was never the case in Chechnya.
Still, for nearly three years, the Russian leadership actively sought a political settlement to the situation. Unfortunately, all our efforts were in vain.
When Chechen-based terrorists and rebels began to launch attacks on neighbouring republics of the Russian Federation and carried out a series of bloody terrorist acts, resulting in the death of over 500 civilians, it became quite clear that this cancerous tumour had to be removed. Otherwise, it would be even more difficult to stop it spreading.
The aims of the anti-terrorist operation currently being conducted in Chechnya extend far beyond the boundaries of this region. Russia is basically now defending the common borders of Europe against the barbarian invasion of international terrorism, which is systematically and steadily extending its reach: Afghanistan - Central Asia - the Caucasus - the Balkans. Unlike the civilian community, the terrorists have already united and are actively operating. An example of this can be seen in the establishment by the Taleban of so-called diplomatic relations with Chechen extremists. Thus, in parallel with the civilised international community, a web of connections is being formed between regimes which are not recognised by anyone. And all this is happening on the southern boundaries of Europe, posing a direct threat to the security of our continent, and to the lives and welfare of every European citizen.
It is also important to realise that the terrorists are deliberately and systematically shifting the focus of their activities from one sensitive region to another, in an attempt to take the world unawares. This time, they have chosen the Greater Caucasus, where a whole series of problems still remain unresolved.
One thing is clear: in order to put an end to extremism in the region, restore stability and neighbourly relations, a broadly-based approach encompassing all the Caucasian states is needed. That was the thinking behind the meeting organised by Russia the other day in Moscow, and which was attended by Mr Putin and the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. That too was the aim of the Azerbaijan-Armenian talks on Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Russian Federation is genuinely interested in turning the Caucasus into a haven of peace and co-operation, rather than a battleground. We will not allow any attempts to split the region into spheres of influence. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the desire to squeeze Russia out of the Caucasus, and there are some who would like to see this happen, may lead to extremely negative consequences, and serve to further complicate the situation in the region. Historically, our country has played a stabilising role in the Caucasus. And we do not intend to renounce that role today.
In short, the Chechen question is only part of a more complex process, which has universal and regional dimensions, and that is how we ought to approach it.
The main aim of the anti-terrorist operation is to restore a constitutional system and the rule of law in the long-suffering land of Chechnya. I particularly wish to stress that what we are conducting in Chechnya is indeed an anti-terrorist operation. We have no conflict or quarrel with the Chechen people, who have fallen victim to medieval-style slavery and lawlessness. The struggle we are waging is directed solely against the rebels and terrorists. Whats more, those rebels and terrorists who have not committed very grave crimes are, by decision of the State Duma, entitled to an amnesty.
Furthermore, we are firmly convinced that the answer to violations of the law does not lie in further violations. Russia is duly complying with its obligations under the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and its own internal legislation.
Naturally, the federal authorities also have to apply force, but this is being done in proportion to the seriousness of the situation. What we are dealing with, after all, are not isolated groups, but well-trained, armed rebel units, who are seasoned fighters. Incidentally, the backbone of many of these units is made up of foreign mercenaries, thus raising the question of closer international co-operation in the fight against this loathsome phenomenon. Unfortunately, there are some citizens of Council of Europe member states among the mercenaries.
In any event, the active phase of the anti-terrorist operation is drawing to a close. In an attempt to minimise the number of civilian casualties, however, we are not forcing it. The emphasis now is on liberating towns and villages from the rebels via negotiation.
Throughout the greater part of Chechen territory, life is already beginning to return to normal. Infrastructures are being rebuilt, schools and hospitals re-opened, and temporary forms of local government are up and running.
Particular attention is being given to political dialogue with those forces in the Republic which recognise the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and which have dissociated themselves from the terrorists. We fully understand that the situation in Chechnya can only finally be resolved by political means. Clearly, too, the road ahead will be a difficult one, but there is no alternative. We have always worked on that assumption and will continue to do so in the future.
Now that life in the Chechen Republic is gradually beginning to return to normal, there arises the practical matter of co-operation with international organisations in restoring democratic institutions and upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As far as the Council of Europe is concerned, we would welcome assistance in the following areas in particular:
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the areas where the Council of Europe could be of use to us. In particular, we are looking at various interesting proposals put forward by the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner. We do not rule out other initiatives either.
Exactly four years ago, the January 1996 session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe gave the go-ahead for Russias accession to this Organisation. In admitting Russia, the largest European state in terms of surface area and population, the Council of Europe became a truly pan-European organisation. A real opportunity had emerged to turn the Council into an instrument for healing the continents old rifts and preventing new ones from appearing.
On finally acceding to the Council of Europe, following lengthy and at times difficult negotiations, we for our part firmly believed in the democratic ideal, and European unity. The decision to join was a voluntary one, as too were the obligations and commitments which Russia entered into on becoming a fully-fledged member of the Council of Europe.
The Russian Federation is a party to 37 Council of Europe conventions, which we regard as the legal fabric of European co-operation. 10 more are waiting to be ratified by us. We have big plans for the year 2000. The Russian Federation is now considering signing a further 20 international legal instruments of the Council of Europe, including the vitally important Social Charter.
Today I think I can safely say that over a very short period of time, historically speaking, the Russian Federation has done more in the sphere of democratic reform than anyone else in the world has managed to do. In the space of a few years, we have covered the same amount of ground that Western European countries took decades, if not more, to cover. The latest parliamentary elections were proof of this. And I am confident that the elections for the new President of the Russian Federation will confirm the pattern. We have taken practical measures to ensure that the people of Chechnya are also able to participate in the voting.
You may ask: what do all these general issues have to do with the theme of todays meeting? To this I would reply: everything.
It would be a grave mistake to look at the events in the North Caucasus from a purely academic point of view. Only by adopting a comprehensive, impartial approach will we be able to find the right answer.
The leading Russian writer A. I. Solzhenitsyn once remarked: "One word of truth can shift the whole world". I believe, ladies and gentlemen, in your wisdom and your ability to recognise this "word of truth".