Chechnya: Pro-Independence Envoy Gets Sympathetic Reception At European Parliament
By Ahto Lobjakas
Chechen politician Akhyad Idigov at the European Pariament
Pro-independence Chechens had a rare opportunity today to rally support for their cause in the European Union. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) representing countries surrounding the Baltic Sea received Akhyad Idigov in Strasbourg. Idigov is the head of the foreign relations committee of what the European Union considers to be the last freely elected Chechen parliament. Idigov said he was received sympathetically in Strasbourg. And an MEP instrumental in organizing Idigov's visit said deputies supportive of the Chechen independence movement will attempt to formally raise the issue in the European Parliament.
Brussels, 15 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Idigov's meeting in Strasbourg today is a sign of the changing times.
The European Parliament has shed the sluggish detachment that has previously characterized much of its relations with the bloc's eastern neighbors, especially Russia. The change in tone follows the arrival of deputies from eight formerly communist states that have become new EU members. Kelam said Russia can no longer hide its abuses in Chechnya behind the excuse of fighting international terrorism. He noted that if Moscow is in control of the situation it must be able to guarantee normal conditions.
Some 25 MEPs from the so-called Baltic-Europe Intergroup provided an unusually high-level audience for the visiting pro-
independence Chechen envoy. The deputies came mostly from the three Baltic States, but also Finland, Germany, and Britain, among others.
In a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Strasbourg, Idigov said he is in Strasbourg representing the exiled deputies who were voted into office in the parliamentary polls of 1997. International monitors who observed the parliamentary balloting said it was free and fair.
Idigov told RFE/RL he is trying to force Chechnya onto the EU's political agenda: "In concrete terms, we want that they raise the question of what is happening in Chechnya. What I mean are the violations, the colossal sacrifices that the people of our country, the Chechen people, bear today -- that that question is examined, regardless of the various accusations, that they are charged with being involved in terrorism and other things. Fair enough, we are saying. If, indeed, such accusations are made, we, our side -- the resistance and our Chechen parliament -- we want that this issue is examined."
Idigov said the EU cannot stand aside since Chechnya is "a part of Europe."
Tunne Kelam, an Estonian MEP, played the lead role in organizing Idigov's visit to the European Parliament.
He told RFE/RL that the issue of Chechnya is perceived in a "slanted" fashion throughout most of the EU. Kelam says EU demands for Russian oil and gas, in particular, "massively outweigh" any concerns about human rights violations in Chechnya.
Kelam said putting EU politicians in contact with "living witnesses" of the Chechen conflict is necessary to maintain the relevance of the issue in Europe: "I think that what is most important is to keep these issues alive, by means of living witnesses. It is one thing to consider the statistics. Let us take as an example [a Chechen] information sheet on how many thousands of people have been killed in the course of these two wars, how many have become refugees, how many children have lost their lives or their homes. But it is another thing entirely to be able to communicate with representatives of the Chechen people who have seen all this with their own eyes."
Idigov said he wants to counter attempts by Moscow to portray Chechens "as an irresponsible nation of children, unable to manage its own affairs."
Kelam concurs. It is essential, he says, that the Chechens who want to change their circumstance are not seen "as terrorists and nothing else."
Idigov told RFE/RL he had detected interest among the MEPs he addressed. He said many deputies had asked him for ideas as to what the European Parliament should do to contribute to the resolution of the conflict:
"Their interest gives me reason to believe that they will work in this direction, despite the fact that they're politicians, despite the fact that there is a point at which this problem is resolved only by bringing to bear the entire EU apparatus. Nevertheless, [there is a need] to raise this question and to demonstrate that the issue remains very acute. And they understood this and, it seems to me, they promised they will work with the issue."
At today's meeting with Idigov, Lithuanian MEP Aloyzas Sakalas was particularly scathing about the Russian record in Chechnya. Sakalas said Russia is involved in state terrorism that, by comparison, overshadows the human rights breaches for which the autocratic regime in Belarus is currently being vilified.
Kelam said he has asked the European Parliament's Russian delegation to give Idigov a hearing at its meeting tomorrow.
Kelam said that although the European Parliament has adopted many resolutions on Russia citing problems in Chechnya, the EU's member states and the European Commission have largely ignored them.
However, he said attempts to force the EU to take account of Chechnya in its relations with Russia will continue: "The final goal must be, I think, a separate, free-standing debate of the Chechen issue in the European Parliament with the adoption of a resolution. A more practical issue is how to put pressure on the European Commission so that it would start putting much more emphasis on this problem in its relations with Russia. Because, at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the Russian government to normalize the situation [in Chechnya]."
Kelam said Russia can no longer hide its abuses in Chechnya behind the excuse of fighting international terrorism. He noted that if Moscow is in control of the situation, it must be able to guarantee normal conditions.
"If it cannot do that after 10 years of war," Kelam concluded, "then perhaps that is the most convincing argument that what is best for Chechnya is autonomy or independence."
Idigov told RFE/RL that an expected 700 to 1,000 Chechen refugees will hold a protest rally in Strasbourg tomorrow. He estimates there are more than 50,000 displaced Chechens in Europe.