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CAN RUSSIA, EU AGREE ON CHECHNYA?

RIA Novosti

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - Chechnya seems to have ceased to be the apple of discord in Russia-EU relations. In the past, the EU accused Moscow of human rights abuses in Chechnya, while the Kremlin said the EU used double standards, dividing international terrorists into bad (those who threatened the West) and good (those who operated in Chechnya).

This useless political dispute has given way now to a serious discussion of what united Europe could do to assist the economic and social reconstruction of Chechnya, which has been damaged by ten years of war.

A ranking delegation of the European Commission, led by Mr. Hugues Mingarelli, Director for Eastern Europe, recently examined the problem in Chechnya and two other North Caucasian republics. Their meetings with the local authorities, including President of Chechnya Alu Alkhanov, provided a direct insight into the problem and helped the EC delegates make a crucial decision to increase assistance to the republic's reconstruction. The ˆ170 million that have been provided to Chechnya by the EU in the past ten years is only the beginning.

Brussels no longer views the political process in Chechnya as a Kremlin-enforced "masquerade." Moreover, the European Commission has said it is ready to play a role in it. Mingarelli produced a minor sensation by expressing support for the effort to hold a free parliamentary election in Chechnya in October 2005. The Moscow-Brussels rapprochement over the Chechen problem began late last year, when Vladimir Putin clearly showed during a December visit to Germany that Moscow would welcome EU assistance to Chechnya.

"We are ready to talk openly with our partners in Russia and Europe and cooperate with them in the reconstruction of Chechnya," the Russian president said then. Last week, he confirmed this readiness at a Sochi meeting with Javier Solana, EU High Commissioner for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said there were no closed Chechen subjects for Russia, which Brussels interpreted as Moscow's lowering of a circular defense. Moscow now tends to pursue a more flexible policy with regard to foreign involvement in that long-suffering region. But the genuine breakthrough took place some time before that, when the federal forces killed separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov.

While he was still alive, Maskhadov prevented the EU from seeing the essence of the Chechen problem. He floated in the air, in his white fur Cossack hat, as a kind of an angel advocating political dialogue, which Moscow, for some vague reason, refused to listen to.

In fact, it was an illusion: Maskhadov did not control the fighters and hence could not represent them at the talks. Besides, he had discredited himself in Chechnya when he was president of the "free Ichkeria," because he had permitted the terror of Shariah courts and the military invasion of neighboring Dagestan.

After that, it no longer seems a sacrilege to say that Maskhadov's death simplified the situation around Chechnya for Moscow and Brussels. However, some EU leaders denounced his killing as a mistake. Ranking Brussels officials feared that the death of a relatively moderate separatist leader, which is how they viewed Maskhadov, would open the vacancy to a militarist leader, an incomparably more ruthless man like Shamil Basayev. We can see that nothing of the kind has happened. The past few months showed clearly that Maskhadov was the man who impeded EU-Russia dialogue on Chechnya.

And now the study of the Chechen problem in the leading research centers of Europe has taken a new, constructive turn. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace ordered a report that has been recently presented in the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. The authors of the report recommend Western Europe to admit without delay, in the name of its own interests, that the deep crisis in the North Caucasus and the proliferation of Islamic extremism threaten not only Russia but also Western Europe.

The report does not distinguish between the struggle against separatism in Turkey (Kurdistan) and Russia (Chechnya). However, the EU has long abandoned its black-and-white approach to the Kurdish problem and now readily recognizes any, even the tiniest, achievement of Ankara in settling it. But until recently Brussels refused to see the first signs of normalization in Chechnya.

Do we need a Russia defeated by Islamism? ask the Carnegie Endowment analysts. Maybe we want to take its place in the North Caucasus?

The visit of the European Commission mission to Chechnya provided clear answers to these questions: Brussels and Moscow are hammering out a common stand on the role of the united Europe in returning Chechnya to normal life. It should be the role of a humanitarian helper, a business partner and, most importantly, a benevolent adviser to the growing political peace process in that Russian republic.



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