Boris goes off

Although Russian President Yeltsin left early, the OSCE meeting provided evidence of the West's growing sentiment that human rights are as sacred as national sovereignty.

By Laura Rozen
Published November 18, 1999 10:00AM (EST)

Boris Yeltsin stormed out of a meeting of European leaders here Thursday after Russia's indiscriminate bombing campaign in Chechnya was condemned.

"You have no right to criticize Russia," Yeltsin told summit leaders. "We do not accept the advice of so-called objective critics of Russia. Those people do not understand that we simply must stop the spread of this cancer and prevent its growths from spreading across the world." The Russian leader left the summit early, immediately after a private conversation with U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The scene was a 54-nation gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which brought together a third of the planet's presidents and prime ministers. Western leaders drew on the example of NATO's 78-day air campaign against Serbia earlier this year to criticize Russia's escalating war in Chechnya. The meeting was evidence of a growing Western sentiment that national sovereignty is less sacred than the duty to protect people from massive human rights violations, including those committed by a government against its own people.

"I do not believe there will ever be a time in human affairs when we will ever be able to say, we simply cannot criticize this or that action because it happened within the territorial borders of a single nation," Clinton said at the gathering. "The charter we have negotiated recognizes that the greatest threats to our security today are as likely to come from conflicts that begin within states as between them."

French President Jacques Chirac was even more forceful in his condemnation of Russia's punishing bombing campaign in Chechnya, which has made more than a fifth of the population refugees.

"The dramatic consequences of the bombing in Chechnya and the very many victims it is causing among the civilian population are unacceptable," Chirac said. "The current offensive is a tragic error for the whole of the region."

The Moscow delegation didn't agree. The Russian press secretary lashed out at a reporter Wednesday night, when asked his reaction to Western efforts to "internationalize" the Chechen conflict.

"What, what?" he snapped. "It's completely the internal affair of Russia."

Still, Yeltsin was later reported to have agreed to a visit by a European team to Chechnya, leading to expectations that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov would sign a final summit security charter on Friday.

Analysts said that the group's criticism was more bark than bite, and pointed out that Western leaders have made it clear that the Chechnya conflict was Russia's to fight. Clinton himself made this clear: "I think I speak for everyone here when we say we want Russia to overcome the scourge of terrorism and lawlessness. We believe Russia has not only the right, but the obligation, to defend its territorial integrity."

Clinton also conceded that even "critics of Russian policies deplore Chechen violence and terrorism and extremism, and support the objectives of Russia." But, he said, "What they fear is that the means Russia has chosen will undermine its ends -- that if attacks on civilians continue, the extremism Russia is trying to combat will only intensify, and the sovereignty Russia rightly is defending will be more and more rejected by ordinary Chechens who are not part of the terror or the resistance."

In Istanbul, rumors are swirling that Chechen President Aslan Mashkadov is here, and that Western leaders are urging the Russian delegation to hold secret political talks with him as a way to seek a solution to the Chechen crisis, something Russia has to date refused.

Moscow's snubbing at the OSCE summit adds to its growing suspicion that while the United States and Western countries say they want Russia to be strong and prosperous, they in fact want it to be weak and humbled. Russia and the former Soviet bloc once favored the OSCE, a 24-year-old regional security organization established to promote arms control, human rights and stability. Unlike the European Union and NATO, Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries are equal members in the OSCE.

But this summit has in many ways been a humiliation for Russia.

In addition to the bashing it took for Chechnya, Russia also came out the loser on a deal signed here Thursday to build a $2.4 billion pipeline to transport Caspian Sea oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkey's Mediterranean port city of Ceyhan. Moscow had wanted the Caspian Sea oil to go through an existing pipeline through the Russian city of Novorossisk, in order to soak up some of the oil-transport revenues. Washington has pushed international oil companies to pick a route that avoids both Russia and Iran, as a way to guarantee strategic control over the energy supply.

"This is not directed against Russia in any way," U.S. National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said Thursday. "I think not only the United States but, more importantly, the countries in the region and the international oil companies have believed that it's important" to create alternative routes for transporting the oil.

While Russia has suffered here, Clinton and the first family have been indisputable stars. Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea toured refugee camps set up for the victims of two recent massive earthquakes that have taken more than 18,000 lives. They kissed babies and met with earthquake victims inside their makeshift shelters.

One woman wearing an Islamic headscarf served coffee to the presidential family. Turning to the television cameras, she said incredulously, "Even [Turkish president] Demirel hasn't done this."

After the OSCE summit ends Friday, Clinton is scheduled to travel to Greece, and to join U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo for Thanksgiving.

Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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