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Chechen Shadow over EU-Russian Summit

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Chechen shadow over EU-Russian summit

Ian Black in Brussels

Monday November 11, 2002

The Guardian

The EU is being urged today to put human rights at the centre of its dialogue with Russia at a summit overshadowed by the crisis in Chechnya.

But despite mounting pressure to negotiate an end to the conflict in the wake of the Moscow hostage affair, Vladimir Putin insisted yesterday that he would not deal with rebel Chechen leaders.

Hopes for an agreement on the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad mean that, in any case, the EU is unlikely to be able to corner the Russian president on the Chechen question.

Today's one-day summit was moved to Brussels from Copenhagen because of Moscow's anger that Denmark - the current holder of the EU presidency - hosted a Chechen congress days after the Moscow siege.

Denmark is still considering a Russian extradition request for a Chechen rebel envoy, Akhmed Zakayev.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, is anxious to close a deal under which Russians would obtain a special visa for travel to and from Kaliningrad after Poland and Lithuania, which surround the territory, join the EU in 2004.

On the eve of the summit, human rights organisations warned the EU not to sacrifice human rights in order to improve relations with Moscow.

Condemning an "invidious cycle of abuse and impunity", Amnesty urged the EU to "confront this denial of justice and press President Putin to deliver on the protection of basic rights and justice for ordinary people in Russia, whatever their origin."

Human Rights Watch said Russia must halt abuses "perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism, to commit to genuine accountability, and desist from arbitrary arrest of ethnic Chechens in Moscow."

EU-Russian relations have grown increasingly warm in the past two years. Mr Putin's supportive reaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US has also benefited him.

Some 40% of Russia's trade is with the EU, and after enlargement that could rise to between 50% and 70%. Huge energy deals are also being negotiated.

Last week the EU granted Mr Putin one of his main wishes, formally recognising Russia as a market economy, thus easing the way for it to export more to western Europe and join the World Trade Organisation.

Diplomats said the announcement was deliberately timed to improve the atmosphere of today's summit.

Mr Putin is also due to meet the Nato secretary-general, George Robertson, to discuss developments in the organisation's "strategic partnership" with Russia.

Yesterday Mr Putin told a group of pro-Moscow Chechen leaders that no talks with the rebel president, Aslan Maskhadov, or other separatist leaders were possible.

In a statement released on Saturday, Mr Maskhadov condemned the theatre attack and said that the warlord Shamil Basayev, who has claimed involvement in the attack, is under criminal investigation by the separatist government's supreme sharia court.

Mr Basayev has also been removed as leader of the separatists' military committee, Mr Maskhadov's statement said.

But Mr Putin's government dismissed the statement. Until the siege, Russian officials had indicated a willingness to negotiate with Mr Maskhadov on disarmament - but no longer.

"Those who choose Maskhadov choose war," Mr Putin said. "Instead of talks, he has chosen the path of terror and stood behind the backs of the scum who took hundreds of people hostage."

Chechnya's chief mufti has warned the president that abuses by Russian troops push young people into rebel ranks.

"'Mopping-up' operations involve robbery and disappearances," Akhmed Shamayev said. "People will not follow Maskhadov if we don't violate human rights."

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