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Thursday, November 18, 1999 Published at 06:27 GMT

World: Europe

Tricky task at Istanbul summit

Russian soldiers hand out food parcels to the residents of Gudermes

By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The crisis over Chechnya has thrown into doubt the outcome of the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Battle for the Caucasus
The 50 or so heads of government, including United States President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, have a tricky task in front of them.

Negotiations continued up until the last minute on the text of a European security charter and a revised treaty setting limits on conventional forces in Europe.

Negotiations on these two key documents have been going on for years.

They have implications for the long-term security of Europe and beyond, since the OSCE takes in the whole territory of the former Soviet Union.

[ image: The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is among those putting pressure on Russia]
The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is among those putting pressure on Russia
Now, the signing of both is threatened.

The treaty was originally conceived in terms of the opposing military blocks of Nato and the Warsaw Pact.

After the collapse of communism, it had to be revised to take account of new realities, including allowing Russia an increased quantity of armoured vehicles in the Caucasus.

But the Russians are already in breach of the new limits because of their campaign in Chechnya.

They say they intend to come back into compliance with the treaty after the emergency is over.

Western governments would like a more precise commitment than this, if not a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces, otherwise it would appear farcical to sign a treaty that one of the main OSCE nations is violating.


On the other hand, some small countries on the fringes of Russia are keen for a new treaty to come into force.

Such a document would be a benchmark to hold the Russians to their commitments.

The Norwegian chairman of the summit, Knut Vollebaek, said the Chechen crisis showed why the treaty was important. Countries should not avoid signing it just because the present situation was difficult.

[ image: Boris Yeltsin plans to take a hard line on Chechnya]
Boris Yeltsin plans to take a hard line on Chechnya
Any Russian commitment on a withdrawal from Chechnya could not be set out in the treaty itself. It would have to be in the summit declaration, the final communique.

The chances of an agreed statement on Chechnya look slim, since decisions have to be unanimous.

But in the days and hours leading up to the summit, the declaration became part of a single negotiation.

As part of the bargaining, Russia was being pressed to renewed commitments on the withdrawal of its forces from Moldova and from Georgia.

That is not a legal requirement of the treaty, but Western officials regard it as a key factor.

Mr Vollebaek said there were clear indications the Russians were moving on the Moldova issue, though Georgia was more difficult.

European security

The other element in the interlinked negotiations is the European security charter.

Although couched in high-flown and sometimes general language, OSCE officials regard it as an essential document in setting out an updated mandate for the organisation in the 21st Century, and paving the way for it to carry out new tasks.

In addition to helping to build democratic institutions, resolve ethnic tensions and promote arms control, the OSCE would be able to carry out, authorise and co-ordinate peace-keeping operations.

The charter will also spell out how the OSCE co-operates with other organisations, such as Nato and the UN - in other words, who does what.

There have been complaints in the past of confusion and competition between international organisations.

There is at least one potentially controversial section in the charter that says, in effect, that a state's commitment to human rights is not a purely internal matter.

[ image: Russian soldiers patrol Gudermes, the second-largest town in Chechnya]
Russian soldiers patrol Gudermes, the second-largest town in Chechnya
Other members of the OSCE have a legitimate interest.

This goes back to an agreement in 1991 and makes it difficult for the Russians to argue that what goes on in Chechnya is their business and no one else's.

President Yeltsin said on arrival that Russia was prepared to sign the security charter if there had been no last minute changes.

His meaning was not clear, but it is obvious that everything on the summit agenda is now part of a complicated bargaining process.

Nothing will be settled until everything is. Whether the summit falls apart depends partly on how far Western governments are prepared to push the argument over Chechnya.

A spokesman for French President Chirac said he would tell Mr Yeltsin as a friend that the bombardment of Chechnya was a mistake and the consequences for civilians unacceptable.

The White House said it would not make sense for the US to block IMF loans to Russia. Economic sanctions are clearly off the agenda.

The signs are that the West does not want an open breach with Moscow and that in the end, the security text will be signed.

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