Moscow gets trade deal despite war

Cannes Summit
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The Independent Online
TONY BARBER

Europe Editor

European Union leaders dismayed human-rights groups yesterday by deciding that Russia had sufficiently improved its behaviour in Chechnya to deserve a favourable trade agreement with the EU.

As the 15 leaders made public their decision at the EU summit in Cannes, Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, threatened more force to batter the rebel Chechens into submission. "If it is necessary to apply force, you must act decisively and courageously and there can be no retreat. You should not give the enemy a break so that he can take advantage of it and hit you again," he said.

Mr Grachev, speaking in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, said Chechen guerrillas were constantly shooting at Russian military checkpoints in violation of a recently agreed truce. The minister, who masterminded the onslaught in Chechnya, pronounced himself in favour of a lasting ceasefire, but denounced fighters loyal to the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, as bandits.

The EU and Russia had intended to sign the trade accord last January, but EU governments delayed the agreement in protest at Moscow's crackdown, then one month old. Tens of thousands of Chechens have been killed in the conflict and Grozny, the capital, and smaller towns and villages have been bombed and shelled into ruins.

The EU's assessment of improving Russian behaviour was based partly on the view that the Kremlin may be gradually shifting from a policy of brute force to one of negotiations, albeit conducted from a position of intimidating strength. The EU also took into account the fact that the Russians recently allowed a mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to enter Chechnya.

A final factor in the EU's thinking was that the conflictshould not cause European governments to lose sight of their objective of building a long-term strategic partnership with Russia. The accord offers immediate benefits to Moscow by opening certain markets to Russian products, but more important is the political message that the EU does not want the Chechen problem to leave a permanent scar on relations with Russia.

Some EU governments may have seen the war in a new light since Chechen guerrillas seized about 1,200 hostages earlier this month in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk. About 150 people died in the seven-day drama, many as a result of a bungled Russian rescue attempt, and most of the guerrillas eventually made their escape to Chechnya after taking some hostages with them as human shields.

The episode prompted Russia's parliament to pass a vote of no confidence last week in the government of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, who is an ally of President Boris Yeltsin. A second vote is planned for next Saturday and, if passed, could lead Mr Yeltsin to dissolve parliament and call early elections.

The next elections are due in December, and one Yeltsin aide, Vladimir Shumeiko, expressed confidence yesterday that most MPs would not dare bring down the government before then. "If they were to do that, the deputies would lose their cars, telephones and fax machines. It would be political suicide. I don't see any deputy who would want that," he said.

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