West vents anger and threatens to impose sanctions

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA CAME under blistering criticism yesterday, with warnings that its trade privileges could suffer, as it sought to justify its heavy- handed campaign in Chechnya to the world's leading industrial nations.

Meeting in Berlin for the first time since Russian troops launched their attack on Chechnya, G7 foreign ministers pressed Moscow to negotiate with the rebels. Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, brushed the advice aside: "I didn't come to Berlin to seek a solution to the Chechen problem."

But the two-day meeting was certain to be overshadowed by the conflict, irrespective of Moscow's wishes, and the host, Germany, for once, is reluctant to be a go-between. Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, was the first Western leader to express his disgust at the ultimatum from the Russian military to Grozny civilians. Moscow has since rowed back in its rhetoric, but its actions on the ground are as brutal as ever.

The rift between the West and Russia, co-opted into the G7 group of leading industrial countries as a token of esteem, is expected to be on display today. Diplomats warn that no common statement on Chechnya is likely to emerge, so fundamental are the differences. The West accepts Moscow's sovereign right to restore control over break-away Chechnya, but is appalled by the indiscriminate methods being used.

Mr Ivanov got an early taste of Western outrage at a meeting of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee. "We all left no doubt we could be forced ... to change our relations with Russia," said Karl Lamers, a respected Christian Democrat on the committee.

This was by echoed Chris Patten, the EU's Commissioner for foreign affairs in Brussels. "We cannot continue with our relations as if nothing has happened," he said.

The West could apply certain diplomatic sanctions, such as barring Russia from the G7, but that is unlikely to worry the Kremlin. Trade would be more effective, and some Western politicians are beginning to wave that weapon.

Mr Patten warned Russia's "most favoured [trade] nation", status could be under threat. He added that Russia stood to lose from any future trade sanctions, as it had 40 percent of its trade with the EU and enjoyed a 10-billion euro trade surplus. In contrast, only three per cent of EU trade is with Russia. He argued that Brussels' lenient approach over trade agreements may also be changed.

The West could also cut off credits, as Human Rights Watch implored yesterday, urging the World Bank to withhold a $100m loan due to be paid to Russia in the coming days.

The EU Helsinki summit last weekend agreed to shift some technical aid for Moscow to humanitarian assistance to increase pressure on the Kremlin to seek a political solution.

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