Chechen war and eroding democracy in Russia criticized during Putin's visit to Prague
By Tomáš Vršovský
PRAGUE - During his visit to Prague, Russian President Vladimir Putin did discuss Chechnya with Czech politicians and it took place amid criticism by human rights advocates.
His arrival on March 1 was the first visit by a Russian president in thirteen years, primarily because relations between Russian and the Czech Republic had deteriorated, partly also due to the two Chechen wars. The agenda of the two-day visit mainly included economic issues, such as natural gas and oil supplies crucial for the country's economy.
Shortly before he arrived, a group of international thinkers and former politicians, headed by former Czech president Václav Havel, published a newspaper article censuring Russia's policies in Chechnya. Havel and eight others, including Andre Glucksmann, Prince Hassan bin Talal, Frederik Willem de Klerk, Mary Robinson, Yohei Sasakawa, Karel Schwarzenberg, George Soros and Desmond Tutu, admonished Russia for a war which "both masks and motivates the re-establishment of centralized power in Russia - bringing the media back under state control, passing laws against NGOs and reinforcing the ‘vertical line of power’ - leaving no institutions and authorities able to challenge or limit the Kremlin. War, it seems, is hiding a return to autocracy.”
Besides, Senator Jaromír Štětina, an experienced war correspondent who was barred from Russia for his criticism of the first and second Chechen wars, stated he would leave the Senate building in protest if Putin arrived there. "I won’t stay under the same roof with a KGB officer who is politically responsible for the genocide of the Chechen nation and for the suppression of freedom of speech and democracy in Russia." However, it turned out that he did not have to leave after all as the talks with parliamentarians and the Czech Premier took place in the Lichtenstein Palace.
Calls also came from the Green Party and several Czech NGOs that human rights and democracy issues should also be discussed. There were no activists protesting against Putin in the streets of Prague, however.
The talks were dominated by economic issues. And at the first news conference, after Putin met with Czech President Václav Klaus, both men agreed that they were unable to think of any problems in the current relations between their two countries.
Yet when questioned by a TV journalist, Putin confirmed that he spoke with Klaus about Chechnya. "We discussed democracy in Russia as well as Chechnya, and I can assure you that Russia is very committed to these issues."
"The situation [in Chechnya] does concern us, but I can say that Pres. Putin is not less concerned about it. It's in his interest and the Russian Federation’s that the Chechen problem be settled," said Klaus, adding that there is no simple solution. The two leaders, however, did not elaborate on the exact substance of their short talk on Chechnya.
Chechnya was also the subject of talks between Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who accompanied Putin on this trip.
(T/E) RELATED ARTICLES:
· End the silence over Chechnya (an open letter from Vaclav Havel and others; 1.3. 2006)