Russia

UK: Greater insight into Chechen conflict from Georgia

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EDITED TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW GIVEN BY THE FOREIGN SECRETARY, ROBIN COOK, FOR BBC TV, TBLISI, GEORGIA, THURSDAY 24 FEBRUARY 2000

INTERVIEWER:
Mr Cook, what insight has being here in Georgia given you into the conflict in Chechnya?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
I have had a very full discussion obviously with the leaders of the government here, including President Shevardnadze, and one of the reasons for coming here is to send a clear signal that Europe is watching carefully and is very committed to the integrity and independence of Georgia. There is no doubt that there is concern here that the fighting in Chechnya could produce instability and insecurity across the region. One of the important lessons here is that there has to be a political process, both in Chechnya and elsewhere. I urged the government in Russia to use a political process to find a solution in Chechnya. The people here have strongly endorsed that as a priority. There is also a case for making sure that the conflicts that exist elsewhere in the Caucasus are not allowed to remain undisturbed but instead are addressed and resolved.

INTERVIEWER:
The concern here is that there is a real danger that the conflict in Chechnya could spread across the border into Georgia.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
This morning I saw a presentation by the OSCE monitors who are on the border, they showed me video footage of them travelling along the border and you could hear the shooting across the border. It is getting very close, though I very much hope that it does not reach the border and that that part of Georgia does not become caught up in the fighting.

INTERVIEWER:
One of the messages that you have brought here presumably to Russia and to Georgia is that Georgia's territorial integrity and its independence should be respected, but what could Britain or other European countries do if, say, Russia decided that in order to contain this terrorist Chechen threat it would need to extend the conflict beyond its own territory?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
Russia has not sent troops across the Georgian border. It has many troops on their side of the border but they can control access between Chechnya and Georgia on their side of the border, that is entirely acceptable and they show no sign of crossing the border. The risk is that some of the Chechen fighters leaving Chechnya may choose to try and fight their way through and take refuge in Georgia. That would be very regrettable and very destabilising for Georgia. It is important that we do all that we can to try and make sure first of all that there is confidence in the border, and secondly that those on the Russian side understand that the world is watching. That is why we strongly support the OSCE monitoring group, we have British personnel looking at the needs assessment of that monitoring group and we are looking at expanding it so it can continue to observe the border when the snow sets in and some of the other tracks on the mountains become exposed.

INTERVIEWER:
So threats are useful but were the conflict actually to extend, that would be extremely difficult wouldn't it, because you have just come from Moscow saying you want a new strategic partnership with Mr Putin's Russia?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
I don't think that Russia would be likely ignore the OSCE monitoring group there: they attach a lot of importance to the OSCE, they support the OSCE monitoring group on the Georgian border. But in terms of providing confidence against a Russian incursion, I think the OSCE monitoring group is very effective. It would not necessarily stop the Chechen soldiers fighting their way across, but Russia is not in a position militarily to intervene.

INTERVIEWER:
Does it worry you that the very positive talks there seem to have been in Moscow might send a green light to the Kremlin that the outside world would not intervene, that they could do what they want in Chechnya?

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
No. We have always said we would not intervene militarily in Chechnya and it is very difficult to see how we could. But we have been very clear about our criticisms about the Russian military action in Chechnya, the extent to which it has caused unnecessary civilian suffering, and the absence of any clear political perspective leading to a political solution. We have backed up the messages we have given to Russia with very strong action, for instance, through the European Union, to suspend our financial support to the Russian economy and to divert it into humanitarian aid in Chechnya. We have taken every opportunity to get our message over and have reinforced it with every reasonable and responsible step. At the same time we need to have a working relationship with Russia on those areas where we have common interests, for instance in the Balkans, or in the Middle East and in Iraq, or at the Security Council of the United Nations.

INTERVIEWER:
Nevertheless the impression does seem to be there that the West would not be able to do anything about Chechnya, however appalling the violence there, and we would now just like it to be over as soon as possible.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
I certainly would like to see an end to the violence, but I would like to see an end to the violence on a basis in which there is a political settlement that enables the people of Chechnya to live in their own land and enables those who are outside that land to return with confidence.