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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

OSCE Recovers Its Fumble

The peace talks in the Kremlin this week achieved the impossible several times over. Not only did they bring Boris Yeltsin and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev face to face, but, no less amazingly, they rehabilitated the reputation of the Grozny mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The current composition of the OSCE Assistance Group in Grozny reflects the priority the international community puts on the monitoring the conflict in Chechnya. There are just six very hardworking diplomats (compare that with 17 in Tbilisi monitoring the situation in South Ossetia). They are mainly from smaller countries -- Switzerland, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Spain. The Americans did not send a replacement for their representative, after he left in April and the only British member of the group was recalled for "security reasons" last October after just a month and with evident relief in London.

Arriving in January, the new head of mission, the Swiss politics professor Tim Guldimann, found not only a small and overstretched staff, but relations with the Chechen rebel side that were, in the words of one diplomat, "minus zero."

Usman Imayev, one of the most moderate members of the Chechen leadership, describes with disgust how the two OSCE mission heads failed their first goodwill test with him. He wanted them to visit the site of a rocket attack at the village of Kharsanoi, where he said 29 people had died, and lodge a report on it. But they said they were too busy.

Partly it was a matter of an international community that was reluctant to offend Moscow. Throughout the conflict the West has let itself be fobbed off with declarations of good intent -- thereby playing into the hands of the hawks in Moscow. That was certainly true of Hungary, the OSCE chair-in-office in 1995 and the host nation of mission head Sandor Meszaros. Partly it was a matter of personalities. That particularly applied to Olivier Pellen, the eccentric deputy head of mission, who took over in October, when Meszaros had a car crash. Pellen and the Chechens had hit it off badly from the start. A number of bizarre incidents and Pellen's uncontrollable dog, which had the habit of licking the Chechens just before they were about to pray, made relations irreparable.

Whatever the full story, the OSCE fumbled the truce agreement it brokered in July. It needed a dynamic lead to make it stick, but the accord just died on its feet. One issue that cried out for active diplomacy was the Russians' blithe disregard for the clauses in the agreement on the release of prisoners. Far from freeing their detainees the Russians continue arbitrarily to arrest Chechen males on the street and intern them in the Grozny "filtration camp," PAP-1. Nothing was said and nothing changed.

In late October, the Chechens broke off all contact with the OSCE. In December the then vice-president of Ichkeria, Yandarbiyev, put out an order for the arrest of any OSCE members found on his territory.

This was stony ground for Guldimann to begin on and he spent the first few months of this year persuading the Chechens to start talking again. But he has now managed to turn it all around again.

The trick seems to have been to open channels of communication between the moderates on both sides. He twice flew to Moscow to talk to Viktor Chernomyrdin, the presiding genius of the Russian "peace party." Then he went back to the hamlets and woods of Chechnya to talk to Yandarbiyev and Aslan Maskhadov. He never actually met Dzhokhar Dudayev. He saw for himself that the Chechens all endorsed the agreement, by attending their two-day meeting in the mountain village of Vedeno.

There are plenty of potential wreckers of this peace process. On the Chechen side that means warriors like Shamil Basayev, who have submitted to collective authority, but are suspicious of any deals with the Russians. On the Russian side that means generals who have not yet fought their fill in Chechnya and do not care for Yeltsin much anyway. There are also the advocates of the "one last push" theory, who mistakenly believe that the war can be won militarily. Hopefully the OSCE will have learnt the lessons of last summer and will try to take a much tougher and higher profile that will help keep the peace party in the ascendant.