Eastern and Western activists meet in Moscow

Peace activists from around the world map out the hot issues - and the not issues - of the day

By Metta Spencer | 1997-11-01 12:00:00

MOSCOW'S MAYOR fixed the potholes, seeded the apporaching clouds to prevent rain, and threw a party to celebrate his city's 850th birthday. A week later, while Red Square was still lit up, the Russian umbrella organization Civic Peace and the International Peace Bureau (IPB) threw their own joint party - a three-day conference on global security and civil society. The peaceniks, however, could not prevent rain - a cold drizzle that kept us shivering indoors (Moscow always stokes up its municipal heating system on 1 October, days after our conference).

About half the 200 participants were Russian or CIS citizens and half were foreigners. You couldn't tell which was which, except for the Swedes (who broke into song at every opportunity) and the yellow-robed Buddhist monks (who actually were not Japanese but Russian). These monks ate meat and drank wine, but they were authentic and totally serious about peace.

Rumors in Canada had given me hope that Mikhail Gorbachev might be present, but before the conference began I heard the inside story. The Russians had refused to invite him, since even the peace activists here hate him. Because the IPB leaders had insisted, the invitation had gone out anyway and he had promised to come if possible. In the end, however, it seems he was out of town. Never one to ignore such an issue, Bruce Kent gave a speech praising him, along with another visionary, the late E. P. Thompson. Then we got down to work.

Issues And Campaigns

If fateful issues could be ranked, the top priority this time would go to the question of NATO expansion. It came up in the plenary sessions and during coffee breaks. When we divided into discussion sessions it was assigned a double-sized room, and even then I couldn't get in.

Most of the arguments were already familiar (we had even published them in Peace Magazine) but I did learn one surprising fact. According to Maj-Britt Theorin, the president of IPB, the new members of NATO will not even win the promise that the older members enjoy: that the others will defend them if they are attacked. One must wonder how they expect to benefit from joining this expensive club.

In the newsletter IPB had sent in advance, David Cortright had offered some conclusions based on an investigative tour through the East. He found that everyone he met "from NATO officials in Brussels to the most hard-line Duma members in Moscow, agreed that the implementation of the Founding Act charter could ease concerns about NATO enlargement." (See Rogov's article in Peace Magazine, Sept/Oct for a discussion of the Founding Act, the Paris agreement.) Cortright recommends a dual strategy for citizen groups: continue to argue against NATO expansion, while also advocating implementation of the Founding Act and additional steps to denuclearization.

While peace activists will surely oppose NATO expansion, they will not all use the same arguments. A young Swede who is visiting high schools to inform the students says he sticks to the financial argument. I replied that a stronger reason is that NATO expansion will provide a rationale for the militant nationalists and Communists in Russia to rebuild their own forces. He disliked that argument, claiming that it can even be used by Western militarists to prove that NATO expansion is needed to counter Zhirinovsky, Zhuganov, and their ilk.

The British activist Rae Street sticks to a pacifist argument. As a reader of Peace Magazine, the first thing she said when we met was that she had almost written a letter opposing a recent statement in this magazine that suggested admitting Russia to NATO too. This would only feed militarism, she said. You want to de-legitimize NATO by showing that military solutions are no solution at all.

If one can say that NATO expansion was the first issue of the conference, one cannot say that nuclear disarmament was the second issue. Nuclearism can never be secondary in any sense, and it is inspiring to watch Douglas Roche deal with it in his impassioned way. He gave two speeches, both reminding us of the urgency of abolishing nuclear weapons; otherwise, he said, the Non-Proliferation Treaty is going to fail. The Mexicans, for example, are not going to adhere to it much longer unless the nuclear states begin to negotiate seriously to eliminate their weapons; other non-nuclear states will then follow. The key is the U.S., says Roche. The other nuclear states will follow it in disarming. What is required is pressure from a coalition of non-nuclear states that are friendly to the U.S. The IPB adopted Roche's resolution to that effect and recognized him as the ideal person to lead in creating such a coalition.

A third campaign is being conducted largely in Sweden by Bo Wirmark and Bjarte Bjorsvik. It is an effort to curtail the trade in lighter conventional weapons. The first goal will be to negotiate such a rule within the European Union. Each state would decide for itself how to apply the rule, though eventually the EU would take charge of that too. Bjarte promised to keep me posted on the campaign.

Two issues were uniquely relevant to Russia, both having to do with human rights. One was the problem of conscientious objection. If, as Yeltsin has promised, the Russian army becomes a professional army within two or three years, the issue will take care of itself, but this is improbable. In the meantime there is a new law regulating conscription, which seems to allow the army to decide who may be exempted from the draft for reasons of conscience. Although a law has been proposed that would provide for alternative civilian service, it will apparently not be adopted soon, which leaves pacifists worried

The other Russian issue is religious freedom. While our conference was taking place, President Yeltsin signed a law limiting religious activities to a few religious groups that had been registered at least 15 years. Since it was dangerous to carry out religious activities in 1982, this excludes many groups. As the Nichiren Shoshu monks point out, only one branch of Buddhism has traditionally been practiced in Russia. Theirs (although traditional in Japan) will be restricted by the law. The Pentecostals expect to have to resume meeting in the woods, a they did in pre-Gorbachev days. The conference adopted a resolution deploring this law, which passed through parliament by a wide margin. The Orthodox Church, that quintessentially traditional religion of Russia, may not have surmounted its own totalitarian tradition - its habit of using political power to retain cultural hegemony.


There are isues and there are non-issues. I noticed that two discussions which were broached received little response: separatism and the economy.

On the first day, Vladimir Lopatin, a deputy in the state Duma, made a speech calling for the resolution of the conflict between two incompatible political principles: that of "territorial integrity" and that of a presumed right to "national self-determination." This issue of critical importance within the CIS (where the ambiguity led to war, for instance in Chechnya, Georgia, and Azerbaijan) and is the basis for approximately half the wars going on in the world today. At the Science for Peace conference in Toronto last March, a key recommendation was that the United Nations be asked to resolve this contradiction through seeking the advice of the International Court of Justice.

Only one person responded to Lopatin's opening. The British activist Sheila Oakes, as cheerfully pugnacious as a female Winston Churchill, took the mike and informed Lopatin that "self-determination" does not mean the right to independence. No one replied. Like most peace activists, most Russians make that assumption; there had never been a serious critique of Lenin's teachings on nationalism before Gorbachev's day (and even then, Leninist rhetoric of the "right to self-determination" was invoked by Soviet "democrats" in their eagerness to break up the country). Nor do many Westerners recognize the difficulties inherent in secession; the IPB's secretary-general Colin Archer and even Douglas Roche looked blank when I declared it highest on my priorities of peace issues.

The economy was also a non-issue in the peace discourse here. Apart from variations on the general observation that militarism is expensive, there was only one of the familiar Canadian attempts to link left-wing economic theory with peace politics. Toronto's Eric Fawcett took the floor during a plenary session and declared that there is an economic war going on. Our enemy is the transnational corporation, and its strategy is to use the MAI [Multilateral Agreement on Investments] within the World Trade Organization to control the global economy. Fawcett asked rhetorically what the answer to this is, then gave his own reply: "World revolution! ... You may say that this sounds like Karl Marx, but maybe Marx was right." I don't think Fawcett found any followers in Moscow.

Mothers And Sisters

Everywhere we met women who belonged to an amazing peace organization: the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. Its chairperson, Maria Kirbasova, is an impressive, stocky woman with Oriental features; her slight limp did not keep her from leading a march into Chechnya and even into Grozny to join with women there. Probably her organization did more than any other to stop the slaughter, yet they cannot be said to have succeeded.

The most gripping speech of the conference came from Madina Magomadova, a Chechen peasant woman in a white head scarf. She told of the war, speaking Russian in a calm voice, then covered her face with her hands and sat very still as the rest of us wept.

We knew the basic story, of course, but few of us from the West had met its victims. Afterward, I compared her estimates of deaths and casualties with the guesses of Tair Tairov, the chairman of Civic Peace. She was within his range: 80,000 to 120,000 deaths.

She told of something else that I had not heard: approximately 1,500 Chechen men (including her own brother) had been captured and have disappeared. She says they were tried by a secret military court and imprisoned; they are known to be alive, but the Russian government will not say where. She and many other women have been begging for the truth. The conference of course supported her demand, yet I wondered whether she could be right. I asked Tairov, who says that the number 1,500 is correct, but that most (perhaps all) of the men are dead. A military officer revealed there were no secret trials; the men were simply shot and buried somewhere. She only hopes, but cannot actually know, that her brother is alive. The government tells no truths - least of all how many Russian soldiers perished. Tairov guesses 10,000, but no one knows. The number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan has never been made public; Tairov puts that guess at 30,000. Even if one could collect the names of all the dead, no Russian newspaper would publish the list.

After the formal sessions, the Norwegian activist Trine Eklund collected women for personal talk. How, she asked, can Western women support CIS women? There were an Azeri, Elmira Suleymanova, and an Armenian parliamentarian, Anahit Bayandour. There was Patricia Cockrell, the Englishwoman who runs the Quaker Peace Service in Moscow, and a Danish conflict resolution trainer named Annelise Ebbe. I didn't catch the names of the other women - a Chechen, and two staff members at the Soldiers' Mothers office.

The conversation in Russian was too intense for anyone to translate, but I could grasp some bits. The Azerbaijan/Armenia conflict paused three years ago with a ceasefire, but there is no new progress toward peace, and a million refugees still live in camps. The situation in Chechnya may be worse. The Chechen woman, who said she is exhausted, spoke of some men who are now slaves somewhere. All the women wanted foreign women (not Russians) to come and help them talk through their conflicts.

I asked Trine later what she intended to do.

"I am going to give a workshop in Azerbaijan in January," she replied. "But I cannot work with men. Only women."

We were standing beside a Serbian man, who interjected, "But women have conflicts too!"

"You see what I mean," said Trine, certain that he had proved her point.

Maybe so, but I'm not going to Azerbaijan, Armenia, or Chechnya. I'll be working on something different: separatism. As Trine stomped off, I heard John Lennon singing in my mind: "You say you want a revolution?/ Well/ We all want to change the world..."

Atta girl, Trine. You do what you can. So will I. Let's hope the Serbian man - indeed all peaceniks everywhere - do too.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1997, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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