EU:n painostusta ihmisoikeusasioissa Venäjällä tarvitaan

If not the EU, then who?

Published in International Herald Tribune

Written by Alexander Petrov (*)
November 24, 2006

MOSCOW: During the Soviet era, Russian human-rights defenders looked to the West as our only hope for leverage on a government that was utterly unaccountable to its people. It is surreal to find myself in that position again today.

" Avoiding high-level engagement on human-rights issues for so many years is no guarantee of energy security, and it has emboldened the government to become more authoritarian. "
Alexander Petrov
Deputy Director
Moscow Office

Related Material

EU: Challenge Russia on Human Rights Abuses
Press Release, November 23, 2006

Chechnya: Research Shows Widespread and Systematic Use of Torture
Press Release, November 13, 2006

Outside pressure is now the only hope of stopping President Vladimir Putin from leading Russia back to the past, but the governments of the European Union don't seem keen to exert such pressure. The EU-Russia summit on Friday, which comes after a particularly bleak period for human rights in Russia, is a test of the EU's mettle. As a Russian working in human rights since the Soviet era, I am watching closely with hope that the EU will reverse years of speaking softly to Russia, and use a big stick.

While European leaders have resisted tough talk on human rights - and perhaps because of it - the situation in Russia has deteriorated. The murder last month of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya is a tragic symbol of all that's gone wrong here. There are no more independent voices like hers, and no independent media, thanks to the Kremlin.

Back in the heady days of glasnost, I never would have thought of its achievements, like press freedom, as so ephemeral. But watching Russian television news is like being thrown into a time warp, circa 1985. The Parliament has been neutralized and the judiciary is subject to more political influence than ever. There simply are no more checks on the Kremlin's authority, so it's free to steamroll over people, businesses, anything it finds inconvenient.

Clearly, human-rights organizations fall into that category, and we were the most recent Kremlin target. A new law on nongovernmental organizations imposes unprecedented restrictions and burdensome reporting requirements that jeopardize our independence. In the past year, the government has maligned such groups publicly, accused us of being agents of subversion, threatened numerous organizations with closure, shut one down and convicted its leader on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.

The government seems most determined to hit those groups that expose Russia's most festering problem: Chechnya, home to widespread torture, forced disappearances, and other such grave human-rights abuses. Nowadays, torturers - mostly security forces under the effective command of Chechnya's prime minister - don't even bother to wear masks, so utterly convinced are they that they will never be held accountable. They run a network of secret detention centers whose existence the Russian government denies. No wonder last month the Kremlin refused to give a United Nations monitor unlimited access to all detention facilities.

European officials say they'd like to take strong positions, but that, well, they need the gas, so they have no leverage. I'm not offended, just baffled. No one questions the EU's need to seek energy security. But the assumption that pursuing a robust human-rights policy would lead to the Kremlin shutting off the gas is facile. Avoiding high-level engagement on human-rights issues for so many years is no guarantee of energy security, and it has emboldened the government to become more authoritarian.

This position also fails to utilize Putin's aspirations for the global stage - it's like indulging a bully in the playground rather than standing up to him. A better approach, when Putin gets irritated at the mention of human rights, would be to show courage, intelligence and a little political imagination in order to ensure a robust conversation about human rights. In a little pre-summit advocacy of his own, Putin wrote that the European Union has nothing to fear from Russia - and for once I agree with him.

There is leverage - Russia cares deeply about its relationship with the EU, cares about its role and image as a global player. The tragedy is that no one has been willing to make Putin work for it, to indicate that it's the Kremlin rocking the boat by failing to behave as a normal and reasonable partner.

Finally, not raising human rights issues because of a perceived "lack of leverage" is just bad policy. It suggests that pursuing strong human-rights policies is something the EU does only with weak states, and that plays to the worst fear of the Russian political elite: that human rights is raised as a political gambit to weaken countries, rather than being a core principle of EU engagement.

The European Union, and especially Germany, which takes over the EU presidency in six weeks, are the actors that the Kremlin respects, needs, listens to. Not using that relationship to promote human rights is a terrible waste.

And it would be a tragedy. Russian civil society has traditionally depended on pressure from the outside to convince the Kremlin that our concerns are important. Now that we have virtually no forum inside the country, now that the Kremlin is poised to stifle us, that outside pressure is needed not only to make us effective, but to ensure our very survival.

*Alexander Petrov is deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office.


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