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Analysis & Opinion
11.02.09 A Big Mouth With Little Legs
By Roland Oliphant

Human rights groups have been calling for years for the EU to take a tougher line with Russia over human rights. In October 2007 Human Rights Watch criticized “the absence of sustained and consistent EU engagement on human rights at the highest levels as Russia’s rights record steadily deteriorated.” In November last year it again urged the EU to “to set human rights benchmarks for Russia.” So last week’s exchange between Jose Manuel Barroso and Vladimir Putin will be welcomed – but will it lead to anything?

The EU and Russia have a long history of interaction on human rights issues, but a very poor record when it comes to turning the rhetoric into meaningful action. And the EU in particular has been inconsistent in its stance. Human rights activists worry that the bi-annual “human rights consultations” between the two sides actually serve as a convenient means to relegate these awkward conversations to the fringes of public diplomacy. “We’ve nothing against the consultations in principle,” said Alison Gill, the chief of the Human Rights Watch Moscow office, “but they are no substitute for engagement at the highest levels.”

Jose Manuel Barroso’s sharp exchange with the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last week was just the kind of thing human rights groups are looking for when they talk of engagement “at the highest levels.” In the atmosphere of fear following the horrific murder of Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Natalia Baburova on January 19, it is heartening to see the EU standing up for “European values.”

But it’s not really all that grand. The exchange between Barosso and Putin was as established as the human rights defenders’ calls for more serious engagement, and Russia’s numbingly reliable shortcomings on human rights. A similar exchange took place in May 2007 at a press conference following an EU-Russia summit in Samara. At a joint press conference the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was praised by human rights activists for speaking out on the right to protest and freedom of assembly (Gary Kasparov and other opposition protestors had been prevented from traveling to the summit). On that occasion, too, Barroso expressed concern about unsolved murders (in response to a question about those of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko). And, as last week, Putin responded with complaints (or “concerns”) about the status of the Russia minority in the Baltic States (at the time the controversy over the Bronze soldier war memorial in Tallinn was at its height, and a demonstrator had been killed by Estonian police).

When Putin said he “knew the position of the Russian side” on this issue very well, he was not lying. Indeed, he has consistently expounded the same position for several years.

The formula is pretty simple. When EU delegations raise the subject of human rights, which they are obliged to do, the Russian side cites the plight of the Russian-speaking minority in the Baltic states and other human rights problems in Europe (in 2007, Putin compared the detention of demonstrators at Dissenters’ Marchers to arrests in Germany in the run up to the G8 summit in Hamburg; at last week’s press conference he brought up prison conditions and the detention of immigrants). That is typically followed up with an offer to work together to solve these supposedly shared problems. “We believe that it is necessary to discuss the whole range of problems in Russia and in EU countries to seek common solutions to them,” Putin told Barroso last week. “Problems exist. Both in Russia and in the EU. We are ready to discuss and resolve these problems actively, openly and frankly,” he told the same EU commissioner in 2007.

So these spats about human rights are not unusual, and the Russian response has not changed. Nor has the underlying vacuity. “It is one thing to say that the EU and Russia share common values; it is another thing to operationalize that,” said Gill. “In things like trade there are real commitments and real consequences if those commitments are broken. The same should be true in human rights.”

Neither the EU nor Barroso himself have ever pushed the human rights issue with such vigor. According to the Kremlin’s transcript of the 2007 press conference, the human rights issues were brought up by journalists, not the speakers themselves, and Barroso warned against letting such difficulties “pollute or contaminate – if I may put it that way – progress toward good collaboration.” And after the presidency of the EU passed from Germany to Portugal, Merkel’s no-nonsense line was replaced by an approach that Gill described as “basically saying lecturing on human rights had no place in EU-Russia relations.” It was after this, in October 2007, that Human Rights Watch complained that European inconsistency on the issue “cannot but have signaled to Russia’s leadership that the EU does not attach great weight to safeguarding human rights in its eastern neighbor.”

But Barroso was somewhat more forthright than usual, not because he asserted so passionately that “the rule of law and human rights are more important than diplomacy between nations,” but because he appeared to call Putin’s bluff: “I did not speak casually about the maturity of our relations and a mature dialogue, because I believe that dialogue presupposes a mature discussion of any topics, including delicate, sensitive topics. Parties in such a dialogue are ready and willing to discuss the criticism, just as we are ready for criticism at us, criticism of our reality, because we have a problem, and we are not closing their [critics’] eyes.”

Pointing fingers the other way, he seemed to be saying, is not the same as accepting criticism or solving problems. And this, according to Gill, strikes at the nub of the EU’s problem. Because there is no mechanism for checking and following up, the Russian side is disinclined to follow up of its own accord, there is no real and meaningful engagement. The bi-annual consultations are being taken less and less seriously, with the Russians sending diplomats, rather than the politicians and representatives of the security services who actually have the power to implement reforms.

So last week’s exchange was a change of tone, at least from the European side. It seems to have been prompted by the sheer starkness of the murders of Baburova and Markelov, which have had a profound effect on the climate of safety and security in which human rights work is carried out. Whether this new frankness will continue is to be seen – the tone from Brussels has been less compromising since this winter’s gas crisis, and that may lead European leaders to speak equally frankly on human rights. But they are more likely to irritate the Russians than prompt them to action. They will have to consider the question Putin asked Barroso: whether to continue, or end the conversation now?
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