Lokshina: EU ‘credibility gap’ on human rights in Russia

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With a new president taking office in Russia in early May, the EU should use this ‘window of opportunity’ to openly address Russian human rights violations, Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch Russia told EURACTIV in an interview. Neglecting the issue due to the bloc’s dependency on the country for energy is not an option, she adds.

Tanya Lokshina is a researcher at the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

What is your assessment of the evolution of the human rights situation in Russia during the era of President Vladimir Putin? Have there been any positive developments at all? 

The last eight years have been a very disappointing period to the extent that civil and political rights in Russia have suffered a tremendous setback – with the freedom of the media being effectively destroyed, the independent judiciary being largely compromised, the Parliament losing its independence and the very system of checks and balances of the executive branch becoming a mere formality. 

Russia has very much become a country run by a small group of people at the very top, without any civilised decentralisation of power and without any limits on any possible arbitrariness by the executive branch. 

Do you see any room for improvement under the new President Medvedev? 

First of all, a new political cycle and a new presidency provide us with a new window of opportunity, which we hope is going to be fully used by the EU to bring its influence to bear on Russia’s human rights policies. This new cycle simply has to be used for whatever it is worth. 

Today, we see that the only international human rights protection mechanism, which proves to be somewhat effective as far as Russia is concerned, is the European Court on Human Rights. That’s why we are so keen on seeing effective implementation of the Court’s ruling, including those on Chechnya. The European Court judgments are legally binding and it is Russia’s obligation to implement them fully and promptly. 

The implementation process itself is two-fold. On the one hand this has to do with individual measures, such as payment of compensations to the victims, and in many cases reinvestigations into their complaints on domestic level. But there are also so-called general measures. These are systemic steps that the state has to undertake to ensure that similar violations do not occur in the future. General measures are especially important as the key objective of the Court is to assist to bringing the legislation and the law-enforcement practices in the Council of Europe member-states in line with the European Convention. 

However, Russia is failing to cooperate with the Court on the level of general measures, especially in connection with the Chechen cases. 

Have these general measures also been supported by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg? What has been the follow-up thus far?

Absolutely. In each and every case dealing with Chechnya the Court has stressed the lack of effective domestic investigation into the victims´ complaints. 

Who should be doing this job? 

The prosecutor’s office is the primary responsible agency. The victim submits a complaint about abuses perpetrated by law enforcement authorities. In some case, no investigation at all is being launched. Or the investigation is being formally opened and then suspended. If the victim is assertive enough and has a good lawyer then the investigation may be revived, just to be suspended afterwards. And revived and suspended again. This process can take up years. 

Just a couple of days ago, I interviewed one of the victims for a small video on Chechnyan victims who applied to the European Court. The victims is a man who was tortured with incredible brutality by federal police officers in the Chechen capital Grozny in the year 2000 and held in an illegal detention center for over two months. 

He had his ribs broken, his teeth kicked out and his left ear cut off. Once released, he started filing complaints to all relevant state agencies. He went to the police and to the prosecutor’s office. He sent countless letters to the Russian president and the Russian parliament. However, his case has not been adequately investigated. Several human rights organizations have been trying to help him, knocking on all the doors on his behalf. It has been eight years. No serious investigation has happened thus far.

This case is particularly striking because the victim, Alaudi Sadykov, actually knows the names of the officials that tortured him. He can easily identify them. But the state has not done anything to hold them accountable. Therefore, Sadykov is now waiting for Strasbourg to rule on his case because for him, like for other Chechen victims, this is actually the only way to find justice. 

What is your assessment of the current situation in Chechnya? 

Chechnya is slipping off the agenda of the international community, and the EU’s one in particular. At the same time, the human rights crisis still continues. We do not deny that there is a major reconstruction process in place and that the city of Grozny today looks very different from what it used to look, say, two years ago. We do not deny that the number of abductions has gone down over the past two years. However, not only are human rights violations still taking place in Chechnya, but have past abuses not been prosecuted. 

According to independent estimates, up to 5000 people disappeared without a trace during the second Chechen war in 1999. Their relatives are still looking for them. They cannot even adequately bury and mourn their loved ones. They cannot let go. In their desperate quest, these people knock on every door, address all official agencies but do not find information and justice. 

It is crucially important to put an end to the impunity in Chechnya because without accountability for perpetrators there can be no real end to that conflict, which has lasted for 13 years. 

Moreover, grave abuses, including abductions and torture, still exist in Chechnya. Civil society in the republic has been completely wiped out. There are neither independent local NGOs nor independent press. The president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who does not tolerate any opposition, dictates his own laws and rules, which have nothing to do with Russia’s legal framework – , for example, his orders for women to wear head-scarves in public places. 

Finally, the Chechen conflict with its blatant human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances and systematic torture, has spilled over to other Northern Caucasus republics, Ingushetia and Dagestan in particular. Some of those abuses have even spread all over the country. 

For years, policemen from all Russian regions have been sent to Chechnya for up to six months. After their return, they resume their previous duties in their home towns without getting any rehabilitation measures. Predictably, they commit the same abuses back home as they used to do in Chechnya. 

Chechnya had an impact on all aspects of Russia’s social and political life, it has played a central role in transforming Russia into an authoritarian state. Having said that, I would like to stress once again that Chechnya must remain on the EU agenda in its dealings with Russia. 

Moreover, the impunity problem has to be addressed through prioritizing full and effective implementation of the judgements by the European Court on Chechen cases. There have been 25 of those rulings thus far, but are still hundreds of complaints from other Chechen pending. 

Talking about the role of NGOs in Russia: Organisations such as HRW have been very critical of the country’s human rights record. In response, the Russian government has accused you of serving as instruments of the West. What is your response to this? 

Firstly, we are all struck by such Russian rhetoric because it shows that Russia firstly does not consider itself as part of the broader European family and secondly views most European states as enemies rather than friends and partners. That is totally unacceptable. 

Secondly, foreign-funded NGOs are under attack in Russia, particularly those human rights groups lobbying for policy changes on sensitive issues such as Chechnya, violence in the armed forces, police brutality or freedom of assembly and of associations. .

These NGOs are being accused by top-level state officials, including President Putin, of being agents of foreign governments promoting their agenda. This is definitely not the case. To the contrary, human rights organisations in Russia are dependent on foreign funding because domestic donors are rare and consider the field of human rights as too politicised and too sensitive to meddle. 

The Yukos case and the imprisonment of the famous oil magnate Khodorkovski, who dared to support both political opposition and human rights NGOs, certainly contributed to the fact that Russia’s business community does not want to risk anything. 

Admittedly, the Russian government is indeed funding NGO work. Last year it contributed about $15 million to different NGOs. 

However, human rights groups, especially those working on sensitive issues, are not likely to get that funding and remain dependent on foreign support. 

Do these contributions come from private individuals or also from foreign governments? How would you describe your relation with Western governments? 

First of all, Human Rights Watch does not accept any governmental funding because we think that staying away from government money is simply the best option to remain fully objective. 

We only depend on private funding, either from individuals or different private foundations. This does not apply to Russian NGOs. They receive funding from foreign governments and notably from the European Commission, which has been funding human rights work in Russia for many years now. 

Other foreign donors are the USAID, the UK Foreign Office and the Dutch MATRA programme. In addition, most of the Western European embassies have small grants available for human rights NGOs. 

At the same time, many foreign governmental donors are already withdrawing from Russia as the growing wealth has created a very hostile climate for foreign donors. 

Asked by Russian media to which extent foreign donors influence their grantees’ agenda, I always reply that I used to run a Russian NGO for 10 years and do not remember a single instance when any of our foreign donors tried to intervene with the project work on a substantial level. 

In order to receive funding, you submit an application and if the donors like it they will support it. But they never tell you what to do. That is out of question. Such accusations thrown in the face of Russian NGOs are totally groundless. 

However, when President Putin says that foreign-funded organisations are actually not working in the Russian interest but rather for the benefit of their foreign donors it sends a very strong signal to officials at all levels that obstructing NGO work is an important part of their job. 

Recently, I have come across numerous cases where local government officials as well as universities decided to stop their – quite effective – cooperation with NGOs because they felt that human rights groups were ‘dangerous’ contacts for them, considering all the negative publicity. They simply did not want to damage their reputation in the eyes of the Kremlin by being too closely linked with those organisations labeled as foreign spies or Western agents. 

NGOs’ life has become particularly complicated with the adoption of the new NGO legislation in 2006. The law gives very broad powers to the state’s inspection authority, the registration service. This body can look into every aspect of NGO activity and demand all kinds of documents, including confidential documents, such as interviews with victims or private correspondence. 

According to its internal regulations, the registration service is not allowed to check a NGO more than once every two years. But this only applies to so-called planned inspections. If there is a complaint or a request from the prosecutor’s office, a member of the parliament, or a lawyer, saying, for instance, that one particular NGO violates its own statute, the registration service can pay an ad-hoc visit to the organisation. 

The legislation does not contain any limits as to the number of these ad-hoc inspections. Technically speaking, an organisation could face several ad-hoc checks by the registration service within the same year in addition to the regular check. Those inspections can last about two months, completely paralysing the organization’s work. Their sole task during this period is to respond to different queries, fulfil the bureaucratic demands and follow the authorities instructions. 

That is not to mention other possible probes, such as those from tax inspectorates, from fire and sanitation inspectorates as well as from the prosecutor’s office itself. 

Accordingly, our recent report on the working conditions of NGOs in Russia, presented in Moscow this February, was entitled “Choked by Bureaucracy” because all those rules, norms and laws stifle civil society in Russia. The state acts more subtle than simply closing down non-opportune organisation. Human rights groups are not being wiped out – but the authorities create a climate where effective and meaningful work simply becomes impossible. 

Similarly to the case of NGOs, Europeans also criticise the lack of media freedom in Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, accuses Western media of portraying Russia unfairly. Do you think there is some truth in it? 

No, I really do not think there is much truth in those statements. In fact, human rights abuses in Russia are only being covered by the foreign press. Russian journalists, with the exception of those working for the few remaining independent media, stay away from such “sensitive” topics. 

By the end of 2002, Russian authorities were in control of all TV channels with state-wide coverage. Television, which is the main source of information for Russian citizens, has become a sole tool of propaganda. Independent print media are rare and the existing ones are severely marginalized and cannot reach out to the broader public. The consequence is that Russians do not receive objective information on what is happening in the country. 

The situation of independent journalists, especially of those covering ‘hot’ issues such as corruption or human rights abuses in the Northern Caucasus, is incredibly dire. The security threat may not be underestimated. Needless to say that after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya – who served as champion of human Rights – the community of independent journalists has become fully aware of their vulnerability 

How is the situation for foreign TV channels? EuroNews, which can be received via satellite, has recently started to broadcast in Russian….

EuroNews is indeed broadcasting in Russian but the news format is quit different from the one you used to know from Brussels or their European appearance in general. Although not being dominated by propaganda, their news reporting is at least censored. Moreover, satellite TV can only be accessed by those who are willing to pay, meaning that in the provinces there are only very few people actually able to see this programme. 

Does this restriction apply to the internet as well? 

The number of internet users is on the rise across the country and internet is probably the most effective means of getting objective information. The younger people are particularly active here. By the same token, Russian youth is being accused of tending to neglect human rights abuses. 

Those accusations are not fair because the world-wide web is wide indeed and in order to find something one has to know where to look and they do not. Being used to televised propaganda, the young generation gets lost in the arena of independent information. 

Talking about the EU-Russia relationship: There seems to be a credibility gap on the EU side, on the one hand criticising Russia because of its poor human rights record and on the other hand further pushing for a strategic partnership, as Commission President Barroso just did following the Russian elections

There is definitely a credibility gap on the EU side. Cooperation and engagement should not exclude having a very strong stand on human rights. This is exactly what we are seeking from the EU. Unfortunately, such a balanced policy is not in place thus far. While some European States insist that they would like to pursue a more robust human rights policy via Russia, they claim that especially their energy dependency on Russia precludes such a policy. 

This logic is deeply flawed. It is quite feasible to have a serious cooperation with Russia, for instance regarding energy issues, without compromising on human rights issues abuses such as in Chechnya. 

What could the EU do? 

Russia is not going to shut off the gas. While Europe definitely needs Russia as a seller, Russia equally needs Europe as a buyer. The current strength of the Russian economy is solely based on its natural resources. In this situation Russia cannot survive without the cooperation with the EU. Denying this fact is either naïve or hypocritical. I do not know what is worse. In any case, neglecting human rights violations as a trade-off for Russian oil and gas simply means betraying the very value and principles that Europe stands for. 

In line with leading European politicians you just described the EU’s relationship with Russia as a relationship among equals. In reality, this notion seems rather a myth. 

This is true because the EU’s human rights agenda is not bold enough. Compromising on human rights is completely unacceptable. The EU’s engagement with Russia should be about partnership and that partnership must be based on common values, principles and obligations, such as laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights. These obligations should be shared among both sides. As all EU member states and Russia are members of the Council of Europe they are bound by the European Convention and the jurisprudence of the European Court. 

Although the EU claims to have a common stand on human rights, there are, however, nuances between the stance of different EU member states on how strongly to push for human rights. 

There are certainly countries whose stance is stronger. Germany is one example. During Angela Merkel’s first official visit to Russia she met with several human rights NGOs, which is reckon all European leaders should be doing. In fact, some of them followed Merkel’s example but the EU in general acts far too cautious in a situation where this caution is disproportionate and unnecessary. 

This became quit obvious as Germany’s tough stance on Russia’s human rights violations was foiled by the succeeding Portuguese Presidency, saying that nobody should be lecturing Russia

Definitely. There is also an inconsistency in the respective actions of other European leaders. For example, when Sarkozy last year came to Moscow for the first time he had a meeting with Memorial, a very prominent Russian human rights group which largely focuses on Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus. This meeting sent a very strong signal to the Russian government, and we considered it a very positive development. 

However, few months later Sarkozy congratulated the Russian leadership on the success in the parliamentary elections, ignoring the fact that in the run up to these elections the political opposition had been obviously and severely harassed, their parties had been prevented from participating in the parliamentary race and the freedom of media had been restricted. 

Beyond doubt, the recent parliamentary campaign did not provide any space for dissenting opinion as the pluralistic environment, which is a pre-condition for democratic elections was not in place. Therefore, Sarkozy’s congratulatory remarks were nothing but shocking. 

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