While negotiating a new Partnership Agreement with Russia, the EU should not neglect the fact that the country’s human rights conditions seriously worsened during outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s era, Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told EURACTIV in an interview.
“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 system of checks and balances becoming a mere formality,” Lokshina said.
She accused the EU of violating its own principles and values by not being assertive enough on these issues, saying that a ‘credibility gap’ exists between words and deeds. “Cooperation and engagement should not exclude having a very strong stand on human rights […] Compromising on human rights is completely unacceptable,” she said.
Lokshina dismissed the position of those EU member states which argue they have no room for manoeuvre because of their energy dependency. “This logic is deeply flawed. It is quite feasible to have serious cooperation with Russia without compromising on human rights abuses,” she pointed out.
Under the German EU Presidency, Chancellor Angela Merkel displayed a more balanced approach towards Russia, Lokshina said, who regrets that other leaders have not followed suit.
Asked about the prospects for the EU-Russia relationship after the handover of power from Putin to new president Dmitry Medvedev on 7 May, Lokshina said the new political cycle will provide a “new window of opportunity” to be used by the EU “for whatever it is worth”.
Her main concern was that EU leaders might let Chechnya slip off the agenda because the fighting has clamed down. “Chechnya has 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.”
The numerous victims of Russian atrocities deserve “an end to the impunity in Chechnya because without accountability for perpetrators there can be no real end to that conflict,” Lokshina explained.
She also raised awareness of the deteriorating working conditions for NGOs and independent journalists. Foreign governmental donors are already withdrawing from Russia as the climate for foreign donors is turning “very hostile” as the country’s wealth grows, she claims.
“The Yukos case and the imprisonment of the famous oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 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 anymore,” she pointed out.