EU leaders hailed warming ties with the Kremlin at a summit on Tuesday, but urged further reforms. However, the talks were marred by a police crackdown on opposition protesters, which shocked human rights campaigners.
Over 100 people were arrested at a demonstration in Moscow as EU-Russian leaders met
When Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and his European guests Herman Van Rompuy and Manuel Barroso sat down for dinner on the quiet banks of the river Don, an impressive police force in Moscow was dispersing hundreds of demonstrators calling for freedom of speech. Some 170 people were arrested, several were seriously injured.
"I am very shocked about how the police behaved. I absolutely did not expect it and I don’t understand why they went this far," said Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the 82-year old head of the Moscow Helsinki Committee and a veteran of the Russian human rights movement. "One journalist had his arm broken in two places: A journalist, who should not be touched under any circumstances."
Alekseyeva was one of the organizers of the meeting. She and other human rights activists take to the streets on the 31st day of every month to stress the importance of article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the right to demonstrate. During a previous meeting, on the 31st of December, she was herself briefly detained by the police.
"I have been taking part in these meetings since the 31st of August last year,” she said. “And each time more people come to the square. Maybe that is why the authorities reacted in this brutal way. They probably wanted to deter people."
Human rights campaigners protest regularly for the right to demonstrate in Russia
Human rights high on the agenda
Traditionally, human rights have been an important item on the agenda in the dialogue between Russia and the European Union. But Russian human rights campaigners say Europe’s attention to human rights violations in Russia has gradually declined, and there is less pressure than they would have liked.
However, at the EU-Russia summit in Rostov-on-Don, the president of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy stressed that human rights remained high on the agenda. He thanked Russia for implementing trials by jury all over the country, confirming the moratorium on the death penalty and ratifying protocol 14 of the European Convention on European Rights, which aims to greatly improve the effectiveness of the European Court of Human Rights. But Van Rompuy added that there were serious reasons for concern.
"The situation for human rights defenders and journalists in Russia is of great concern to the European public at large," he said. "Another matter of concern, which I noted was shared by the president [Medvedev], is the climate of impunity in Chechnya in particular and other areas of the North Caucasus."
Last year, Natalya Estemirova, a well-known human rights defender, was abducted from her home and killed in Chechnya. Many people in Chechnya and neighbouring regions are kidnapped or killed each year. In a number of cases, local authorities have been suspected to be involved in these crimes.
The murder of Natalia Estemirova caused outrage among human rights campaigners in Russia
EU presses for civil reform
In Rostov, Van Rompuy also voiced concern about Russia’s prison system. According to Lyudmila Alekseyeva, this may signify a change in the European attitude towards human rights in Russia. There was an outcry in Europe following the death in a Moscow prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer accused of financial crime, but not convicted.
"At one point it seemed that Europe’s interest in Russia was close to nil," said Alekseyeva. "Now I have the feeling that there is some movement on this point. For example with reference to the Magnitsky case. There were reactions from the United States and from Europe. And the Magnitsky case is about human rights, about human dignity."
Yet human rights were not the main topic in Rostov. Russia and the EU agreed on closer economic cooperation within the framework of a new partnership for modernization.
International topics included the situation in neighbouring Georgia. The EU called on Russia to comply with its commitments following the brief Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and withdraw its forces to pre-war positions. International and regional problems such as the situation in and around Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East were also high on the agenda.
EU leaders hailed warming ties with Russia but urged more civil reform
Moscow left disappointed over visas
Russia had hoped that the summit in Rostov would provide a time-frame for the gradual lifting of visa restrictions between Russia and the European Union, but no agreement was reached. Medvedev said the question should ‘not be politicised’.
"Our country is ready for this decision," he said. "For us it is easier, of course. We are one country, the European Union is 27 countries. In order to accelerate the process we have given our partners a draft decision on abolishing the visa restrictions for the citizens of Russia and the European Union."
In his view, this would not only strengthen the relationship between Russia and the EU, but simply make life easier "for millions of people."
Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp
Editor: Rob Turner