Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Europe Must Talk with Moscow but Not Resume ‘Business as Usual,' Rights Groups Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 3 – Seventeen leading Russian human rights groups have called on the European Union not to go back to “business as usual” in their dealings with Moscow after Russia’s intervention in Georgia lest doing so open the way to even worse behavior by the Russian government at home and abroad in the future.
But at the same time and in sharp contrast those who say that Moscow should be frozen out of talks because of what it did, the groups urge that the EU resume talks with Moscow as long as the European Union insists that “the supremacy of law and human rights” be identified as priorities in any accord the two sides might sign (
Among the groups signing the declaration were Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group, SOVA, the Movement For Human Rights, the Foundation for the Defense of Glasnost, the Interregional Committee Against Torture, the Demos Center, the Union of Committees of Soldiers Mothers, and the Foundation for the Support of Tolerance.
Some Europeans may be reluctant to do that, they say, lest criticism of Russia for human rights violations and a retreat from democracy will create problems, but a failure to bring these issues up, the declaration continues, will suggest to many that “building democracy in Russia is in principle impossible and that Russians are unworthy of living in [one].”
But relations between the EU and Russia “must be based on principles and not on the interests of the moment,” because “the August conflict clearly demonstrated that a retreat from a principled line on the priority of the supremacy of law and human rights within the country and in relations between states leads to a vacuum of security and armed conflicts.”
Europe’s reaction to what has been taking place in the Russian Federation and in its relations with neighboring states has not been “adequate” in the past, with the EU having failed to hold Moscow to the same standards it insists on holding others to, a shortcoming that has allowed the Russian government to “crudely violate” human rights and international law.
That must change, the declaration continues, but it insists that the EU must resist “calls for the isolation of Russia, for the reduction of the complicated range of ties with Russia to ‘opposition’ to a Russian threat and to a black and white division of the world,” a “hawkish” approach that will only lead to new confrontations.
“Considering the lessons of the past and present,” the signatories of the declaration say, “we consider that the issue of human rights and the supremacy of law must occupy an important place in the relationship of the EU and Russia and become the principled basis of their relations” and not simply a matter of declarative language.
This declaration is reminder of the existence of a brave and noble group of Russians who are not afraid either to stand up to their own government when it acts in illegal or immoral ways or to oppose those in the West who would write Russia off as a lost cause, as a country whose people are not capable of building a free, law-based and democratic state.
But at the same time, this declaration and the near certainty that it will attract relatively little attention in either Moscow or the West represents part of what has been a tragically recurring pattern in relations between the two. First, the Russian government does something like invading Georgia that Western governments say makes any normal relations impossible.
Then, after a relatively brief time, commentators and officials in Moscow and the West say that however serious that action may have been – and soon they are insisting that the issue was so complicated that no one side is responsible -- the two have too many issues of common concern not to talk and that ways must be found to resume a dialogue.
And then, the talks resume between Russia and Western institutions in fact resume. But because none of the Western participants is willing to risk a rupture in such talks, something Russian officials threaten, fewer and fewer of them are willing raise the issue that their governments had spoken out against so passionately only a few weeks ago.
Those who suggest that this is a mistake are sidelined as troublemakers, individuals who fail to understand “the big picture.” Gradually, the issue fades from such discussions, and the Russian government, with those who continue to insist that that issue was important being sidelined as troublemakers relative to “the big picture.”
At the end of this cycle, one repeated all too often over the last decades, the only thing left is for brave Russian men and women like the signatories of yesterday’s declaration to record how both sides have failed and to remind each of the overriding importance of democracy and human rights, however often others give precedence to “the interests of the moment.”

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