Blog: "EU-Russia relations: Necessary but Uncomfortable"

Russia and especially the people of Russia are considered ‘European’ by many standards. Unfortunately, Russia is increasingly less European when measured along the democratic yardstick. Despite its membership of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and from August 22nd onward the World Trade Organization, responsibilities of ensuring the rule of law and democracy are systematically undermined despite Russia’s commitments and responsibilities. The latest parliamentary and presidential elections were neither free nor fair, with members of the opposition arrested and media and internet freedom limited. In the aftermath of the elections the newly constituted Duma swiftly adopted measures to increase political pressure on human rights and civil society organizations and adopted legislation that enables full governmental scrutiny of the internet and information online. Punk-rock band Pussy Riot, sentenced to two years in prison on Friday, has become the latest symbol of repression. LGBT rights are constantly under pressure, Moscow gay pride celebrations have been banned for hundred years. After defending gay rights at one of her concerts in St Petersburg, deputy Prime Minister Rogozin called pop star Madonna a 'whore'. She is now being sued for Russian anti-gay activist for hurting their feelings. Opposition leader and famous blogger Alexei Navalny curiously faces criminal charges of stealing wood from a state company and is not allowed to leave Moscow. Will this be the Khodorkovsky case revisited? The ongoing intimidation by the Kremlin together with its increasingly populist economic policy of public spending and social welfare programs presents serious problems for the political stability and economic future of the Russian people, in particular a growing and educated urban middle class, and calls for a stronger EU response and more involvement. Yet neither Europe nor Russia can afford to give up political and economic cooperation. This cooperation between the EU and Russia has been increasingly difficult. Not only within Russia has the long arm of the Kremlin had a suffocating impact. The international community is struggling until this day to end the horrific violence of the Syrian regime against its population. The shelling of residential neighbourhoods, the murdering of unarmed civilians and children is also facilitated by military support from Putin to Assad. The EU has an important role to play in preventing Russian weapons to be shipped to Syria through EU member states’ territorial waters, as has already happened in several occasions. The EU should immediately take up this responsibility for the sake of the Syrian people and to maintain its own credibility. It would also help Russia understand that we will not tolerate repression by the Russian regime whether in Russia or in its allied states. After the UN approved NATO operation in Libya a new alliance of the 'unwilling' has been formed by Russia and China, their combined veto's in the UN Security Council and economic power prove to be a very hard nut to crack for Western political leaders, diplomats and businesses. The Russian-China alliance, mainly rooted in Chinese energy demand and fear of international mingling in domestic affairs, signal the end of the long-lasting Western supremacy on the global stage. The EU needs to be loud and clear to the government of Russia while embracing the Russian population. That means the EU should practice what it preaches by truly implementing the weapon embargo against Syria. The EU should already have imposed visa restrictions and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in the murky circumstances surrounding the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who disclosed a multi million fraud scheme by Russian officials and the police. At the same time, the EU should leverage its market power in trade negotiations to push Russia to adhere to its commitments to the rule of law, democracy and market liberalization. To fully leverage its economic power the EU also has to become more independent from Russian energy supplies, diversification of our energy sources not only services environmental ends. The EU should pressure the Russian Federation more strongly to stick to its commitments in the Council of Europe (particularly the binding rulings of its court, the European Court of Human Rights), OSCE and soon the WTO. These international organizations add opportunities but also obligations for the EU to push for a relationship with Russia that benefits its population. A Russia free of corruption, where press and internet freedom flourish, and where the people choose democratically who represents them will be a better partner for the EU. The rule of law, transparency and accountability do not only benefit the Russian people, it would also foster business and could hopefully bring Russia in line with the international community vis-à-vis the Middle East. While we can not avoid dealing with an important country and economy as Russia, we must try harder to bring it in line with the EU and to bring out Russia’s European side reflected in values.