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Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world


Losing Ground? Russia's European Commitment to Human Rights

[Cover of Losing Ground? Russia's European Commitment to Human Rights]

Jennifer Moll

March 2005

Download the report (260 kilobyte PDF)

Europe has long desired a Russia that is both stable and governed by a democratic rule of law. It is for this reason that human rights remain a cornerstone of European policy toward Russia, especially in the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russia's membership in these organisations not only confirms it as a full partner of Europe, but also as a state which shares its values.

The benchmarks for protection of human rights established by the Council of Europe and the OSCE stand in marked contrast to the current situation in Russia, where the vertical of power of the government increasingly leaves less room for the individual in favour of a more powerful central state - what President Putin calls a 'dictatorship of the law'.

Executive Summary

President Putin wants a stable Russia under a dictatorship of the law. Europe wants a stable Russia governed by a democratic rule of law. There is now a contest between Europe and Russia about this basic principle of governance. The main point of contention is whether popular sovereignty, decentralisation and personal liberties have intrinsic virtues compared with centralised administrative authority that privileges the state ahead of the individual's rights.

The battle is not simply a question of philosophical debate. Russia's membership of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe means that it has an obligation to uphold the basic protections of civil liberties enshrined in the charter documents of these organisations. For this European 'social contract' to be seen as working, the worth of the individual, and thus the protection of his or her human rights, must be a central organising principle. In practice, this would be a great advance for most Russians, who frequently express that the individual has never counted for anything in their country. For the Russians who survived Leninism and Stalinism, it is clear that Soviet rulers had prioritised ideology, state power and a largely corrupt power structure ahead of individual rights. The ideal advocated by the Council of Europe and the OSCE stands in marked contrast not just to the history of Russia but to its contemporary reality. Today's Russia sees a 'vertical of power' that increasingly leaves less room for the individual in favour of a more powerful central state – a dictatorship of the law. Given this structure, perhaps neither President Putin nor his government is ready to embrace the notion of human rights that the European institutions embrace as the legitimising force of politics.

This pamphlet analyses recent trends in three areas of human rights observance in Russia: the right to free and fair elections, freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial and access to court. Based on this analysis, there is much evidence that the protection of human rights in Russia is being eroded.

The capacities of Russia's European partners to influence a reversal of this erosion are limited. Interventions by single states or by the Council of Europe and OSCE to improve the situation are met with hostility by a Putin administration invoking the inviolability of Russia's sovereignty. Faced with this long history of distrust, these organisations, especially OSCE, must work to build a new consensus on their aims and objectives which not only brings Russia back into the fold, but also renews the importance of the 'human dimension'. Europe must also devote more resources to promoting the Russian human rights ombudsman and his office. More international attention can help elevate his recommendations both in Russia and in Europe and could be the best platform to improve the current situation.

For their part, other states who are members of OSCE or the Council of Europe, should focus on enhancing their capacities in five principal areas of policy:

  • public scrutiny of the Russian situation in the light of its commitments in European institutions
  • use of high level channels and quiet diplomacy
  • use of leverage available from multilateral lending agencies
  • use of Western media and proxy organisations, such as
  • NGOs and community groups, in order to open up debate about European interests in Russia's political developments
  • increased direct and indirect support to champions of liberal pluralism in Russia.

Europe's enhanced response must vigorously address the wider conditions of Russia and not limit itself to the necessary public defence of Russia's democratic institutions. This can only require significant additional resources in analysis and public attention, ministerial time and financial resources.