The danger of “business as usual” with Moscow

Human rights researcher Tanya Lokshina tells how she was blackmailed over her pregnancy.

As Brussels prepares for the EU-Russia Summit on December 21, it’s worth recalling a recent UK Foreign Office statement indicating that all was “business as usual” in Russia, with the human rights situation given its perfunctory place.  But “business as usual” is the most counterproductive signal that can be sent by an EU member-state to Russia today.   

Last December Moscow was not buried in snow as it is now, but was rather drowning in slush. On 5 December a group of activists held a public gathering to protest violations during the parliamentary elections the day before.  They had anticipated a turnout of about 500. Instead, as many as 10,000 people showed up, shocking the organizers, the media, and the Kremlin.

That rally proved to be the beginning of massive public demonstrations in Russia’s capital, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest authoritarian rule and political stagnation. Surely, this voice of discontent was so strong the government could not possibly ignore it?

But although some electoral reforms followed early in 2012, the authorities only intensified harassment of their critics in the lead-up to the presidential elections in March and Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in May. They used punitive lawsuits and arbitrary detention, threats from state officials, and beatings to intimidate political and civic activists, and to interfere with independent news outlets.  After the inauguration, the parliament pushed through a raft of highly restrictive laws, tightening the screws on freedom of expression, association, and assembly and giving the government ample tools to prosecute peaceful dissent.

Working for the Human Rights Watch Russia Office, I could feel the repression tightening and realized it was unprecedented in contemporary Russian history. Some of the elements — especially the new treason legislation and the heightening anti-foreign hysteria –are frighteningly reminiscent of Soviet times.

Then one morning in September, I started to receive threatening text messages revolving around my advanced pregnancy and my unborn child.  I caught myself thinking: “Last year this would have been unthinkable — whoever’s doing this has lost all sense of limitations.”

In Russia a pregnant woman is still viewed as off-limits, and the idea that of threatening an unborn baby would disgust anyone. Still, the new laws and the aggressive rhetoric of the Kremlin apparently signaled to officials at all levels that anything goes when it comes to the campaign against international groups or “foreign agents” (even if they are Russian).  As a result, the climate in the country has become so hostile that blackmailing a human rights researcher over her pregnancy is an acceptable addition to the arsenal of tools used to hamper the work of advocacy organisations.

In seven short months, Russia feels like a different country.  A new and expanded definition of  treason — essentially criminalizing international advocacy -- requires foreign-funded human rights and advocacy groups to register and publicize themselves as “foreign agents” (in Russian this unambiguously is interpreted as “foreign spies”). Two large donors — USAID and UNICEF — have been kicked out. A group of demonstrators face mass riot charges that are, at the very least, disproportionate.  And two members of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band are serving serious prison sentences for a political stunt following  an absurd and unfair trial.

This is not how I want to see Russia. Hopefully, this is not how its international partners want to see it either. But governments that should care about developments in Russia seem to be passively watching the country slide over the abyss of repression.  They need to speak up to help end the Kremlin’s onslaught on civil society, making clear that infringing on basic rights in violation of international law has a cost globally.  You can’t be a member of the prestigious international clubs without strict adherence to the rules. 

Tanya Lokshina is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and deputy director of the Moscow office

Russian opposition supporters shout during a rally in central Moscow on 5 December 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Tanya Lokshina is Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. Having joined Human Rights Watch in January 2008, Lokshina authored reports on egregious rights abused in Chechnya and Ingushetia and co-authored a report on violations of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict in Georgia in the summer of 2008. Lokshina runs a column for the Russian current affairs website Polit.Ru. She is recipient of the 2006 Andrei Sakharov Award for Journalism as Civic Accomplishment.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.