Commentary on Alexey Gromyko's article: But we can’t turn a blind eye to Russia’s many abuses of power
Over the last two years the sovereign debt crisis and the travails of the Euro have absorbed the attention of Europe’s leaders to the virtual exclusion of all matters and sucked most of the oxygen out of all intra-European discussions, but with President Putin’s hardly surprising re-election this spring, there is a renewed and entirely understandable appetite within the EU for a re-examination of our relationship with Russia.
Alexey Gromyko is right to argue that a strategic partnership between the EU and Russia is vital. From security to economic co-operation to energy infrastructure, the two clearly have a lot to learn from one another.
But his article supposes that a renewed spirit of co-operation can be instigated by simply dispelling shared misconceptions. The reality is that there are far deeper issues to be resolved as the past decade has seen a wave of authoritarianism and a lack of respect for the rule of law sweeping through Russia and some of its Eastern European satellites. This should concern the EU on pragmatic as well as ethical grounds.
Crudely put, this wave began in 2003 with the arrest of oil industry oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. His arrest was all the more significant for it ushered in an era that saw the decay of the rule of law at the very heart of government and emboldened the Silovki – Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of former KGB officials and the like – to crush those who challenged their power and perks. In the intervening years, journalists who dared to expose “inconvenient” wrongdoing have been intimidated and murdered. The lawyer Sergey Magnitsky was left to die in jail because he challenged state-sanctioned corruption. The keenest example of the corruption of Russian justice was the harsh sentencing in Khodorkovsky’s second trial.
Why, though, should the EU worry? Is it not better to turn a blind eye and engage in pragmatic co-operation of the kind that Gromyko suggests? This is not an option. As Litvinenko’s murder in the United Kingdom showed (and other recent attempts on Russians’ lives), it is only a matter of time before the virus of lawlessness and corruption spreads across the EU’s borders. What’s more, as the Arab spring has demonstrated, you can only buy off a restless and oppressed populace for so long. The EU cannot afford to see Russia remain a lacuna of lawlessness and corrupt practices or descend into turmoil. Nor can individual countries within the EU afford to allow bi-lateral deals to undermine a shared EU approach based on the rule of law. It is, as Gromyko recognises, simply too important to our interests.
The EU has begun to realise this. With increasing regularity we have seen strong statements of condemnation from the European Parliament and the Commission. But it must go further. To have any meaningful relationship, we must not be afraid of showing Russia tough love, and that means translating words into actions. Where Russia shows steps of progress we should offer incentives. Gromyko discusses closer dialogue with the EU, negotiations over visa relaxation and entry into the WTO, but where there are violations the EU must make clear there will be consequences.
For inspiration we should look across the Atlantic, where in a rare display of bipartisanship U.S. senators from both sides of the political divide have united to propose legislation that would restrict the visa rights of anyone involved in human rights abuses, including the cases of Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyers who in 2009 died mysteriously in police custody. I am certain that these same people are effectively and quietly banned in the UK – but now the government should make public the list of banned Russian officials and others.
The EU’s original purpose was to ensure that conflicts like World War II would never be repeated. And its guiding principle is the encouragement of harmony, democracy and co-operation. That mission must now be deployed in Europe’s dealings with Russia, because by taking firm action in support of President Medvedev’s reform efforts, and so bringing Russia back into the international fold, we can create the partnership Gromyko envisions.
Chris Bryant MP is the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Russia in the UK Parliament. email@example.com