The 11 civil-society leaders told the European Parliament's human rights committee in Brussels on October 2 that the bloc's efforts to engage Russian authorities in a meaningful rights dialogue have failed.
Speaking for the group, Lev Ponomaryov, chairman of the For Human Rights activist group, said Russian authorities ignore the views of civil society in the country, and take no action after meetings with the EU.
"We believe that the existing consultations with the European Union are not effective," Ponomaryov said. "In a certain sense, now that they are being held for a [sixth] time, they have reached a dead end. What is the main problem? The main problem is that it is a dialogue between the deaf and the blind. We say one thing [to the EU] -- and [Russian authorities] do not attend our talks with our Western interlocutors -- and [EU officials] say another thing at their talks with their Western colleagues where we are not present. After all that, there is no follow-up."
'I Hear Your Frustration'
The comments by the Russian activists came ahead of scheduled talks today -- the sixth of their kind -- between EU and Russian authorities on rights issues. Despite the frequency of the meetings, however, activists like Ponomaryov say the role of the rights groups has been reduced to repeating the same message year after year.
Riina Kionka, the personal representative on human rights issues for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, says she is sympathetic to such complaints.
"Now that [the talks] are being held for a [sixth] time, they have reached a dead end. What is the main problem? The main problem is that it is a dialogue between the deaf and the blind." -- Lev Ponomaryov, For Human Rights
"As far as the fact that the consultations are not effective [is concerned], that you don't see immediate results -- or any results, from your point of view -- that it's a cul-de-sac, that it's a conversation between a blind and a deaf person.... you know, I hear your frustration," she said. "I have to say that on the EU side we are experiencing much of the same frustration, and we have a certain feeling of deja vu when we come to the table each time."
Although Kionka essentially conceded the rights dialogue with Russia is producing no results, she defended the practice. She said the EU is currently involved in a "period of reflection" on the usefulness of rights dialogues with problem countries such as Russia, Uzbekistan, and others. But, she said, the EU view remains that "it is better to talk than not to talk."
Reluctance To Challenge
Kionka also underscored the fact that EU representatives meet with Russian NGO representatives before each rights dialogue with Russia, and this year covered the travel costs to Brussels for the 11 representatives. She also said the EU considers evidence presented by Russian activists an important part of its agenda in its subsequent talks with the Russian authorities, and that EU officials regularly deliver the content of those talks to the NGO representatives.
One of the activists in the NGO delegation, Sasha Kulayeva of the International Federation for Human Rights, sharply criticized the EU's reluctance to openly challenge Russia on its human rights record. She said any useful dialogue was limited to the meeting between the EU and the rights officials.
"It became the real moment when human rights issues are frankly discussed, information is being frankly given, and the European institutions say, or at least pose questions which show their position toward these violations of human rights," she said. "The next day -- today, this year -- the consultations [with Russian officials] happen [behind] completely closed doors, and we have no information about the actual discussion which happens within [the room]."
Typically, after the EU and Russian officials meet, both sides issue press releases summarizing the discussion -- a process Kulayeva says creates the impression of two "totally different" events having taken place.
The Russian releases tend to present the talks as dominated by the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states and rising Islamophobia. Kulayeva says the EU release, by contrast, lists its legitimate concerns, but in an extremely mild and neutral fashion.
Various Types Of Pressure
Tatyana Lokshina of the Moscow-based Demos Center think tank, who participated in the preliminary briefing on October 2, said Russian authorities may pretend to have little interest in human rights issues being discussed in Brussels -- but take a keen interest in the activities of rights groups at home.
"In the run-up to the elections, the pressure on civil society in the country is increasing tremendously. And when I'm saying pressure, I do not mean pressure on the political opposition in particular, but in fact pressure on all independent forces within Russian society, including nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups," she said. "The types of pressure which are being used are quite varied, and they actually range from different administrative, criminal, [and] legal measures to open threats and even violence."
Lokshina and Ponomaryov particularly criticized the persecution of opposition members by Russian authorities by means of a recent antiextremism law. They also asked the EU to raise the situation in the North Caucasus, in particular in Ingushetia and Daghestan.