PRAGUE, July 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- It was billed as a private gathering, but in truth Cherie Blair's meeting with human rights activists in St. Petersburg was a calculated snub to the Kremlin.
Aleksandr Petrov, the director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, and one of the organizers of the meeting, said it had been planned well in advance.
"The meeting was arranged at our initiative and was begun through talks involving our representatives in Washington and London and Mrs. Blair some time ago -- about 1 1/2 to two months ago," Petrov said. "She expressed a desire to take part in an informal meeting with representatives of Russian NGOs while she was in St. Petersburg for the summit."
Right For The Job
What better reminder to President Vladimir Putin of Western concern over the erosion of human rights than for the wife of the British prime minister, a famous human rights lawyer in her own right, to address such a gathering?
There has been no official comment from Britain on the content of Cherie Blair's meeting. But the prime minister's office made clear on July 17 that her attendance at the NGO meeting had official blessing.
The Kremlin has yet to respond to the development. But it was the second time in a week that Britain had risked incurring Russia's wrath on the issue of human rights.
On July 11, the British ambassador to Russia, Anthony Brenton, defied the Kremlin to address a conference of human rights activists in Moscow.
Democracy In Decline
There is growing concern in the West about what is perceived by many as the rollback of democracy in Russia. U.S. President George Bush also met representatives of Russian civil society during his visit, although detractors suggested he had deliberately avoided meeting the harshest of the Kremlin's critics.
That is not an accusation that could be leveled at Cherie Blair.
According to Petrov, she told activists from some 12 prominent nongovernmental organizations that she had come to learn more about their plight and to celebrate the work they carried out.
"In the introductory part of her speech, she expressed support for civil society in Russia and mentioned also the current situation in connection with the introduction of the new law -- although, as she said, she was not familiar with the text of the law, but was familiar with the many expressions of concern about how the law will operate and the problems it will create for nongovernmental organizations," Petrov said.
Under The Microscope
Foreign and Russian nongovernmental organizations say they have come under much closer official scrutiny since the introduction of the new law, which, they say, is designed to paralyze them in a mesh of bureaucratic red tape. President Putin has accused some NGOs as acting as cover for foreign intelligence agencies.
According to Petrov, Cherie Blair said she wanted to familiarize herself with the text of the legislation and that, if necessary, she was prepared to help activists pursue cases in the European Court of Human Rights.