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EU: Moscow Draws Parallel Between Chechnya, Russian-Speaking Minorities In Baltics

At this week's EU-Russia summit in Rome, Moscow responded to criticism over human rights in Chechnya by drawing explicit parallels with the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. President Vladimir Putin accused the European Union of double standards on human rights and rejected criticism over the handling of the Yukos affair, saying it is in full conformity with the core Western value of the rule of law. Russia also indicated it wants negotiations on the impact of the EU's forthcoming enlargement.

Brussels, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin is accusing the European Union of "double standards" in addressing human-rights concerns.

An EU official -- who asked not to be named -- told RFE/RL that the bloc made its traditional request of having the joint summit declaration refer to the situation in Chechnya. But Russian officials responded by saying they would agree only if the situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia was also mentioned.

The EU rejected the Russian suggestion, and the joint declaration makes no mention of Chechnya.

Putin obliquely referred to this at a post-summit press conference when he called for a "universal approach" to the human-rights issue:

"The problem of observing human rights is the most important problem of our time. But let's start approaching this problem universally and react to everything that is happening in this area, wherever human rights violations occur and wherever these problems cause concern."

Putin went on to say that he did not want to talk in detail but said "there are people in this room" who know what he means.

A spokeswoman for the Estonian Foreign Ministry, Ehtel Halliste, told RFE/RL that Tallinn sees "no real link" between the situation in Chechnya and the status of its Russian-speaking minority.

The EU official said the bloc had reiterated its position in Rome that partly as a result of the accession process, the situation of the minorities has "improved drastically," and that the EU will see to it that the "minor" improvements" still possible are made once Estonia and Latvia join the bloc.

The official said that when suggesting the EU was applying "double standards" to the human rights issue, Putin had also mentioned Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where hundreds of suspected terrorists are being held by the U.S. without recourse to normal judicial procedures. Responding for the EU, External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten stressed that the EU has criticized the United States repeatedly over the issue.

Putin also turned the EU's rhetoric of shared values against the bloc itself to reject suspicions that Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the recently arrested former chief of the oil giant Yukos, might not be treated in full conformity with the rule of law.

He appeared to suggest that no Western country would have tolerated the quick rise of Khodorkovskii and other Russian oligarchs.

"People who have in the course of five or six years made billions -- I want to stress, billions -- of dollars, [which is] by the way, a result like that would not have been possible in any Western country," he said. "Let's assume they made that money legally, but having made billions they will certainly spend tens and hundreds of millions to save their billions. We know where that money goes to, what sort of lawyers, what public relations campaigns and firms and what politicians."

Putin went on to stress that he sees the measures taken against the Yukos leadership as part of Moscow's efforts to shore up the rule of law and fight corruption.

"Our actions are dictated by only one thing -- the desire to establish order in the country, to make everyone respect the law and fight corruption," he said.

Putin left Rome without achieving his top priority -- to extract from the EU an indication that the lifting of visa requirements currently in force is a real possibility. Current EU chairman, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, did tell reporters after the summit that the visa requirement for Russians is "anachronistic" and that "criminals can easily overcome" the obstacle.

However, Russia is aware that Berlusconi's mandate ends in December and that most member states are not too keen on the idea. Formally, the EU has acknowledged that visa freedom with Russia is a long-term aim, but it has been made clear that substantive discussions cannot start before Russia has met a number of preconditions. Foremost among these is the demand that Russia sign a readmission treaty committing it to taking back illegal immigrants.

The EU also wants Russia to tighten its borders, and, within this context, is putting pressure on Moscow to sign and ratify the missing border treaties with Estonia and Latvia. However, EU officials say the border treaties were not explicitly raised in Rome.

Nevertheless, Putin made it clear that Russia believes it has plenty of leverage. Among other things, he said Moscow will not automatically extend the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU to the new member states, as the EU has requested. Putin said the extension requires prior negotiations with the new members to address a number of Russian concerns. The situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics is one, Russia's demand for financial compensation for the trade losses it says it will incur as a result of enlargement is another.

EU officials say the bloc insisted in Rome that no formal negotiations are possible.