European Union leaders should use Friday’s summit with Russia to raise concerns about the country’s deteriorating human rights record and secure concrete commitments for improvements, Human Rights Watch said today.

As the European Union prepares for its biannual summit with Russia, Human Rights Watch said that the human rights situation in the country is steadily worsening. President Vladimir Putin’s government is persistently undermining political freedoms, pursuing politically motivated prosecutions, increasingly repressing the media and continuing the brutal operation in Chechnya.

Human Rights Watch summarized these concerns and made recommendations for the European Union’s policy toward Russia in a recent letter to EU foreign ministers in advance of the EU-Russia foreign ministerial meeting.

“The European Union had let human rights slip off its agenda with Russia,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Now it’s imperative to reprioritize human rights. Concrete human rights commitments from the Russian government should be a precondition for advancing the partnership with the European Union.”

In recent months, EU policy toward Russia lacked a serious or consistent discussion of human rights concerns. The problem peaked at the Rome summit in November, when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—who then held the rotating EU presidency—dismissed international criticism about alarming developments in Russia. Other EU officials have distanced themselves from Berlusconi’s remarks, yet the summit resulted in President Putin’s winning EU support in a number of areas with no concessions sought in exchange.

In a recent policy document on relations with Russia, the European Union made a seemingly positive step toward refocusing its human rights agenda with Russia. The document—the European Commission’s communication to the European Council, released in February—contained an accurate analysis of the erosion of basic rights in Russia and noted that the European Union can “influence developments in Russia if it is ready to take up difficult issues . . . in a clear and forthright manner.”

“We welcome the European Union’s intention to include an explicit human rights component in its policy toward Russia,” said Denber. “Now we hope to see real measures to implement it. This is essential for pressing the Russian government to reverse its backsliding on human rights.”

In recent years, President Putin’s plan to remodel Russia’s political system into a so-called “managed democracy” has weakened political freedoms. With independent television practically eliminated and much of the press practicing careful self-censorship, the government blatantly exploited its control over the media to manipulate the presidential elections in March and the parliamentary elections in December 2003. In addition, the government has repeatedly displayed a willingness to selectively use the law to target individuals or companies to promote its political agenda.

The Russian government also failed to implement structural reform of state institutions notorious for human rights violations since the Soviet times, including the armed forces, orphanages and psychiatric institutions. Police torture and ill-treatment remain rampant across Russia, and authorities often refuse to recognize the problem, let alone to take measures to address it. Equally worrisome is the situation in Russia’s armed forces, where thousands of young men face systematic abuses including violent hazing, malnourishment and a lack of adequate medical care. Russian prosecutorial authorities fail to investigate violations effectively and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to call on the Russian leadership to allow for the creation of a truly independent television station and to cease politically motivated prosecutions. Human Rights Watch also called for the European Union to press for the release from custody and retrial of arms researcher Igor Sutiagin, who in April was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment on politically motivated espionage charges.

Impunity continues to be one of the major factors fueling human rights abuses in the ongoing armed conflict in Chechnya. For the fifth year in a row, Russian forces continue to commit summary executions, forced disappearances, torture and other abuses in Chechnya and increasingly also in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. These abuses remain mostly uninvestigated and unpunished. Russian authorities continue putting undue pressure on internally displaced persons from Chechnya, coercing them to return to the conflict zone. Russia also denies access to Chechnya for most media and international monitors.

Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to press Russia for a meaningful process to ensure accountability for abuses in the Chechnya conflict, and for an end to coerced returns of internally displaced persons to the conflict zone. Human Rights Watch also called on the European Union to make clear to the Russian government that, as long as these conditions persist in Chechnya and as long as widespread discrimination against ethnic Chechens continues in Russia, the European Union will not consider it safe to return Chechen asylum seekers to Russia. During the summit the European Union and Russia are expected to discuss a readmission agreement, which would have implications for failed Chechen refugees and asylum seekers in the European Union.

“Russia’s human rights problems are difficult and entrenched,” said Denber. “Consistent international pressure is essential to prevent further backsliding and to get the government to improve.”

Human Rights Watch’s complete list of recommendations to the European Union for its relationship with Russia can be found in its March letter.