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The Kremlin’s dramatic rollback of human rights and the rule of law should top the European Union’s agenda during its summit with Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the summit, which starts in The Hague on November 25.

The summit, which will focus on the European Union’s strategic partnership with Russia, is expected to set the agenda for the E.U.- Russia relationship for years to come. It comes two months after President Putin proposed new measures that would eliminate direct elections of parliamentary candidates and empower him to appoint regional governors. The measures follow the government’s elimination of Russia’s independent broadcast media, marginalization of the political opposition, and Putin’s own threats against nongovernmental organizations.

“The Kremlin is dismantling Russia’s main achievement of the glasnost era: checks and balances on executive power,” said Lotte Leicht, Human Rights Watch’s Brussels office director. “Now more than ever, E.U. leaders need to tell Mr. Putin that human rights and the rule of law are essential conditions for a strategic partnership with Russia.”

Human Rights Watch summarized its concerns about developments in Russia in a letter to E.U. foreign ministers. The letter also urged the European Union to make human rights and the rule of law essential elements of any further and enhanced relationship with Moscow. In recent years the Russian government has tried to pressure the E.U. into dropping important human rights issues from its bilateral discussions.

“It’s time for the E.U. to decide what it stands for and what its relationship with Russia is all about,” said Leicht. “Otherwise, Europe’s ‘common values’ will ring absolutely hollow.”

Human Rights Watch said that with Russia’s television media firmly under Kremlin control, the opposition out of the picture, and other political leaders cowed by the expansion of Putin’s power, the only leverage on Putin will come from abroad.

Regarding Chechnya, where the armed conflict entered its sixth year, Human Rights Watch urged the European Union to focus on Moscow’s need to establish a meaningful accountability process for thousands of cases of forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions.

“The E.U. and Russia have a common interest in stability in the Northern Caucasus,” said Leicht. “But this can only be achieved if the Russian government works to earn the trust of Chechen civilians. To accomplish this, it has to end abuses and establish accountability for atrocities.”

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