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Merkel in Russia: Emphasize Human Rights

German Chancellor Angela Merkel should use her January 16 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to signal a shift in Germany’s Russia policy that puts more emphasis on international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Chancellor Merkel should get German foreign policy toward Russia back on track,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Putting pressure on Russia to respect human rights will contribute to stability in Europe in the long run.”

Among the issues Chancellor Merkel should raise with President Putin are the draft Russian law on non-governmental organizations and the brutal ongoing war in Chechnya. She should also openly address the reversals in human rights progress from the 1990s, such as freedom of information and assembly.

In recent years, the Kremlin orchestrated the dismantling of all checks and balances to the president’s power, muzzled the free press and weakened the parliament. Abuses by Russia’s troops in Chechnya rose to the level of crimes against humanity. Yet former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder described Putin as a “flawless democrat,” and said Putin wanted to develop Russia into a civil society “out of inner conviction.” Schroeder also called on the international community for a more “differentiated approach” to the conflict in Chechnya, which to many signaled a downplaying of human rights violations there.

“Merkel should make clear that Germany will no longer quietly accommodate Putin’s agenda of creeping authoritarianism,” said Cartner. “Germany’s interest in a stable Russia will be achieved only with respect for human rights and a revitalization of democratic institutions.”

Civil and political freedoms, Russia’s greatest human rights achievement of the 1990s, have suffered significantly under Putin. The Russian government has established control over nearly all television and radio media outlets with a national reach, robbing the Russian people of a key forum for diverse opinions. With the media firmly under control, Putin began systematically to dismantle the system of checks and balances on executive power, leading to a compliant Duma, a judiciary that increasingly lacks independence and regional governors appointed by the Kremlin.

A draft law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) currently awaiting Putin’s signature represents the latest assault on civil society in Russia. The proposed legislation expands the grounds for denying registration to or closing Russian NGOs and lays the groundwork for increased government interference with the work of NGOs. The law would also require offices of foreign NGOs to inform the government about their projects for the upcoming year and about the money allotted for specific projects. The bill would grant Russian government officials an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia’s national interests. Registration officials could close the offices of any foreign NGO that implements a project that it deems does not have “the aim of defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing defense capacity and security of the state.”

“Merkel should make it clear to Putin that Germany will not stand back as Russia silences NGOs,” said Cartner. “Putin still has the time to stop the bill, but will only do so if he hears loudly and clearly from Russia’s international partners that they will not tolerate this attack on civil society.”

Merkel should also use her meeting with Putin to pressure Moscow to promote accountability for abuses in Chechnya, where the conflict is now in its seventh year. Chechnya is now the only ongoing armed conflict in Europe, an urgent human rights crisis and the only place on the continent where crimes against humanity are committed against civilians on an almost daily basis as a result of an armed conflict. Although atrocities such as forced disappearances, rape, torture and extrajudicial executions by Russian federal troops in Chechnya are committed regularly there, the Russian government has made no real efforts to promote accountability or combat impunity. Chechen forces are also committing grave human rights abuses in the region.

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