(Moscow) – President Francois Hollande of France should urge President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to reverse his administration’s crackdown on civil society and erosion of human rights when the two leaders meet on February 28, 2013.  Hollande should also press Russia to address the huge toll of the Syrian crisis on civilians, including by supporting United Nations Security Council action to impose an arms embargo on the government, refer the situation to the ICC, and demand that Syria allows humanitarian assistance to enter from neighboring countries, including Turkey.

The summit meeting, in Moscow, will be the second time Putin and Hollande meet since June 2012.

“Hollande has a key opportunity to urge Russia’s leadership to end the increasing repression,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The last year has been the worst for human rights in Russia in recent memory, and Hollande should not miss this chance to persuade Putin to turn things around.”

During winter 2011 protests in Russia, when Hollande was running for president, he urged Russian authorities to “take all measures to uphold the desire for democracy expressed” by the Russian public, and to uphold the country’s commitments as a member state of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Since Putin’s return to the presidency in May, a parliament dominated by members of the pro-Putin United Russia party has adopted a series of laws that impose dramatic new restrictions on civil society. A June law introduced restrictionson public assemblies and increased fines to standards fitting criminal sanctions. In July, the State Duma passed laws re-introducing criminal libel and imposing new restrictions on internet content.

A July law forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” a move Human Rights Watch said was designed to demonize nongovernmental organizations in the public eye. Another law, adopted in November, significantly expands the definition of “treason” in ways that could criminalize involvement in international human rights advocacy.

In December, Putin signed a lawallowing the government to suspend nongovernmental organizations and freeze their assets if they engage in “political” activities and receive funding from US citizens or organizations, or if they engage in activities that “present a threat to Russia’s interests.” Organizations may be similarly sanctioned if their leaders or members are Russian citizens who also hold US passports. Legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” is in force in 10 Russian provinces, and in January, a similar bill was adopted in first reading in the State Duma.

“Russia’s leadership is trying to force an existential crisis for Russia’s civil society,” Denber said. “Activists now face an impossible choice of pushing the boundaries of the laws or engaging in self-censorship to avoid harassment. But it is a crisis that ultimately affects everyone in Russia.”  

The new restrictive laws followed several months of peaceful mass demonstrations protesting alleged election fraud in Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary vote.

Putin accused the US of sponsoring the protests, a claim often repeated in the pro-Kremlin media that Human Rights Watch said was aimed at discrediting the protests and the political opposition. Smear campaigns in state-run and pro-Kremlin news outlets have targeted prominent nongovernmental groups and activists. Officials in several regions have warned civil servants and others not to cooperate with representatives of foreign organizations and foreign-funded domestic groups.

Hollande’s visit comes as Russia marks the one-year countdown to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Human Rights Watch documented the unlawful exploitation of migrant workers on key Olympic sites in Sochi. Hollande should urge the Russian authorities to make rigorous monitoring of workers’ rights on Olympic construction sites a top priority to prevent further abuses, Human Rights Watch said. 

On Syria, the European Union, among other groups of countries, has imposed sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s government, but tougher measures, such as a global ban on sending arms to government forces or the invocation of the International Criminal Court, have been stymied by Russia’s veto, backed by China, in the UN Security Council.

Syria has permitted some “cross-line” aid deliveries that originate in Damascus and then are taken to opposition-held areas, but it has not agreed that humanitarian assistance may be sent to opposition areas directly from neighboring countries. Russia should push its ally, including through the Security Council, to agree to such deliveries, which would open the door for UN involvement and help ensure a more effective and coordinated aid effort.

 “Hollande is early in his presidency, and should build a relationship with Putin that is based on an understanding that European human rights values are crucial to France’s partnership with Russia,” Denber said. “There should be no difference between what Hollande said as a candidate and what he says as president.”