The Russian authorities’ inspections of the offices of German political foundations and hundreds of non-governmental organizations in Russia in recent days, including Human Rights Watch, have refocused attention in Germany on the crackdown on Russian civil society since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency last May.

The comments by Peer Steinbrueck, SPD chancellor candidate, in a Die Zeit interview, cautioning against direct criticism of Moscow on human rights and democracy, have also fuelled an already vibrant debate in Germany on how best to approach Russia as a key ally, but one that often ignores its international human rights obligations at home.

This all came only days before Putin’s visit to Germany to open the Hannover Industry Trade Fair. This is his first visit to Germany since he resumed the presidency and it includes his first face-to-face meeting with Angela Merkel since the chancellor voiced public concern over human rights developments in Russia during the Petersburger Dialog in November. However, the issues raised by the Federal Government should extend to the wider human rights situation, which has further worsened since November.

This confluence of events is an opportunity to reflect on two key aspects of Germany’s relations with Russia. First, the inspections are only the latest installment of the worst crackdown on civil society in Russia in 20 years. This realization should influence Berlin’s handling of its relations with Moscow. Second, the lead-up to the Bundestag elections in September is an opportunity for a wider debate on how best to maintain strong ties to Russia without pulling any punches on human rights.

The recent events in Moscow are part of a pattern: let’s not forget other developments that made German headlines, such as Pussy Riot, the moves to label speech on gay rights issues ”propaganda,” and the ban on the adoption of Russian children by US parents.

The backdrop to these moves are the unprecedented steps since last May aimed at cutting support for civil society groups, demonizing the political opposition, and fostering a nationalistic mood that shores up Putin’s constituency.  A series of restrictive laws have been rushed though parliament, labelling some non-governmental groups “foreign agents,” broadening the definition of treason, and sharply increasing the fines for organizing unsanctioned protests. On the inspections, Putin claims these are purely routine. On the contrary: such a wave of unannounced visits is highly unusual in Russia, underlining their overall purpose of reinforcing the menacing atmosphere for civil society.

The Kremlin, it appears, was shocked by the huge protests last winter, and wants to eliminate the chance they will be repeated – even if it undercuts the country’s development in the process.

Recognition that Putin has shifted gears this way is highly relevant in the wider political discussion in Germany. Russia is clearly a key strategic ally for Germany, with important relations spanning business, energy, and geo-politics. German politicians and diplomats have to keep these aspects in mind as they craft their approaches to Moscow.

It is equally clear that international human rights standards provide part of the bedrock of German foreign policy, and that Russia has committed itself repeatedly to upholding, for instance, freedoms of expression, association, and assembly – rights that it has so blatantly been violating in recent months.

As Germany’s parties enter election mode and consider how they would act in office if successful in September, with regard to German ties to Russia in particular it is vitally important for them to see human rights playing an integral role in Germany’s approach toward Moscow. This is not, as some argue, about imposing ”Western” values on Russia, but about endorsing the historically grounded set of universal rights that form a platform for legitimate co-operation between countries.

It is also about showing respect for and solidarity with the Russian people, who will bear the brunt of Moscow’s crackdown if Germany doesn’t speak up. The contrasting argument -- that Russia’s importance to Germany means Berlin must tread carefully on human rights -- is flawed. The need for dialogue, often emphasised in this context, is important, but not for its own sake and not without opportunities for respectful criticism.

Imagine the consequences of a relationship without such candor. Creating a stable business environment in Russia – also vital for German companies – will certainly rest on building a society in which human rights and the rule of law are fully respected.

Many officials in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe are looking to Germany for leadership on Russia. How Germany reacts to the latest twist in the human rights crisis in Russia, and decides how to shape its long-term relations with Moscow, is important for the whole of Europe –and for those struggling to protect their own and other people’s rights in Russia itself.


Hugh Williamson is director, Europe & Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch, and is based in Berlin.