If Vladimir Putin had hoped for an easy time during his two-day Germany visit this week, he must be disappointed. There were some positive headlines on the Russian president’s visit, of course. The Hanover Trade Fair, which he opened on Sunday, featured 170 Russian companies – a record for the fair and a sign of the growing power of Russian business.
Yet his visit was overshadowed by criticism and protests about what has been happening back in Russia since Putin returned to the presidency last May. The women who stripped and shouted anti-Putin slogans in front of the president and chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday added a touch of theater. But the scale of the crackdown on human rights and civil society in Russia in the last 11 months has in fact been dramatic enough to need little embellishment.
Last month Russian officials conducted a wave of inspections on the offices of over 200 civil society groups in over 40 regions of Russia. Targets included Memorial, Russia’s highly respected human rights body, Amnesty International, the Friedrich Ebert and Konrad Adenauer Foundations and others. Human Rights Watch was inspected on March 27 when four people came, unannounced, and spent four hours copying dozens of documents. These were not routine checks. They were the latest phase in concerted efforts to intimidate civil society and polarize Russian society.
The Kremlin appears determined to cut off support for civil society groups, to demonize the political opposition, and to foster a nationalistic mood that shores up Putin’s constituency. A series of restrictive laws have been rushed through parliament, labelling some non-governmental groups “foreign agents,” broadening the definition of treason, and sharply increasing the fines for organizing unsanctioned protests. The Kremlin, it appears, was shocked by the huge protests a year ago and wants to eliminate the chance they will be repeated – even if it undercuts the country’s development in the process.
What can Germany do? Russia is a key strategic ally for Germany, with important relations spanning business, energy, and geo-politics. German politicians and diplomats always have to keep these aspects in mind. Equally, international human rights standards provide part of the bedrock of German foreign policy and form the basis of co-operation with Russia and elsewhere. Russia has committed itself repeatedly to upholding these standards, for instance on freedoms of expression, association and assembly – rights that it has so blatantly been violating.
Merkel has in recent months rightly raised her concerns over human rights in Russia on several occasions. This week she called the inspections of NGOs “disturbing” and urged Putin to give civil society a chance to play a role in the country’s development. Sadly, given the political atmosphere in Russia, more such messages from Merkel and others in Berlin are likely to be necessary in the future. This will be important after the Bundestag elections too.
Hugh Williamson is director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.