Tomorrow, French President François Hollande will be the first European leader to see Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia’s unrecognized annexation of Crimea and the onset of the severe crisis in eastern Ukraine.
There are many reasons why you might argue that the time is not right for Hollande to speak about the human rights crisis in Russia. The moment is a solemn one – the commemoration of D-Day. Relations between Russia and the EU and its member states are at a historic low, with Ukraine looming large on the agenda. Russia is “pivoting” to the East, evidenced by the last week’s signing of the Eurasian Economic Union. EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea politicize any human rights criticism. Putin has never been more popular at home. Putin will forcefully shake off “lecturing” about human rights with points about state sovereignty, the degeneracy of the West, Russia’s exceptionalism, and Russia’s traditional values. The entire paradigm for human rights and relations with Russia has been turned upside down.
Yet for each one of those reasons, there are many counter reasons: the many new laws adopted or proposed in Russia that limit free speech, threaten Russia’s vibrant community of independent human rights and advocacy groups, and openly discriminate against LGBT people. There are 13 people wrongly behind bars for alleged violence at the protest on the eve of Putin’s 2012 inauguration, whom the government is surely using as a cautionary tale for others. There is the continued imprisonment of environmental activist Evgenii Vitishko on trumped-up charges, and the state’s efforts to brand as “foreign” and subversive people and groups who criticize state policies.
They add up to one important reason: the Kremlin’s crackdown, now two years in the making, is putting Russia’s civil society under existential threat. That threat has grown much more acute in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, as the Kremlin seeks as never before to divide Russian society into “loyalists” and “traitors.” You can guess in which camp it is putting independent thinkers.
That alone should be reason enough for Hollande to express genuine concern. Where Putin trumpets “Russian values,” Hollande can speak about values they share as Council of Europe member states. When Hollande went to Moscow in 2013, he met with human rights groups, and assured a journalist, “If there are any violations, I speak about that openly, to correct the situation and not to attack and hit."
Mr. Hollande, please – speak openly about it. We are counting on you.