Time is ripe for EU to hold Russia to account
22.02.13 @ 09:26
BRUSSELS - Despite what the Kremlin says, Russia is not threatened by so-called Western values.
Nor is it threatened by the European Parliament, the US state department, by what Russia likes to call "unnamed foreign powers," by Russian girl-punk bands, by Americans citizens who adopt Russian children or by NGOs funded from abroad which it says want to undermine Russian stability.
Instead, Russian citizens are themselves clamouring for change after being denied a genuine democratic choice in the Duma elections in December 2011.
In March, it will be one year since Vladimir Putin was re-elected President of the Russian Federation. His achievements are to be judged by the Russian people. But it is abundantly clear that Putin looks for his strength in Russia's totalitarian past.
The protest movement that started with the rigged Duma elections goes on.
An ever-growing segment of Russian society has become disillusioned with Putin's regime and has found renewed courage to speak out.
If the Kremlin behaved rationally, it would have seized this window of opportunity and embraced a roadmap toward deeper democracy.
But the regime's response to the widespread protests was to silence and ridicule the opposition by using a combination of smokescreen reforms, repression, threats and dividing tactics.
Despite this, some Russian critics are warning that a Russian Spring, by analogy with the Arab Spring, could be in the offing if reform is consistently denied.
Russia today is a country where opposition politicians are arrested, critics are silenced and whistleblowers, like Sergei Magnitsky - who, in 2008 and 2009 exposed the theft of hundreds of millions of euros from Russian tax authorities - are murdered.
Meanwhile, the killers get promotions and top-level protection instead of prosecution and punishment.
Magnitsky's posthumous trial, which began this week, is just more evidence of how far the regime is willing to go to undermine the aspirations of its citizens.
This combination of repression and radicalisation could easily see political stagnation degenerate into instability. It is a pressure cooker which can easily explode.
From its inception, the EU-Russia partnership was expected to become more than a simple exchange of Russian hydrocarbons for European-made manufactured goods, medicine, food and, not least, luxury items.
It was seen as a process for normalising relations with Russia and encouraging it down the path towards becoming a modern, stable country with a more open society.
But the ambition is elusive.
The deteriorating situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms is routinely deplored by NGOs, the EU and the US alike.
The response from the Kremlin is to bury its head in the sand and issue tit-for-tat allegations to deflect criticism.
Many in the Kremlin view the EU as lacking unity and resolve in external relations, but member states are moving closer to a common position on Russia than ever before.
For its part, the European Parliament found a substantial majority for describing the state Duma elections as neither free nor fair.
There is also cross-party support for targeted EU sanctions on Russian officials involved in Magnitsky's murder.
The latter is not just another resolution - we have seen several national parliaments in the European Union follow suit and a number of money laundering investigations opened on the basis of information uncovered by Magnitsky and his former employers, the UK-based investment firm Hermitage Capital.
We sense positive momentum in the European Council.
This is in part due to the fact that the 'new' member states are becoming better able to make themselves heard within the EU, but also because the 'older' and 'bigger' states - Germany in particular - are growing ever more critical and ever more frustrated with the false expectations in EU relations with Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia's recent accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its rulebook has given rise to new concerns over neglect of pre-membership commitments, generating a potential future trade dispute with the biggest advocate of Russia's WTO accession, the EU. The credibility of the EU to inspire change in Russia depends on its honesty.
Paying lip service to a regime that has no respect for its citizens or its own constitution, let alone its own international commitments, is plainly wrong.
This is why European leaders should make it crystal clear to Putin that trampling on democracy and human rights will have consequences for EU-Russia relations. Now is not the time to hide behind diplomatic courtesies.
It is time to be a plain-speaking friend to Russia and to point out that prosperity and stability can only be guaranteed in the long-term by freedom and democracy.
The international community can help by committing to a new Helsinki process that will create a network of influential and well-informed opinion leaders throughout Europe and the US on the model of the Cold-War-era Helsinki movement.
The primary focus of such a process would be to ensure Russia's compliance with its existing commitments.
As a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and of the Council of Europe, the Russian Federation has obligations to abide by the same democratic rules as other normal countries.
Russia is not an exception for which we must turn a blind eye to injustice and authoritarianism.
It is a modern, pluralistic, multicultural country, whose people deserve better. The EU must be willing to show determination over deference and principle over pragmatism.
Guy Verhofstadt is the leader of the Liberal group in the EU parliament and the former prime minister of Belgium. Kristiina Ojuland is a Liberal group MEP and the former foreign minister of Estonia