Saturday

4th Jul 2020

EU to quiz Russia foreign minister on violence

The European Commission plans to quiz Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on why police beat up peaceful protesters in Moscow and St Petersburg over the weekend, but EU criticism of the crackdown has been low-key so far.

"We are very concerned about the events," a European Commission spokeswoman said on Monday (16 April). "We have the opportunity to raise this at high level, at foreign minister level next Monday," she added, referring to an EU-Russia meeting with Mr Lavrov in Luxembourg next week.

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"This form of excessive violence...is worrying and...unacceptable," a spokesman for the German government, which currently holds the EU presidency, said, AP reports. "We expect an explanation from the Russian government as to what happened."

Russian riot police beat dozens of people with fists and batons and arrested 370 protesters on Saturday and Sunday after some 2,500 took to the streets to voice anger over president Vladimir Putin's anti-democratic reforms in the run up to elections next year.

The governor of St Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko, has ordered an enquiry. But Russia's prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, was unapologetic. "I don't know what violations you are talking about," he told press on Saturday, Russian agency Ria Novosti writes.

Human rights groups have also condemned the events. "The riot police beat peaceful demonstrators to silence their views," Human Rights Watch director Holly Cartner said. "We condemn this disproportionate use of force," Council of Europe head Rene Van der Linden said.

EU shy on Russia criticism

The EU's reaction so far - using soft language at low official level - stands in contrast to the kind of top-level backing given to pro-democracy activists in Europe's much smaller neighbour, Belarus, in recent times, however.

Back in 25 March when Minsk protesters and police clashed in the streets, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and German chancellor Angela Merkel sent personal messages of support while external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called for the release of detainees.

"Yes, we are much more careful when it comes to public criticism of Russia [than Belarus]," an EU diplomat said. "We have to be very careful. After all, Russia is a superpower."

The last time the EU made a big public issue out of Russian human rights abuses was the murder of Putin-critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya six months ago. Since then, Putin has blasted the west for giving Russia "lessons" in democracy and Ms Politkovskaya's killers remain at large.

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