Monday

13th Jul 2020

Barroso-Putin tete-a-tete: three victims named

  • Seats reserved for the Russian delegation in the commission press room. There were no questions about human rights in Russia (Photo: Valentina Pop)

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso named three prominent victims of the Russian regime in a private conversation with the Russian leader in Brussels on Thursday (24 February).

Barroso spokesman Michael Karnitschnig said his boss called for "progress" on the cases of Sergei Magnitsky, Anna Politkovskaya and Mikhail Khodorkovsky during a tete-a-tete with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin which lasted at least 30 minutes and during which only the two men and their interpreters were in the room.

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Mr Karnitschnig said that Mr Barroso told Mr Putin to respect Russia's commitments as a signatory to Council of Europe, OSCE and UN charters and that his plan to modernise the Russian economy will fail unless he cleans up the legal system.

Neither of the two men went into detail of what is happening on the Politkovskaya and Magnitsky murder investigations or the Khodorkovsky appeal process.

"It [their conversation] is not a court of law or a police investigation where both leaders would go into detail," the commission's Mr Karnitschnig remarked. "Putin gave a very elaborate explanation about where Russia stands on rule of law. He pointed to the complexity of Russian society and of its transformation process."

Mr Karnitschnig said the atmosphere was "frank, open."

Close relatives of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered anti-corruption crusader Sergei Magnitsky and jailed oligarch-turned-reformer Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as others, had earlier in the day appealed to Mr Barroso to show courage with Mr Putin.

Two senior Portuguese journalists who personally know Mr Barroso, a former Portuguese leader, told this website that he is a "decent" man who genuinely cares about human rights.

There was little scope to talk about the subject in the press conference, however.

Time was allocated for two questions from Russian media (on a new EU-Russia treaty, on EU energy law) and two from the EU press corps (on stability in Russia's north Caucasus, on Russia-Libya economic ties). But there was no specific question on human rights in Russia.

Olivier Bailly, the commission official who selected which reporters would get the chance to speak, said he did not know what the questions would be in advance. "I asked Dmitry [Peskov], Mr Putin's spokesman, if Mr Putin would be comfortable with questions on human rights and he said 'Oh Yes. He loves them.' The only thing he asked is for a balance between Russian and European press," Mr Bailly said.

Mr Barroso did urge Mr Putin to respect rights in his scripted opening remarks at the media briefing.

But the message was not heard or seen in Russia. The Putin delegation flew in almost 60 radio and TV journalists to cover the event. But according to Tanya Lokshina, a Human Rights Watch activist in Moscow, Russian news coverage on the day made no mention of Mr Barroso's appeal and instead broadcast "some very general stuff emphasising Russia's prominent role in world affairs."

Celebrity factor

Mr Putin, a fearsome former spy chief and a sex symbol in some Russian households, created a celebrity buzz among EU officials.

The commission press service said only reporters could go in the press room in order to keep a sober atmosphere. But some EU officials with unrelated portfolios sneaked in to see him anyway. The Russian delegation also fixed passes for three people from its Brussels-based PR firm, GPlus, to mingle with press and spin the Russian line.

"There's a lot of stress in case something happens. But it won't," one EU official noted, as journalists in the front row joked that somebody might throw a shoe at the Russian PM. "I'm scared that if I look at my iPhone someone will shoot me," he quipped, referring to Mr Putin's bodyguards.

In protocol terms, there was a minor flap when the commission discovered it did not have a Russian flag to hang up for cameras.

The visit forced EU interior ministers in a separate building to cancel a press briefing on Libya because of Putin security arrangements, causing annoyance. "It's a bit Byzantine, isn't it? I wonder if the Russians ordered all this," one EU diplomat said. An EU official noted that the US tends to make an even bigger song-and-dance, however. "When Bush came in 2004, all non-essential commission officials were told to go home," he said.

The massive Russian delegation hired 30 limousines from the commission car pool, specifying that they only wanted German brands such as Mercedes, Audi and - for junior officials - Volkswagens. But the pomp-and-circumstance of the occasion was lost on some.

Throughout Mr Putin's opening remarks to media, his energy minister, Sergei Shmatko, sitting in the press-room front rows, kept yawning deeply. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used the time to check messages on his phone.

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