EU should put Russia visa-free talks on hold
On Tuesday (28 January), EU and Russian leaders will meet in Brussels for the regular, twice-yearly, EU-Russia summit.
Outside the EU headquarters, human rights organisations will stage a large protest to call attention to the deterioration of human rights in Russia. This includes various laws which limit the space for civil society and a law prohibiting so-called homosexual propaganda.
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The agenda has been shortened in comparison to previous summits and will not include a leadership dinner for the first time.
It is indicative of the cooling relationship between the two sides.
Already last December, an EU spokesperson announced it is unlikely the summit will bring progress on relaxing the EU’s visa regime - an important issue for the Russian government.
The announcement came after the EU’s commissioner for neighbourhood policy, Stefan Fuele, warned Russia against threatening EU partners’ in their sovereign decisions on signing EU agreements.
Only a handful of few EU leaders have made their concerns clear about the situation in Russia and its behaviour toward countries such as Ukraine, however.
An unequivocal and outspoken EU position is lacking.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council chairman Herman Van Rompuy remained have voiced some criticism, but continue to believe that dialogue will change the attitude of the Russian leadership.
In this context, Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said that he does not have any problems with homosexuals: They can come to the Sochi Olympics next month … so long as they stay away from children.
He said homosexuals can feel “calm and relaxed” in Russia. But his statement could scarcely be less true: A report launched by ILGA-Europe last week demonstrates the worsening of the human rights situation for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi, trans and intersex) people since June 2013.
It paints a very bleak picture.
Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the government has introduced a series of repressive laws that make the work of civil society organisations in general virtually impossible.
Demonstrations and other activities of LGBTI organisations have become harder to organise and state agencies and actors have become vehicles to actively stigmatise the LGBTI community.
In this climate, violence against the LGBTI community is increasing, with virtually no protection from law enforcement authorities.
The real concern of human rights organisations in Russia is not the situation ahead of the Olympics, but what will happen afterward, when the world’s attention turns to other matters.
Given the recent developments, the EU would discredit itself if its current talks led to visa-free travel.
Free travel should benefit all EU and Russian citizens equally. But it is difficult to see how members of minority groups who want to visit Russia can go there without feeling discriminated and at risk.
This is why ILGA-Europe is calling for a suspension of the visa-liberalisation talks when EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom visits Moscow next week.
To break off the talks would harm the interests of many ordinary travellers on both sides.
But a temporary suspension may encourage Russian citizens to hold their government accountable.
Before resuming the talks, the EU should make sure that Putin takes his new series of repressive laws off the statute books.
Russia should demonstrates that it respects everybody's human rights before the measure becomes a reality.
President Putin’s behaviour toward minorities is a backward step which merits a strong reaction from the Union - a reaction which resonates with ordinary Russians and which prompts them to increase pressure on the regime.
The writer is programmes director at ILGA-Europe in Brussels