The European Parliament is concerned about democracy in Russia

The European Parliament has passed a resolution on EU-Russia relations after the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, calling on EU leaders and governments to make human rights a cornerstone – no less important than gas and oil – in EU-Russia relations.

At a plenary session in Strasbourg on October 5, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the European Union’s relations with Russia after the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. That’s how it is: “before” and “after.”

The European Parliament called on EU state leaders and executive branches to make human rights a cornerstone – no less important than gas and oil – in the EU’s relations with its large neighbor to the east.

After expressing sincere condolences to Politkovskaya’s family, friends, fellow journalists, and human rights defenders, the European Parliament condemned the murder “very resolutely,” demanded that the Russian authorities should conduct “an independent and effective investigation,” and called on the EU and the Council of Europe to closely monitor the investigation’s progress. The European Parliament expressed concern about the intimidation, persecution, and murders of independent journalists and other citizens who criticize the authorities in Russia. It called on Russia’s leaders to take active measures against these phenomena.

Very soon, at the EU-Russia summit in Helsinki on November 24, negotiations will begin on a new fundamental agreement to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), signed in 1994 by Boris Yeltsin and the leaders of the EU, which then had only 20 member states. In effect, the club of democracies extended an advance credit to the new Russia – still shaken by the shock of revolution, impoverished, unstable, but having made a choice in favor of freedom and European values.

Much has changed since then. The EU now has 25 members (27 from next year); it has a common currency, and free movement across Schengen borders. Russia has also changed. At any rate, it no longer requires economic aid. The PCA will expire next year. What can be used as the basis for a new agreement?

The European Parliament called on EU states and the European Commission to “take a strict and principled position” in negotiations with Russia, insisting on freedom of the press and independent journalism, making the future of EU-Russia relations a topic for consultations between the European Parliament and European civil society. The resolution states: “Democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech should be at the center of any new agreement with Russia, and a clear mechanism should be established for monitoring compliance with all items of the agreement.”

European Parliament Speaker Josep Borrel, who attended an informal dinner with Vladimir Putin and EU national leaders in Lahti on October 20, noted in his conversation with Putin that Europe “buys oil and gas from countries which are not shining examples of democracy, but would like to have a solid partnership with Russia.” In response, Putin pointed to Borrel’s own country, Spain, saying that city mayors are jailed by the batch there (probably a reference to the Marbella corruption scandal). He then explained that freedom of the press does exist in Russia, because… there are a lot of media outlets.

At the dinner in Lahti, the leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark were the only ones to speak harshly about the fate of democracy in Russia. The others preferred to play down that problem and focus on energy issues.

Civil society and parliaments in Europe have no direct influence on foreign policy or the actions of heads of state – but they do create a powerful political backdrop. The negotiations on a new EU-Russia agreement might prove to be complicated.