Comments from the West: the Europeans respond to Russia

Europe has expressed disappointment at the dispersal of Dissenter March protests and the anti-Western rhetoric used by President Putin. Putin’s statement about European election monitors is being regarded as meant for the domestic audience and prompted by the election campaign.

Europe has expressed disappointment at the dispersal of last weekend’s Dissenter March protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the anti-Western rhetoric used by President Vladimir Putin.

President Putin alleged this week that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) acted on advice from the US State Department in deciding not to send observers to Russia’s parliamentary elections. Those words have been quoted extensively in the European media. Putin’s statement is being regarded as a product for the domestic ideological market, where “enemy plots” are selling very well these days.

ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir described Putin’s allegation as “nonsense” – the ODIHR didn’t ask any government for advice, least of all the American government. According to Gunnarsdottir, the decision was made by the ODIHR Director after consultations with experts: “These are people who have organized election-monitoring in over 150 countries, so they are well aware of what they can and cannot do, and the point at which it becomes too late to organize proper monitoring.”

Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis pointed out Russia’s international obligations: “The Russian Federation is a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. These are the preconditions for true democracy.”

European Parliament spokesman Hans-Gert Pettering, who received Garry Kasparov in Strasbourg after the first Dissenter March protests were dispersed in May, has expressed outrage at Kasparov’s arrest this week; he says he is “concerned” about how OMON riot police treated the demonstrators. “By acting in this manner, the Russian authorities are losing credibility at the international level,” he said.

As befits a bureaucrat, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso kept his comments cautious and brief. He expressed “serious concern about reports of harassment and arrests of political activists and participants in peaceful demonstrations.”

The European media are not bound by the politesse of state officials, so they reflect a more clearly-defined attitude to events in Russia.

“Le Monde” commented: “For a former KGB officer, repressive measures are second nature. Vladimir Putin is demonstrating this daily, with increasing intensity, as the parliamentary elections approach… There is no rational explanation for this deep-seated aversion to any public display of disagreement with the leader… All the instruments of power are at his disposal. The opposition is weak, divided, deprived of any means of expression. It cannot pose a threat to the ruling clans who have found in Putin the best guarantee of retaining their power. Yet these clans are still wary… Fearing elections – even elections he can’t possibly lose – Putin is reverting to tried and tested Soviet-era methods: propaganda, and suppressing his few opponents in order to intimidate the whole society.”

“The Financial Times” published an article by Philip Stephens, looking at how the West can establish a relationship with this kind of Russia: “A coherent response from the West is long overdue. Little if anything can be done to persuade Mr. Putin to restore democracy. That does not mean the West should remain silent. It does suggest that sustained engagement with Russian business and civil society may be more productive than efforts to shame the Kremlin.”