Friday, May 18, 2007

EU questions Russian human rights record


European Union leaders criticized Russia's human rights record — and were faulted in return — at the end of a summit Friday that produced no formal agreements but helped illustrate the widening political chasm between Moscow and the West. German Chancellor Angela Merkel complained that opposition activists were being prevented from traveling to a planned protest in the Volga River city of Samara, near the site of the EU-Russia summit. "I'm concerned about some people having problems in traveling here," Merkel told reporters. "I hope they will be given an opportunity to express their opinion."

Among the activists kept from boarding flights was former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a leading political foe of President Vladimir Putin. Officials confiscated activists' passports and tickets at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, and held them for about five hours. Activists in Samara also said they were harassed. Russia's democratic freedoms and its treatment of critics are two of the most sensitive issues haunting Russia-EU relations. Merkel's remark came during a sometimes fractious exchange over the topics between Putin and EU leaders at a news conference.

Putin said his government does not fear protests, but insisted government opponents must abide by official regulations. He also blamed some violence on demonstrators. "They don't bother me in any way," Putin said of the so-called "Dissenters' Marches" staged by Kasparov and others, which police have brutally dispersed. "All those who want to stage demonstrations in accordance with the law have such an opportunity," he said. "But some provoke law enforcement forces to use force, and they respond accordingly."

Local officials had sanctioned the Dissenters' March in Samara that authorities kept Kasparov and others from attending. Putin deflected allegations that the Kremlin fears letting critics be heard. "There is no reason to fear marginal groups, especially so small," he said. He also criticized European governments, noting that German police have detained protesters. "Law enforcement authorities in practically all countries make preventative arrests, there are examples in Germany," he said. "Such action isn't always justified."

Merkel responded that police action during violent riots could be justified, but added: "If a person hasn't done anything yet, if he's just on his way to a demonstration, that's a completely different case." Putin also assailed the EU for failing to respond to the death of a Russian citizen during clashes between police and ethnic Russian protesters in Estonia over the moving of a Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Tensions between Russia and Estonia cast a cloud over the summit.

Estonian government Web sites have come under massive cyber attacks in the weeks following the memorial's removal, and Estonian officials have suggested the attacks may have been coordinated by the Russian government. Russia denies that. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters at Volzhsky Utyos, a riverside resort, that democracy and rule of law are "sacred principles for the EU." "We stress the importance of democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of demonstration," he said. "These are values (which) I'm sure, unite, not divide us. It's very important for all European countries, and Russia is a European country ... to ensure the full respect of those principles and values."

As they argued over Russia's alleged rollback of democracy and the lack of progress in a dispute over a Russian ban on Polish meat, Putin and the EU leaders pointed to progress in trade and economic ties. Though no formal deals were reached at the summit, Putin said he and the EU leaders agreed to extend EU-Russia cooperation on cross-border trade, visa issues and scientific and technical cooperation. Putin also sought to present the Polish meat dispute as a bilateral problem that blocked the expansion of Russia-EU ties.

"We need each other, we are open for an honest dialogue between Russia and the EU," Putin said at one point. "But we must defend our interests in the same professional way as our partners do that." Merkel and Barroso emphasized European solidarity. "A Polish problem is a European problem," Barroso said. More than 100 protesters gathered at a square in Samara in the late afternoon, outnumbered by police, and marched through the streets shouting slogans including "Russia without Putin!" and "We need another Russia."

Several protesters held black-yellow-and-white flags of Other Russia, an opposition movement that includes Kasparov's United Civil Front. A few held a banner reading "Russian without Putin and successors."

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