Russia becomes unlikely human rights guardian

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The Independent Online

A confident, even swaggering, Russia takes the helm of Europe's foremost human rights body today, ready to deflect accusations that it has failed to live up to the standards set by the institution it will lead for the next six months.

Russia's chairmanship of the Council of Europe, whose three pillars are human rights, the rule of law and open democracy, comes just two months before President Vladimir Putin hosts the G8 summit in St Petersburg and will place the Kremlin's commitment to the core values of the West under fresh scrutiny.

In recent months, concerns have been raised about Russia's moves to shut down non-governmental organisations, its curbing of the media and its imprisonment of Russia's richest man just when he was becoming a political rival of Mr Putin. The President has, meanwhile, developed strong links with the hardline authoritarian leaders of Belarus and Uzbekistan.

In Chechnya, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Anna Neistat who visited the restive Russian republic three weeks ago, the pro-Moscow leader Ramzan Kadyrov has taken torture to a new level as he seeks to crush resistance.

But the West's dependency on Russian energy has radically changed the balance of power, leaving European governments with less political leverage at a time when Russia has already used its gas-powered influence over the West-leaning former Soviet states of Ukraine and Georgia.

Asked yesterday how Russia would respond to Western concerns about the level of its commitment to democracy and human rights as Council of Europe chairman, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "I believe our common commitment to democracy will certainly be reconfirmed during the six months of the Russian chairmanship." But he made it clear that, for Russia, the West does not have the monopoly on democratic values.

"I do not believe the West would be interested in seeing the Council of Europe become a place where just one out of many models of democracy would be made a criteria to judge each and every other state," he said. "The world is much more complicated. It's not black and white and attempts to approach the whole problems in black and white manner has been made in the past few years. And they're not working."

His comments come after President Putin issued a muscular rebuttal of criticism from the US Vice-President Dick Cheney who - while in Lithuania - accused Russia of bullying its neighbours, reversing the democratic gains of the past decade and trampling on Russians' rights.

The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, acknowledged that sometimes, "people in the West see the Council of Europe as a lecture room to give lectures to the people of eastern Europe, and naturally that is resented".

Even so, Russia's first chairmanship, which has come about through alphabetical order, has raised eyebrows in Strasbourg, where the council's largest member stands accused of having failed to implement key demands, including judicial reforms and ending the culture of impunity for security forces in Chechnya.

Russia, which joined the Council of Europe 10 years ago, remains the only one of 46 member states not to have abolished the death penalty completely, even though a moratorium was put in place in 1998.

But diplomats see the next six months as an opportunity and a challenge for the Kremlin. "I think it's an opportunity for them to show they adhere to the core values," said the Polish ambassador to the Council of Europe, Piotr Switalski. "Particularly now there are so many critical voices and doubting governments, to show they are on the right course."

Russia's first initiatives will be announced today. They will include a sports conference in Moscow in November, and an inter-faith conference in Niznhy Novgorod in September to which Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Buddhists will be invited.

Strong-arm methods

Chechnya

"Torture is simply rampant," according to Human Rights Watch researcher Anna Neistat, who spent two weeks in Chechnya where she interviewed more than 70 victims and relatives. "They all say it's worse than a war." Hostage-takings of the relatives of Chechen fighters are common in an attempt to obtain a surrender. It is not known how many civilians have "disappeared".

Democracy

Media and opposition parties are muzzled. Many non-governmental organisations have been shut down. This week, the lower house gave preliminary approval to a bill that would strip MPs of their seats if they change parties. Critics say it marked a final step to create a "rubber-stamp" parliament.

Economic bullying

Russia cut off gas to Ukraine last winter and has started a trade war with Georgia by banning imports of wine and mineral water. Both republics are attempting to loosen their ties to Moscow.

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