The EU’s human rights policy in Russia: more than rhetoric?

Are the EU’s attempts to promote human rights in Russia capable of going beyond mere rhetoric, asks Eleanor Bindman? Or does the EU’s policy simply pay lip-service to its stated human rights ideals while allowing the Union to pursue other policy objectives which it sees as more important? Part 1
Eleanor Bindman
30 September 2010

In part one of this review, I will explore these issues by examining the degree of coherence and consistency in the EU’s policy on human rights in Russia since Putin’s election in 2000, as well the influence of other economic and political factors on this policy. In the second part I will examine the ways in which Russia appears to be challenging aspects of this policy approach.

Since the signing of the first Partnership and Cooperation Agreement  between the EU and Russia in 1994, the Union has consistently stated its commitment to promoting human rights in its relations with Russia. It has developed a number of policy instruments aimed at achieving this objective such as the TACIS and EIDHR funding programmes, the Common Spaces and the more recent Human Rights Consultations.

Dissenters MArch, Moscow

For more than a year Russian cities have witnessed regular demonstrations to protest restrictions on the right to assemble enshrined in Article 31 in Russia’s Constitution.

The apparent objective of this approach appears to be to socialize Russia to ‘European’ human rights norms and standards through dialogue and cooperation with Russian government officials and civil society organisations. Yet despite the fact that the EU continues to claim that human rights are an important component of its formal relations with Russia, its continuing criticism of human rights violations in Russia appears to demonstrate that the progress it expected Russia to make in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union has not been realised. This apparent lack of progress has been attributed to weaknesses within the EU’s own policy and its preoccupation with other issues in its relationship with Russia such as energy and security concerns. 

In addition, the robust domestic and foreign policies pursued by former President Putin from 2000 onwards seem to indicate that Russia is no longer prepared to be a straightforward ‘norm-taker,’ but rather has developed its own approach to what the EU perceives as human rights problems which it is more than willing to defend.

The EU’s Human Rights Policy: theory

The importance of upholding international human rights standards in Russia is something referred to in virtually all the documents governing EU-Russia relations. It was enunciated in the Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) in 1994 and reaffirmed with the decision to initiate biannual EU-Russia Human Rights Consultations in 2005[1]. These consultations bring together EU and Russian government officials to discuss human rights issues concerning both parties.

This emphasis on human rights issues in the Union’s external relations policy is by no means unique to its relations with Russia: a human rights clause became a compulsory part of all external agreements with non-EU countries in 1995 [2]. The importance of human rights to the Union’s internal and external policy agendas has been reaffirmed in various EU treaties such as the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997[3] and the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.

The European Parliament in particular has pursued what one commentator calls an “activist” approach towards human rights violations in numerous countries including Russia[4] , partly by using its power to pass resolutions condemning human rights violations. Indeed, according to Anne Le Huerou, the Parliament “…has demonstrated an unwavering and continuous attention to the situation of human rights and freedoms in Russia, particularly since 1999 and the restart of the war in Chechnya.”[5]  One MEP who sits on the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee states that human rights issues such as freedom of speech and assembly are raised frequently with Russian parliamentary counterparts by both this committee and the Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.[6] 

In addition, the PCA remains a key document in EU-Russia relations[7], despite the fact that it expired in 2007 and is still in the process of being renegotiated. This emphasised the importance of respect for democracy and human rights in any cooperation between the EU and Russia and the common values shared by both parties. The approach has been echoed in subsequent internal EU policy documents concerning Russia such as the Common Strategy of 1999 and the Four Common Spaces of 2003[8] .

The EU’s approach has been heavily influenced by the success of its conditionality policy towards aspiring Member States in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. This aimed to promote the adoption by those countries of what the EU appears to see as its guiding principles of democracy and respect for human rights in return for the promise of EU membership. According to Sergei Medvedev the EU expects Russia “ to comply with the EU-defined code of conduct [9].

In short, this is an extension of the EU’s internal logic – the EU acted in the same way with respect to Slovakia or Estonia – but without the added benefit of membership.” J Komen points out that the EU’s policy towards Russia “reveals a high degree of self-confidence within the European Community in its own attractiveness and the intention to influence Russia by spreading its ‘European’ norms and values.” [10]

The human rights policy in practice

Despite this apparently impressive degree of emphasis on human rights in the Union’s formal relations with Russia, the EU’s strategy has come in for considerable criticism. For it appears unable to exert much influence on Russia’s domestic human rights record. It has apparently not even been able to formulate a consistent policy in this area.

The relatively recent implementation of the biannual Human Rights Consultations has been dismissed as “a mere farce”[11]. The Russian authorities have refused to allow the consultations to take place in Russia itself. Russian NGOs have been permitted to brief the EU delegates prior to the meeting but then been excluded from the official proceedings. There has also been a notable absence of follow-up monitoring [12].

Moreover, as Elena Klitsounova points out, the EU’s overall strategy of trying to shame Russia over its perceived violations of human rights, particularly during the second Chechen conflict of 1999-2002 and its aftermath, may have succeeded in encouraging international criticism of Russia’s human rights record but has had little resonance with the Russian public and appears to have had no impact on the popularity of the country’s leaders. [13]

Indeed, its response to the second Chechen conflict highlights many of the problems inherent in its overall policy. Initially, the Union was vocal in its criticism of Russia’s alleged major human rights violations against Chechnya’s civilian population in late 1999 and early 2000. But, as Tuomas Forsberg and Graeme Herd point out “…these exhortations might best be understood as ritualistic exercises expressed without the slightest expectation that they would impact in any discernable way upon Russia’s behaviour.”[14]

Human rights v the ‘strategic partnership’

Part of the problem with the EU’s response was its apparent desire to avoid damaging its ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia or risk alienating the country’s new leader at a very delicate time. According to Hiski Haukkala[15] , “…there was a genuine concern on the EU’s part that by pushing Russia too harshly over Chechnya the already turbulent country could be nudged towards increasing isolationism which in turn could have unpredictable consequences for the country’s future development.”

Another complicating factor was, and continues to be, the willingness by individual EU Member States, particularly those with a very large amount of influence such as France, Germany and the UK, to pursue bilateral relations with Russia which limit the EU’s ability to present a united front when criticising abuses such as those which took place in Chechnya.

As Forsberg and Herd point out, the EU’s initial policy of openly criticising Russia’s conduct in Chechnya in late 1999 and early 2000 was one advocated by the European Parliament, Denmark and the Netherlands[16]. However, it only became EU policy when France and Germany supported it. Limited sanctions were imposed upon Russia between February and June 2000, including the redirection of funding under the EU’s TACIS programme to human rights projects in Russia[17]. But these measures were lifted when France, Germany and the UK became anxious to pursue better relations with newly elected President Putin in mid-2000. In the view of Hiski Haukkala, certain member states used EU foreign policy tools and declarations as “avenues through which they expressed their collective disapproval of the Russian actions while using them simultaneously as shields under which they were able more or less to carry on business as usual in their bilateral dealings with Moscow.”[18]

The effect of this strategy was to make the EU’s overall policy look confused and inconsistent. As a result, it has failed to uphold its own, oft-stated, human rights agenda where Russia was concerned[19]

Human rights standards within and without the Union

A further problematic issue is that of internal inconsistency within the EU on respect for human rights within its own institutions and Member States. Despite its supposed commitments to upholding human rights standards both within and without the Union, it was not until the Lisbon Treaty of 2007 (only ratified in 2009) that the EU enshrined a Charter of Fundamental Rights in its internal legislation and established the Agency for Fundamental Rights with the aim of advising Member States and EU institutions on respecting the rights outlined in the Charter.[20]

This has left the Union open to accusations of double standards when it has been seen to be demanding human rights commitments from partner countries that it has failed to monitor or insist upon from its own Member States. For example, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, has consistently criticised a number of Member States for human rights violations concerning migrants, refugees and the use of torture in counter-terrorism cases following 9/11[21], and the Russian authorities have not been slow to pick up on this inconsistency. According to Alston and Weiler “…the irony is that the Union has, by virtue of its emphasis upon human rights in its relations with other States and its ringing endorsements of the universality and indivisibility of human rights, highlighted the incongruity and indefensibility of combining an active external policy stance with what in some areas comes close to an abdication of internal responsibility.”[22]

The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and the creation of the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which is to be supported by the European External Action Service might lead to greater coherence in the EU’s external relations, including its relations with Russia. But it seems premature to speculate on the impact this may have on the coherence and consistency of the EU’s policy towards Russia in general and on human rights specifically.

Energy dependency

Issues of incoherence and inconsistency have clearly had an impact on the EU’s policy towards Russia on human rights issues. But there are clearly various other factors which have an impact on this policy. While human rights may be considered an important aspect of the EU’s stated foreign policy aims, clearly its strategy for promoting human rights in external countries does not exist in a vacuum. It is one of many competing policy objectives and areas of importance for the Union. Given the nature of its role and powers, it must also consider its economic and political relations with its external partners.

This stands in contrast to other pan-European organisations such as the Council of Europe and OSCE. They have a much more focused remit and therefore greater scope for concentrating on issues such democracy promotion, human rights, the rule of law and conflict prevention. Particularly where Russia is concerned, policy issues such as the EU’s energy and security relations have a major impact on the Union’s overall policy towards Russia, at times serving to obscure or take precedence over human rights concerns. This is perhaps hardly surprising given the EU’s dependence on Russia’s supplies of energy and its role in international counter-terrorism operations in the period following the events of 9/11 in the US.

The EU’s policy towards human rights abuses committed during the second Chechen conflict again serves to demonstrate the ways in which the Union’s commitments to upholding human rights can at times appear to lose out to other priorities. When the decision was taken to impose sanctions against Russia over its treatment of civilians in Chechnya, there were a vast array of sanctions it could have imposed, such as suspending the PCA or certain clauses of it including Russia’s preferential trade access to the EU, visa bans on certain Russian officials, and selective trade and financial embargoes.[23] But the Union opted instead simply to redirect TACIS funds to human rights projects for a very short-lived period while making statements condemning Russia’s actions.

In the view of Hiski Haukkala “…the reason why the sanctions lacked any serious bite was largely that the Union was itself dependent on Russia: it could scarcely afford to restrict Russian exports as they largely consisted of oil, gas and other raw materials that the Union itself desperately needed.”[24] As a result, no steps were taken to link the EU’s willingness to import Russian energy to Russia’s policy in Chechnya.[25]


In addition, international security concerns arising from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 also had a major impact on the EU’s willingness to criticize Russia’s conduct in Chechnya since Russia quickly became a major partner in the international ‘war on terror.’ The EU continued to make formal statements at the biannual EU-Russia Summits criticizing human rights abuses and calling for a political solution to the conflict. But by 2002 the issues of human rights and Chechnya were off the EU-Russia agenda. The consequences of this were damaging, as Tuomas Forsberg and Graeme Herd point out, “…the EU’s adoption of a more accommodating line failed to change Russian policy in Chechnya…if the EU had demonstrated a greater unity and consistency in support of its normative agenda and in pressing for and prioritizing this agenda in its relations with Russia, it might at least have ameliorated the worst abuses.”[26]

Award for Memorial

Human rights activists Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Sergei Kovalyov together with European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek. In 2009 the EU Parliament has awarded its annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Memorial, the prominent and embattled Russian human rights group

Russia’s importance to the Union’s security has only grown in the intervening period, with the eastwards expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007 meaning that Russia now borders the Union. As a result, concerns over border controls and other security issues appear to have increased on the EU side, prompting various policies for ensuring stability in its ‘Eastern Neighbourhood’ and making good economic and political relations with Russia more of a priority than ever. Ultimately, as Stefania Panebianco points out, “the EU does not react with a coherent defence of human rights and democracy because, when dealing with crucial political or economic partners, pragmatism prevails over the defence of values and principles.”[27]

Council of Europe

In addition, it could be argued that when it comes to promoting human rights in Russia, the EU is hampered by a number of other institutional features which other organisations such as the Council of Europe do not have to contend with. Membership of the Union is not an option for Russia, meaning it will always be an external partner which must be negotiated with. But Russia is a full member of the Council of Europe and thus subject to monitoring of its human rights record by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), its Commissioner for Human Rights, and its Committee of Ministers.

Where human rights violations in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus are concerned, PACE’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has taken a relatively active role. It has recently released a major report describing the situation in the region as constituting “the most serious situation in the entire geographical area encompassed by the Council of Europe in terms of human rights protection and the affirmation of the rule of law”. It should be noted that the Russian delegation to PACE voted in favour of this report.[28]

European Court of Human Rights

The Council’s European Court of Human Rights also has the power to issue rulings against Russia and order it to pay compensation to victims of human rights violations by the state. This is a tool which has been used fairly frequently to provide some form of redress for civilians affected by grave human rights abuses in Chechnya both during and after the conflict.[29]

In contrast, the EU’s ability to monitor Russia’s human rights record is limited by the fact that it lacks special monitoring mechanisms or institutions for this particular purpose. Any attempts at monitoring human rights must take place within the Union’s political framework and must compete with other, more pragmatic interests.[30]

European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights

The EU does have the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (formerly the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights). This long-standing programme aims to fund civil society organisations in partner countries and does not require the consent of country in question’s government to operate.

However, where Russia is concerned the bulk of the funding available within this programme has gone to established Russian human rights NGOs. While these have developed good relations with the relevant EU officials and obtained experience of the EU’s system of awarding grants they have largely failed to attract the attention or support of a significant proportion of the Russian public. As Elena Klitsounova points out, “…Russian human rights NGOs have not yet coalesced into a movement attracting a great deal of press coverage or public support: at present they are unlikely to be capable of dramatically shifting domestic incentives that define Russia’s current human rights policy. Human rights NGOs – their agendas, arguments and practices – do not engage many Russians.” [31]

Part 2 to follow 

The author:

Eleanor Bindman is writing her Ph.D at the Department of Central and East European Studies, University of Glasgow.



[1] Komen, J (2009) ‘Do human rights still matter in EU-Russia relations?’ Euro-Power, June 2009

[2] Smith, K (2003) European Union Foreign Policy in a Changing World, Cambridge: Polity Press

[3] Alston, P and Weiler, J (1999) ‘An 'Ever Closer Union' in Need of a Human Rights Policy: The European Union and Human Rights’ in Alston, P et al (eds.) The EU and Human Rights, US: Oxford University Press

[4] Fischer, H (2006) ‘Beyond Activism: The impact of resolutions and other activities of the Euro Parliament in the field of human rights outside the European Union,’ European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, October 2006

[5] Le Huerou, A (2007) ‘EU-Russia Human Rights Consultations,’ Policy Department

[6] Interview, Strasbourg, 16 June 2010

[7] Le Huerou, A (2007) ‘EU-Russia Human Rights Consultations,’ Policy Department

[8] Panebianco, S (2006) ‘Promoting human rights and democracy in European Union relations with Russia and China’ in Lucarelli, S and Manners, I (eds.) Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy, Abingdon, UK: 2006

[9] Medvedev, S ‘The Stalemate in EU-Russia Relations: Between ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Europeanization’’ in Hopf, T (ed.) Russia’s European Choice

[10] Komen, J (2009) ‘Do human rights still matter in EU-Russia relations?’ Euro-Power, June 2009

[11] Ibid

[12] Le Huerou, A (2007) ‘EU-Russia Human Rights Consultations,’ Policy Department

[13] Klitsounova, E (2008) Promoting Human Rights in Russia by Supporting NGOs: How to Improve EU Strategies, CEPS Working Document No.287/April 2008

[14] Forsberg, T and Herd, G (2005) ‘The EU, Human Rights and the Russo-Chechen Conflict, Political Science Quarterly  Vol.120:3, pp 455-478

[15] Haukkala, H (2005) ‘The Relevance of Norms and Values in the EU's Russia Policy,’ Finnish Institute of International Affairs UPI Working Paper No. 52

[16] Forsberg, T and Herd, G (2005) ‘The EU, Human Rights and the Russo-Chechen Conflict, Political Science Quarterly, Vol.120:3, pp 455-478

[17] Saari, S (2006) Human rights cooperation between Russia and European intergovernmental organisations: a one-way transference of norms or a mutual process of adaptation?, UPI Working Papers 54 (2006)

[18] Haukkala, H (2009) ‘Lost in Translation? Why the EU has Failed to Influence Russia’s Development,’ Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.61:10, pp1757-1775

[19] Forsberg, T and Herd, G (2005) ‘The EU, Human Rights and the Russo-Chechen Conflict, Political Science Quarterly, Vol.120:3, pp 455-478

[20] ‘European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights,’ http://fra.europa.eu/fraWebsite/faq/faq_en.htm

[21] See for example ‘The Council of Europe Commissioner’s Human Rights Comment,’ Commissioner for Human Rights, http://commissioner.cws.coe.int/tiki-view_blog.php?blogId=1&bl=y

[22] Alston, P and Weiler, J (1999) ‘An 'Ever Closer Union' in Need of a Human Rights Policy: The European Union and Human Rights’ in Alston, P et al (eds.) The EU and Human Rights, US: Oxford University Press

[23] Haukkala, H (2009) ‘Lost in Translation? Why the EU has Failed to Influence Russia’s Development,’ Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.61:10, pp1757-1775

[24] Ibid

[25] Forsberg, T and Herd, G (2005) ‘The EU, Human Rights and the Russo-Chechen Conflict, Political Science Quarterly, Vol.120:3, pp 455-478

[26] Ibid

[27] Panebianco, S (2006) ‘Promoting human rights and democracy in European Union relations with Russia and China’ in Lucarelli, S and Manners, I (eds.) Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy, Abingdon, UK: 2006

[28] Legal remedies for human rights violations in the North-Caucasus Region,’ Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, http://assembly.coe.int/Main.asp?link=/Documents/WorkingDocs/Doc10/EDOC12276.htm

29 See for example ‘European Court of Human Rights Finds Russia Responsible for Three Chechen Disappearances,’ Stichting Russia Justice Initiative, http://www.srji.org/en/news/2010/07/95 

[30] Saari, S (2006) Human rights cooperation between Russia and European intergovernmental organisations: a one-way transference of norms or a mutual process of adaptation?, UPI Working Papers 54 (2006)

[31] Klitsounova, E (2008) Promoting Human Rights in Russia by Supporting NGOs: How to Improve EU Strategies, CEPS Working Document No.287/April 2008


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