Russia’s response to the EU’s human rights policy

In this second part of her review of the effectiveness of the EU’s human rights policy, Eleanor Bindman looks at the Russian response to this policy since the year 2000. Putin’s presidency was marked by increasing intolerance at being ‘lectured to’ by the EU, while Medvedev’s incumbency has given some slight grounds for hope. Part 2
Eleanor Bindman
1 October 2010

While there are clearly problems inherent in the EU’s policy on human rights issues in Russia (cf part one, The EU’s human rights policy in Russia: more than rhetoric?), it is also important to consider how the Russian political elite has responded to the EU’s attempts to raise human rights concerns in its relations with Russia and to work with Russian human rights NGOs.

Under President Yeltsin, the Russian authorities seemed more receptive to advice from the EU and other pan-European organisations on establishing democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights in Russia, or at least gave the impression of being so. However, since 2000 subsequent presidential administrations under Vladimir Putin have appeared far less willing to tolerate what Hiski Haukkala has called the “teacher-student relationship” which characterised the interaction between the EU and the Yeltsin administration in the 1990s[1].

Nemtsov arrested

Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s former deputy prime minister and governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast: "The regime has destroyed all politics, pushed us onto the streets.  Big rallies are the only way to change things." 

Indeed, since Putin’s election the official commitment to principles of state sovereignty has only increased, particularly with the development by presidential advisor Vladimir Surkov in 2006 of the ideology of ‘sovereign democracy’. This constitutes a form of challenge to what Russia perceives as attempts by parties such as the EU, US and NATO to interfere with Russia’s domestic and foreign policy interests using avowals of commitment to promoting democracy and human rights as a pretext. As Derek Averre sees it, “sovereignty and non-intervention, in Moscow’s eyes the founding and universally recognized principles of modern international law, are often disregarded by some Western states that use human rights as a pretext out of political expediency…Moscow now feels ready to challenge European values and approaches to foreign policy and claim an equal role in collective leadership and decision-making [2].”

Even before the emergence of this concept, elements of this type of thinking could be seen in Russia’s rejection of criticism of its human rights record in Chechnya. According to Tuomas Forsberg and Graeme Herd (2005: 467), Russian analysts argued that “Chechnya was no different from internal separatist problems the EU faced; Europeans were simply misinformed about the nature of the conflict; and Russian measures were justified as an antiterrorist campaign.”[3]

There have also been signs that some Russian officials and analysts are attempting to provide their own interpretations of what tend to be perceived as ‘European’ human rights norms or to use the ‘double standards’ argument by accusing certain EU Member States of violating the human rights of their own citizens: this argument has been used particularly against Estonia and Latvia to accuse them of violating the rights of the Russophone minorities there.[4]

In addition, in 2008 the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a think tank with extremely close ties to the Kremlin, was established in Paris and New York with the stated aim of investigating democracy and human rights issues in Europe and the US. The Institute, which is headed by the conservative historian Nataliya Narochnitskaya, claims that its aim is to “be part of the debate about the relationship between state sovereignty and human rights; about East-West relations and the place of Russia in Europe; about the role of non-governmental organisations in political life; about the interpretation of human rights and the way they are applied in different countries…The Institute broadly defends a conservative outlook on human rights and international relations. It believes that the nation-state is the best framework for the realisation of human rights.”[5]

This trend towards using ‘soft power’ tools such as media outlets, websites and think tanks (Klitsounova 2008: 8) to challenge ‘Western’ perceptions of democracy and human rights appears to have extended into the civil society sector in Russia with the creation of government-organised NGOs, known as GONGOs, and the establishment of the Public Chamber in 2005, an advisory body charged by the Kremlin with administering annual NGO grant competitions[6].

According to Elena Klitsounova, the creation of these state-backed NGOs “appears to have been devised by Russian officials to tackle criticism at international forums and to demonstrate the existence of Russian societal norms, including norms concerning human rights…the rise of human rights GONGOs will increase uncertainty and competition in a sector where hundreds of organisations already compete for resources and attention from decision-makers and the public.”

The GONGOs tend to focus on economic and social projects which may have greater resonance with the public[7]. The EU’s policy, on the other hand, is to fund human rights NGOs that subscribe to ‘European’ concepts of values and human rights standards. If this strategy has largely failed to produce clearly identifiable results this is partly because many high-level officials “perceive Western assistance to Russian human rights NGOs as attempts to impose on Russia alien values and models of political development”[8].

Medvedev meeting human rights activists

A new pragmatism? President Medvedev and his advisors meeting in Kremlin human rights activists dealing with North Caucasus.

A new pragmatism?

Despite the apparent degree of official resistance to efforts by the EU to influence human rights developments in Russia, there are, however, some signs that the election of President Medvedev in 2008 has led to gradual changes in the previously more hard-line policy regarding human rights in EU-Russia relations. The new foreign policy doctrine appears to emphasise less confrontational and more pragmatic relations with partners such as the EU with the aim of promoting Russia’s modernisation.[9] Medvedev also appears to have taken steps to engage with human rights activists working in the North Caucasus[10] and to respond to criticism of the appalling conditions in Russia’s prisons.[11]

In addition, there appear to be some Russian officials who recognise the usefulness of some EU norms to Russia such as the need to establish the rule of law[12]. Two MEPS spoke of the greater openness they have encountered when discussing human rights issues with their Russian counterparts since Medvedev’s election,[13] with one claiming that any problems that do occur during these discussions are on the EU side when certain MEPs from EU member states which have had a troubled history with Russia seek to use the talks to air old grievances.[14] Both MEPs also spoke of the futility of using a ‘naming and shaming’ approach towards Russia where human rights are concerned, a policy which does not appear to have brought the kind of progress the EU had hoped for regarding human rights in Russia when applied in the past.


The EU’s policy towards promoting human rights Russia since 2000 has been beset by a number of problems and obstacles. The failure by the Union itself to articulate a firm and consistent position where human rights in Russia are concerned has been a factor. So too have the actions of certain member states which have at times served to undermine any position that does exist. The competing influence of economic and political interests on EU-Russia relations has played its part, as has the resistance of the Russian side to any policy approach by the EU which resembles what it perceives as lecturing or preaching.

Nevertheless, despite these obstacles there appear to be grounds for a certain very cautious optimism. Discussion of human rights issues by the two sides has continued, despite the tensions. The fact that this has brought Russian officials into regular contact with EU representatives emphasising certain values and norms appears to indicate that all may not lost where the EU’s capability to influence human rights developments in Russia is concerned. Without overstating the impact of Medvedev’s policies on Russia’s current human rights records, it does seem that the space for such discussions is opening up more than was the case under Putin, with the latter’s somewhat aggressive stance on NGOs in receipt of funding from abroad largely jettisoned. It also seems possible that the EU’s foreign policy objectives and approaches may become more coherent as the ramifications of the Lisbon Treaty begin to be felt.

The question is whether the EU will be willing to take advantage of these opportunities, however limited they may be. Or will it continue to treat human rights in Russia as an intractable problem over which it can exert very little influence?


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

Part 1 can be read here  

[1] 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

[2] Averre, D (2007) ‘’Sovereign Democracy” and Russia’s Relations with the European Union,’ Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2007

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

[4] See for example ‘Chance to Survive: Minority Rights in Estonia and Latvia’ (2008), commissioned by the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation and the Foundation for Historical Outlook, available at http://www.lichr.ee/main/assets/L-3-eng.pdf [accessed 21 July 2010)

[5] ‘Institute of Democracy and Cooperation,’ http://www.idc-europe.org/index.asp [accessed 21 July 2010]

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

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See for example ‘Kremlin Contemplates a Seismic Shift in Russian Foreign Policy,’ Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume 7, Issue 97, http://ibulletin.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/kremlin-contemplates-a-seismic-shift-in-russian-foreign-policy 

[10] ‘Medvedev Meets with Local NGO Leaders in Bid to Stabilize North Caucasus,’ Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume 7, Issue 98, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=36400&tx_ttnews[backPid]=27&cHash=3a3ca21456 [accessed 21 July 2010]

[11] ‘Medvedev promises major reform of prison and justice systems,’ France 24, 24 December 2009 http://www.france24.com/en/20091224-medvedev-promises-major-reform-prison-justice-systems

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

[13] Interview with MEP, Strasbourg, 16 June 2010; Interview with MEP, Strasbourg, 21 June 2010

[14] Interview with MEP, Strasbourg, 16 June 2010

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData