Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 204

Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced plans to create an “Institute for Freedom and Democracy in Europe,” with Russian funding. Putin revealed this project during the European Union-Russia summit just held in Mafra, near Lisbon. The Institute is supposed to defend and promote “human rights in Europe,” zeroing in on purported violations in the West.

The project looks like a post-Soviet adaptation of the “pro-peace” organizations that used to operate in the West as Soviet fronts, promoting the Kremlin’s foreign policy as well as its versions of such concepts as peace and democracy. That funding dried up in the late 1980s when the price of oil plummeted. Today’s petrodollars potentially reopen possibilities of Russian political action in Europe, and the Kremlin seems ready to capitalize on this opportunity.

According to Putin, the nascent Institute would focus on electoral systems and election monitoring in European countries, as well as on the rights of “ethnic minorities and migrants” in Europe. It could bring together politicians, businessmen, and non-governmental organizations. The Institute would be Russian, but would employ some “European experts” as well. It would publish reports on “how Europeans behave in practice when it comes to human and civil rights”—a wording that presages political polemics and instrumentalization of those issues (Interfax, Itar-Tass, October 26-27).

Putin’s top aide on European affairs, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, commented that the project is partly intended to “respond symmetrically” to European Union funding for human-rights and pro-democracy NGOs in Russia. The EU budgeted some €3 million for “supporting democracy in Russia” in 2007; but some additional funding may directly or indirectly serve similar goals under other budget lines.

During the summit’s concluding news conference, some Europeans in the attendance seemed to construe Putin’s project as a joint Russia-EU undertaking. An apparently confused Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, the summit’s host, welcomed with satisfaction Putin’s initiative to “establish a Russian-European institute to focus on human rights.” As current holder of the EU’s presidency, Portugal would support discussing with Russia the technicalities of the proposal. Socrates termed Putin’s move a “step forward in EU-Russia relations” during the joint news conference with Putin. However, Yastrzhembsky curtly dispelled the confusion: “It won’t be a joint venture” (Izvestiya, October 30).

Putin’s initiative is the most ambitious of this kind thus far, but not the only one. Moscow may well be considering creating or supporting a network of front-type organizations. Thus, the prominent Moscow lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, a member of the Public Chamber, has been tasked to organize an “international center for the defense of human rights” in Europe. The center would conduct “monitoring in order to understand why various human rights are violated.” The Public Chamber, created by Kremlin-affiliated political “technologists,” is an outreach mechanism attached to Russia’s presidential administration.

The “international center” project seems to reflect the technique of relativization, often used by Moscow in communicating with Western target audiences: “Whether it is Russia or EU member countries, there are human rights violations in all countries,” Kucherena said, explaining this project (Interfax, October 29). On such a basis, Russia could don the mantle of arbiter of democracy in the West. The notion that the West and Russia are ultimately headed for democratic convergence dates back to the early post-Soviet years. At present, a Soviet notion of democratic superiority seems to be heard again from Moscow. Thus, according to Russia’s Central Electoral Commission chairman Vladimir Churov explaining the upcoming elections, “Our electoral system is the most democratic one” (Komsomolskaya pravda, October 24).

Meanwhile, the European Union has resolved to set up an EU Agency for Democracy and Human Rights. This decision, along with the Kremlin’s projects, could ultimately supplant the role of long-established human rights and democracy-promotion institutions that operate on the inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary levels: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Russian human rights observers are concerned about Putin’s proposal and question its logic, as long as OSCE and PACE operate in Europe (Gazeta, October 30). This defense is only valid up to a point, however. The OSCE and PACE are losing credibility: under Russian duress in the OSCE’s case and under apparent Russian blandishments in PACE’s case. A seemingly resigned OSCE is being forced out of its election observation role by Russia; while certain PACE leaders have made a deal to accept Kremlin-affiliated politician Mikhail Margelov as president as of January 2008 (see EDM, October 11, 22, 30). The two organizations will lose relevance if they continue appeasing Russia’s managed-democracy. In that case, the planned EU Agency will take over their functions.

PACE’s outgoing president, Rene van der Linden, has expressed concern over the planned creation of the EU Agency. In his speech at the opening of PACE’s autumn session (October 1), he clearly implied that he regarded the EU Agency as an undesirable competitor to PACE. Van der Linden, who helped along the Margelov deal, seems to overlook the major difference: While PACE’s democracy-promoting role would be compromised under a Margelov presidency, the EU’s Agency would operate free from the Russian authorities’ corrupting influence. Thus the EU could naturally fill the niche that PACE leaders seem to be vacating.

The OSCE, while declining to follow PACE’s road of opportunism, seems to be losing its major competitive advantage: namely, the mandate for democracy-promotion in Central Asia, which PACE’s mandate does not encompass. Russia has enlisted the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (along with those of Armenia and Belarus) to disable the OSCE’s mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating elections in those countries (see EDM, October 30).

The OSCE is structurally powerless to resist Russia’s veto power (augmented on this issue by those ad hoc allies). However, PACE cannot invoke this justification because PACE operates by majority vote. There, the idea to install a Kremlin nominee as Europe’s chief democracy watchdog is the choice of certain PACE leaders and their passive followers in the Assembly. The Assembly as a whole should still be able to step back from that brink.