The West and Human Rights in Russia

17 September 2012

By Andrei Kovalev

The West should take a considerable share of the blame for the lack of observance of human rights and democratic norms in Russia. At the beginning, the West made significant efforts towards improving life in Russia (then part of the Soviet Union). Ronald Reagan as President of the United States made a particularly noteworthy contribution to this effort. This was welcomed by the reforming wing of the Soviet leadership (Gorbachev and, in particular, Shevardnadze and Yakovlev) who interpreted it as help for their democratic initiatives.

The West had actually already started making moves in this direction in the years following the end of World War II. It was, after all, the West that twisted the USSR's arm into accepting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the “third basket” of the Helsinki Accords on human rights. Even orthodox Communist leaders came to accept the terms of this document or at the very least kept one eye on them.

Universal human values held sway at the end of Gorbachev's perestroika and the beginning of the Yeltsin years. However, the unimaginative Western leaders who were in power at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath found it convenient not to stand up to the idiosyncratic and unpredictable leader of this enormous and little understood country. Yeltsin was given carte blanche. The results were the barricading of parliament (a legitimate move, no matter how turbulent), the First Chechen War, the start of the rigging of election results, and the first political murders, not to mention the general plundering of the country and impoverishment of the population.

The result was, in short, the almost complete violation of all the USSR's international obligations. But the West was silent.

The West also remained silent when Yeltsin's appointed successor launched the Second Chechen War as a way of ensuring his victory in the presidential elections. Censorship has become government policy in all but name, political murders and other ways of eliminating those out of favour have become the norm, corruption has reached a level never before seen, and the very concepts of democracy and human rights have somehow disappeared from everyday life and politics. Nobody doubts that wide-scale falsification of elections has occurred at all levels of government. Meanwhile, the West is doing its usual three wise monkeys' routine: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

In appeasing the Russian government, the West is betraying not only Russia, but other countries as well. It is, for instance, a betrayal of Ukraine, a country that tried to move closer to Europe and was willing to go to great lengths to become part of it. It is a betrayal of Georgia. And, indeed, the West has betrayed itself, for it is just not possible to be a keeper of values that can be applied just when you feel like it.

The results are glaring: high-profile political murders have spread as far as London (and how many more murders have there been that we don't know about?) and the murder suspects thrive and prosper in Russia.

Oil, gas and such like are important enough, there can be no doubt. But there are higher considerations that include at the very least national and personal honour, as well as common decency.

There is also a pragmatic consideration in all this idealism: the longer you give free rein to the out-of-control Russian authorities, the more serious will be the consequences that you bring down on your own head.

During one of the sessions of the European Parliament, Russian opposition activists were asked what kind of help they needed, and none of them were able to answer. But the answer to that question could be very simple and straightforward – not only for Russia, but also for the West itself.

Western governments should use all the means at their disposal to force Russia to observe its international undertakings in every area, including those of human rights and democratic norms. International law and moral and political obligations should either be observed or renounced.

Western governments have a duty to get Russia to fulfil its obligations to other countries. This applies both to making Russia fulfil its undertakings to end the occupation of Georgian territories, and not to interfere in other countries' internal affairs.

Politics should never be reduced to oil, gas and profits.

And a pact should never be made with a criminal regime. Otherwise we are back to the days of the Munich Agreement. Indeed, the policies of some Western countries today towards Russia do beg comparison with the shameful Munich episode.