EU Should Hold Firm against the Kremlin’s ‘Flywheel of Repression’

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EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell at a news conference unveiling a report on proposals for the EU stance on Russia. Brussels, Wednesday, June 16, 2021.
© 2021 Johanna Geron/Pool Photo via AP

EU-Russia relations will be on the agenda of the European Council, which defines the European Union’s political priorities, when it meets on 24-25 June. It’s an important time for the EU to call out the Kremlin for human rights violations committed in Russia.

As the EU implements its “principled pragmatism” approach to its affairs with Russia, it should stay true to its human rights commitments. Supporting Russia’s civil society and Kremlin critics who face harassment, intimidation, and persecution should be key.

The EU has rightly condemned the poisoning, and later jailing, of the Russian government’s key opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, and recently acknowledged that Russia “uses growing political repression.” But it needs to reflect on the full scope of this repression.

Here in Russia, activists use the expression “the Kremlin’s flywheel of repression.”

For the past year, it’s been an endless onslaught. A swarm of new oppressive laws target civic groups, individual activists, media, and even educational activities. A newly expanded definition of “foreign agents” jeopardizes an indefinite number of activists and critics, who now – as the Kremlin likely intended – second guess their every publication or social media post, lest they face fines or criminal prosecution. Authorities recently slapped more media outlets with this toxic label, putting some of them at risk of closure.

The Kremlin blacklists organizations as “undesirable” without explanation, including respected EU-based groups. Now, people in Russia risk administrative and criminal sanctions if they engage with these groups. New bills propose expanding this ban beyond Russia’s borders and make it immeasurably easier to imprison “offenders.” A growing number of activists have already been branded as criminals or are behind bars on these outrageous charges.

The authorities abuse Russia’s anti-extremism legislation to outlaw prominent critics as well as to oppress minority religious groups. They’ve used the global pandemic to ban opposition public assemblies, while cynically gathering crowds for pro-Kremlin events.

Even performance artists critical of Russia’s situation, as well as some educational initiatives connected to overseas institutions, have become targets of repression.

Acknowledging this onslaught, the EU should be unambiguous in its message that Russian authorities can be trusted partners only if they uphold core rights-based values. The EU should urge the Kremlin to end its crackdown on critics and repeal abusive laws, and instead to support and engage with independent civic groups and critical voices.