Time for Putin to become an 'impeccable democrat'
by Elmar Brok
Only in partnership with Russia can Europe face challenges such as climate change, energy security, Iran, Syria and North Korea – but the recent presidential elections raised concerns about Russia's commitment to democracy that its leadership must address, writes MEP
Twenty-one years ago the Soviet Union was dissolved and the Russian Federation established. The federation was meant to be a republic and, by its constitution, a multi-party democracy. Of course, nobody expected the USSR to transform to a mature and stable democracy from one day to the other, but Europeans and Russians themselves had hoped for a smooth and consistent transition.
The presidential elections on March 4 have shown that the transition is not completed yet, or may even be going in the wrong direction. Clearly – and the European Parliament has already said this – the elections were not as open, fair and free as democratic elections should be. Irregularities were ubiquitous and there was no free space for a real democratic opposition.
Russia is the largest immediate neighbour to the European Union and our cooperation has been increasing strongly within the last years. The EU and its member states, as well as the Russian Federation, are part of several international organisations, like the Council of Europe, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organisation. Thus Russia has committed itself to democracy, universal human rights and those rights that have been agreed in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is now time for Russia to show that it is truly committed to the values enshrined in these treaties.
But there are issues at hand, which give reason to be worried and reason to question the commitment of the Russian elite to these values. The difficult registration process that opposition parties have to go through is one of these serious issues. Via this bureaucratic hurdle the government prohibited the participation of some parties in the Duma election on December 4 last year, and it was also a massive constraint for the oppositional presidential candidates in March.
Meanwhile the lack of a free press has been known and talked about for many years. However, it has been even more blatant in the last months, as protests against the current government have not been mentioned in several media and opposition candidates have not been covered in the state controlled press in a fair manner. Finally the suppression of peaceful protestors is worrying. As long as people meet in peace to articulate their discontent with politics, there is no valid reason to try to stop them, particularly using force and violence against them. The new, young Russian middle class has the potential to achieve a peaceful and democratic process in Russia.
Stability and growth, as well as freedom and prosperity in the EU, are connected to a good environment in Russia and good bilateral relations. The EU is offering to support Russia in its process of becoming a stable and transparent democracy. Within our 27 member states we have a vast amount of experience with the topic of transformation and the examples of other former Soviet Union states show, that it is possible to transform a system and allow freedom without having to fear turmoil and unrest.
It is clear that Russia's development is a great concern for us Europeans. It is our third largest trading partner and the EU is by far the largest trading partner for Russia. The great challenges of our time like energy supply and climate change, or foreign policy issues such as the conflicts in Syria, Iran as well as the North-Korean question, can only be solved together. The EU and Russia have to work hand in hand in order to find good and sustainable solutions. This strong interdependency is another reason why we push for reforms. Roughly 75 per cent of all foreign investment in Russia comes from the EU. Our investors need to know that they can invest in a stable environment, which cherishes common values where the government protects their human rights.
Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev has promised reforms to the people of Russia. Those reforms are urgently needed if further and stronger protests want to be avoided. The newly politicised Russian middle class needs to see progress. The president should follow up on his promises and to start acting. These reforms must be set in motion before Putin is inaugurated on the May 7.
Putin then has to follow up on these reforms, as soon as he gets into office. He is responsible for a great economic development in Russia within the last decade, but his successes will be dwarfed if he does not stop inhibiting freedom and turning away from democracy. It is in Putin's time in government, that the Russian middle class developed; now he must accept their demands. I clearly remember the words of former German chancellor Schröder, saying that President Putin was an impeccable and pure democrat. That was in December 2004. The recent events since fall 2011 should have convinced anyone that this is maybe not the most accurate description.
However, in every difficulty, there is a chance for a new beginning. Let us all hope that Putin changes again and starts to become an "impeccable democrat". The EU has a strong interest in a positive development in Russia. The abundance of energy in Russia and the European market need each other. This is, from an economic as well as from a security standpoint, a truly necessary partnership. Hence Europe hopes for a democratic Russia in accordance with the rule of law.
Elmar Brok MEP is chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the European Parliament and a member of the European People's Party political group
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