Speaking at a EU-Russia Civil Society Forum policy briefing in Brussels on 31 May, just a few days before the EU-Russia summit in Etkaterinburg, panelists condemned the recent crackdown on NGOs in Russia and agreed the EU should be more vocal in its criticism of Russian behaviour.

Ben Judah, author of a new book on Russia (The Fragile Empire), said that Rusia had changed fundamentally in the past three years but EU policy had not altered to reflect the fact that Putin was moving Russia from an authoritarian to a repressive state. The crackdown on civil society was based on non-transparent laws which meant NGOs were basically defenceless. Even centirst critics such as Sergie Guriev were now being forced to flee the country. There was increasing fear about the future even among ordinary citizens.

Judah said the EU should be much more vocal in it criticism of these developments. Many Russians were becoming cynical about the EU pointing to the refusal of EU leaders to speak up on the Navalny case. EU statements do not reach the Russian public as they are only carried on the EEAS website and not in Russian newspapers. It was time for the EU stand up for its values as this regime would not last for ever and the EU should be on the right side of history. It should press for a Council of Europe tribunal to survey Russia’s implementation of human rights conventions and freeze all talks on visa freedom until Russian policy changed.

Ksenia Vakhrusheva, from the Bellona environmental rights centre in St Petersberg (and a member of the EU-Rusia Civil Society Steering Committee) said that Russia was at a crucial stage of its development. She described the ways in which the Russian authorities were investigating NGOs, using lame excuse of fire and safety regulations, and seeking evidence of foreign political support. It was not at all clear what constituted a foreign agent. She agreed that many Russians were dissatisfied with Putin but this dissatisfaction has not translated into voting behaviour. People still remembered the chaos of the 1990s. The opposition faced several difficulties with the government seeking to divide them. It was very difficult to get funding and to carry out campaigning across Russia, : 

Vakhrusheva agreed that there should be more focus on the Council of Europe and a more united EU policy towards Russia. She also underlined that Russia needed the EU more than the EU needed Russia. The EU should use this leverage.

Alain Deletroz, Vice President of the Crisis Group, said the EU was too cautious and quiet in its dealings with Russia. Even though there were some areas of productive cooperation (eg Africa) many Russians no longer viewed the EU as an important actor and hence there was diminishing respect for Brussels. There was also a very negative and distorted portrayal of the EU in the Russian media. For example, a recent prime time television news show had concentrated on paedophilia in the EU. He also agreed that the COE was a key organisation and more could be done to ensure Russia kept to its commitments. The EU needed to be more open and frank in its dealings with Moscow.

Luis Felipe Fernandez de la Pena, Managing Director for Russia and Central Asia in the EEAS, said that there was a peceptions gap in EU external policy. The EU was too  Eurocentric and often displayed an arrogance towards third countries. The Russian transition was different to that of other post-Soviet states. It was important to understand the time perspective and also Russian history.

Responding to criticism of EU policy, he said that the EU was by far the most outspoken and active critic of Russian on human rights issues. But he could not deny that many member states had strong interests in their bilateral dealings with Russia which made a united voice difficult. It was important, however, to keep striving for a more coherent approach. Next week’s summit would cover the usual agenda – trade, energy, investment, foreign policy, human rights, passenger data, etc. It was slow progress towards a new PCA but there was no realistic alternative but to keep engaging Russia. 

The Head of the COE office in Brussels intervened to say that the COE was very active in pushing and prodding Russia to improve its record on human rights, the rule of law and provisions for elections. The secretary general had been in Russia last week, had met Putin, and publicly criticised the crackdown on civil society. The COE was also about to open an office in Moscow.

The panel also responded to questions about Russia and the BRICS, Sino-Russia relations, the role of the regions, the disparate groups in the opposition, the common neighbourhood and potential EU leverage.