Europe forced to confront the bear lurking on its borders

THE twice-yearly summit between Russia and the EU takes place in The Hague today.

As usual, the agenda emphasises how difficult a customer Russia is.

The Irish, when they held the presidency, attempted to side-step the difficulty by agreeing not to issue any conclusions from the summit and thereby avoid risking Moscow’s fury by saying what needed to be said about Chechnya.

But the ongoing human rights abuses there and Russia’s support for other countries that have strayed from the rule of law and democracy makes it very difficult to ignore the truth.

The EU is working hard to establish agreements with Russia on economics, justice, external security, education and culture and human rights. It needs a working relationship with Russia, not least because by 2020 Europe will be more dependent on gas than on oil - and estimates predict 40% of that will come from Russia.

The EU argues that Russia is similarly dependent with more than half its exports going to the EUand also because both share borders and neighbours.

However as any diplomat will tell you, Russia does not play the game like that. It frequently appears to have no interest in ever reaching an agreement over anything.

But a number of events are bringing the relationship into sharper focus.

Amnesty International has just released a report detailing atrocities by Russian agents in Chechnya, including the systematic intimidation, torture and murder, not just of those who oppose the Russians in Chechnya, but of those who have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over their treatment.

Amnesty has said that the EU cannot ignore the worsening situation, especially when they relate directly to the Court of Human Rights.

The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, whose members include Russia and nearly all the countries of the European continent, recently concluded that the continued death toll and human suffering in Chechenya was of “great concern to the common values” of the organisation and said the EU could not remain inactive.

In Russia’s neighbour Belarus, the EU is considering what action to take against Belarus following recent elections where the president had the rules changed to allow him serve a third term amidst the face of widespread claims of intimidation and fraud.

In Ukraine, which the EU hoped was moving towards Western-style democracy, Sunday’s disputed presidential election threatens the stability of the country.

Moscow’s swift congratulations to the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych have worried the EU and will be another bone of contention between the two blocs.

The former Soviet countries that are now members of the EU also have their own concerns, as Russia pushes for visa free movement for holders of their diplomatic passports.

They point out that each year 600 KGB students receive diplomatic passports when they graduate from spy school - a sizeable force to have free access to EU countries with populations as small as a million.

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