Adam Hug / Apr 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In the face of the major challenges to the union, both internal and external, there is growing concern amongst human rights activists and NGOs from across the former Soviet Union that the EU is increasingly turning a blind eye to abuses taking place in the Eastern Neighbourhood.
A recently released Foreign Policy Centre publication, Institutionally blind? International organisations and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union, found that human rights commitments in both the Eastern Partnership Policy (covering Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and the South Caucasus) and the EU’s Central Asia strategy had been reduced in significance. These policies mark a noticeable shift in EU policy away from ‘values promotion’ towards a more traditional focus on economic opportunities, energy cooperation, security, migration and threats from the wider region.
As a result the previous 'more for more' approach towards incentivizing human rights and governance reforms has been watered down, while the 'less for less' strategy to hold back support or halt progress on trade talks on the basis of human rights failings was almost nowhere to be found. The EU has also ended its commitment to produce progress reports on agreements with countries in the region that are not undertaking an association agreement, removing an important human rights monitoring tool.
The EU’s decision to remove many of its sanctions against Belarus, in response to Minsk pursuing a more constructive approach to regional security in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, sets a worrying precedent. This shift is despite negligible progress on political freedoms and human rights, the reason for the implementation of sanctions in the first place.Similarly, the EEAS' and Commission's decision to agree an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan in December 2015, despite negligible progress on resolving deep-rooted governance problems and human rights abuses, would mark a major retreat from a values based approach to EU deals. The recent visit of President Nazarbayev to Brussels on March 30th saw President Junker speak warmly about Kazakhstan's planned reforms and praising Nazarbayev. with pressure rising to speed up ratification. Eyes are now turning to the European Parliament to see whether it will allow this agreement to pass.
When compared to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the European Parliament (EP) has a more solid track record of challenging human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union. Last year Parliamentary opposition scuttled attempts to agree a new EU-Uzbekistan textile protocol, given the lack of political progress and unresolved labour rights problems in Uzbek cotton farming. The EP has been vocal on Kazakhstan's human rights record in recent years so allowing ratification would require something of an institutional volte face, but it will come under increasing pressure from other EU institutions.
Despite the European Parliament's broadly positive record on human rights promotion the Institutionally Blind publication did identify a number of challenges facing it. Firstly delegations to the region, most notably the delegation to Central Asia, do not always promote the positions adopted by the full Parliament on human rights. There can be a tendency to downplay their findings when they are in -country, out of attempts at diplomacy or the ideological leanings of individual MEPs, something that needs to be addressed if message consistency is to be achieved.
Secondly the European Parliament's political groups need to be more robust in challenging human rights abuses amongst members of their wider political families in the former Soviet Union.The role played by the European People’s Party (EPP) in the Eastern Partnership region has become an increasing cause for concern amongst human rights activists. Worries include the EPP’s inconsistent approach to human rights in Georgia, where it was inclined to overlook the excesses of its member party the United National Movement (UNM) when it was in power.
However the EPP has become increasingly vocal about human rights concerns now that the UNM is in opposition and a number of its leaders are facing criminal charges, ostensibly for crimes committed whilst it was in government. Armenia’s ruling Republican Party has similarly benefited from a sympathetic political ear provided by its EPP political family, while the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova (PLDM) led by Vlad Filat, the former Moldovan Prime Minister currently facing trial for corruption, had previously received strong support from the EPP. The EPP is far from alone in having dubious bedfellows as the publication makes clear.
While European member states may be facing a daunting set of political and economic challenges, from migrant flows to a potential Brexit, which are pushing human rights down the list of priorities, the countries of the FSU face perhaps an even more demanding set of challenges in the wake of record low oil prices and sanctions on Russia that have led to a region-wide slowdown. This has the potential to push some countries that had been increasingly dismissive of pressure on human rights to reevaluate their approach towards the EU given their need for new economic opportunities and finance. Indeed the recent release of political prisoners in Azerbaijan may partially be seen in the context of its current economic travails. Challenging times are no excuse for being institutionally blind and may provide new opportunities to promote genuine structural reforms through European cooperation.