Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are to meet Friday with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton as part of a long-running effort to update the strategic partnership between the two sides.
Leading the European Union's agenda will be human rights, including the role and freedom of non-governmental organizations at a time when Russia had implemented a new law forcing on-governmental organizations that perform advocacy work and accept foreign funding to register as "foreign agents."
The arrest and imprisonment of the punk rock band Pussy Riot and continuing fallout from the 2009 death in prison of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky also were on the minds of European critics of Russia's human rights record in the run-up to Friday's EU-Russia summit.
Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch, on Tuesday urged Van Rompuy, Barroso and Ashton to "convey a clear sense of alarm at the crackdown of the past six months" while meeting with Putin and Lavrov.
The European Union, he said, "should press the Russian leadership to stop trying to choke off free speech and assembly and any sign of dissent."
The NGO law passed by the Russian Parliament in July, Human Rights Watch said, tries to "demonize" the groups in the public eye "as spies and traitors."
Another law, adopted in November, expands the definition of treason "in ways that could criminalize international human rights advocacy," Human Rights Watch said.
The European Parliament this month overwhelmingly adopted a report on Russia that also takes the Kremlin to task on human rights as Brussels and Moscow work to replace their Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which dates from 1997.
Hannes Swoboda, an S&D Group MEP and rapporteur on the EU-Russia agreement in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said during the debate that while he wants improved relations, "Russia must also play its part and show clear commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
"The recent laws on NGOs, treason and espionage are worrying at best as they threaten freedom of expression by intimidating civil society in Russia," he said.
Meanwhile, Green Party MEP Werner Schulz, deputy chairman of the EU-Russia parliamentary cooperation committee, last week called for a travel ban on anyone allegedly involved in the death of Magnitsky, a lawyer who was arrested and died in a Moscow prison while trying to expose a Russian government corruption case.
"Unlike the officials guilty of his death, he is still being persecuted, even posthumously," Schulz said. "Visa liberalization without binding human rights criteria is not acceptable.
The EU should impose an entry ban for all people incriminated in the Magnitsky case and should simultaneously facilitate visas for Russian citizens."
EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom told the Parliament last week that as the European Union's third-largest trading partner, Russia is "indispensable" when it comes to ensuring security on our continent.
But, she vowed, the summit would include "and honest exchange of views on unresolved issues and unsatisfactory developments," such as the Pussy Riot and Magnitsky cases, the crackdown on NGOs and pending legislation that would ban "propaganda of homosexuality" among those under age 18.
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