In the capitals of European democracies, leaders are hailing a new era of co-operation with Russia. Berlin claims a “special relationship” with Moscow and is moving forward on a series of major energy projects with Russian energy giant Gazprom, one of which is led by the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi traveled to St Petersburg late last year to join in the celebration of his “great friend” Vladimir Putin’s 59th birthday. And in Paris, negotiations are under way for a major arms sale that would allow Russia to acquire one of the most advanced ships in the French navy.
At the same time, democratic dissent inside Russia has been ruthlessly suppressed. On 31 January, the Russian government refused to allow the peaceful assembly of citizens who demonstrated in support of … the right to free assembly, enshrined in article 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation: the right “to gather peacefully and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets”.
Likewise, Russian journalists have been increasingly harassed for expressing any criticism of the government. But prosecution is hardly the worst outcome for Russian journalists who fail to report the news in a “patriotic” manner. In 2009, more than dozen of journalists, human rights activists and political opponents were killed.
Having stifled internal criticism of its policies in the Caucasus, the Russian government is now turning its attention to those who criticise them from abroad – and it is being abetted in this project by European businesses and governments. The last victim of Moscow’s censors and their western friends is called Perviy Kavkazskiy (First-Caucasian). This young Russian-language television station was, until the end of January, freely available to people living in Russian-speaking areas. Now, Eutelsat – the leading European satellite provider based in Paris – has taken the channel off the air and refuses to implement the contract negotiated with the TV.
It seems the Russian company Intersputnik made Eutelsat an offer it couldn’t refuse on 15 January, holding out the possibility of millions of dollars in business with the media holdings of Russian gas giant Gazprom on the condition that Eutelsat stop doing business with First-Caucasian. Eutelsat capitulated and sent a disastrous message to the world: no Russian-language television that is not controlled by the Kremlin will be allowed to be aired in the Russian Federation. Even if it is based abroad. Even if it has a contract with a European satellite provider.
The English-language satellite channel, Russia Today, funded and controlled by the Russian government, did not face such problems with European satellites. This channel has recently launched an advertising blitz in the United States and the United Kingdom featuring billboards that show the face of US President Barack Obama morphing into that of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nobody raised any concerns about Russia Today and western viewers will be allowed to receive the propaganda that is broadcasted in Russia. But the very idea of an alternative channel in Russian language seems too “provocative” to some Europeans.
Eutelsat’s collaboration with these policies is a clear violation of the spirit of the EU laws protecting freedom of the press, and French courts may well find that the firm violated more than just the spirit of the law as the case against Eutelstat unfolds in the coming weeks. Still, this is just the latest example of European complicity in the Kremlin’s consolidation of political power inside the country and its reconstitution of the military used to coerce those nations that lie just across the border.
This is the context in which came recent reports that the French government intends to go forward with the sale to Russia of one or more Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. The Russian military has not concealed its plan for these weapons. In September of last year, the Russian admiral Vladimir Vysotsky triumphantly declared that “a ship like this would have allowed the Black Sea fleet to accomplish its mission [invading Georgia] in 40 minutes and not 26 hours”.
Only a little more than a year ago, as Russian tanks occupied parts of Georgia, Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer declared that there could be “no business as usual with Russia under present circumstances”. Russian forces still occupy Georgian territory, in violation of the ceasefire brokered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and yet Nato, too, is back to business as usual with Putin’s regime.
As Moscow shuts down opposition newspapers, arrests journalists who fail to toe the government line and bullies its democratic neighbours into submission, some European leaders are not silent. Instead they are arguing for closer ties to Moscow, for energy cooperation, for military for arms deals.
European leaders must take a stand for freedom of speech and in defence of the free media that enables it. This starts by making clear to European companies that they are not supposed to be the obedient tools of the Kremlin’s censorship. The same leaders should also show that, at the beginning of the 21st century, one cannot occupy a foreign territory without consequence. It clearly does not imply selling weapons to occupation forces. At stake is not only the freedom of Russian citizens, but also the very meaning and the honour of Europe.
Gary Kasparov, chess grandmaster.
• The following people endorse this article: Elena Bonner-Sakharov; Konstantin Borovoï, chairman of the Party for Economic Freedom; Vladimir Boukovsky, former political prisoner; Natalia Gorbanevskaia, poet, former political prisoner; Andreï Illarionov, former adviser to Vladimir Putin; Garry Kasparov, leader of United Citizens Front; Serguei Kovaliev, former minister to Boris Yeltsin; Andreï Mironov, former political prisoner; Andreï Nekrasov, filmmaker; Valeria Novodvorskaya, leader of Democratic Unity of Russia; Oleg Panfilov, TV presenter; Grigory Pasko, journalist, ecology activist, former political prisoner; Leonid Pliouchtch, essayist, former political prisoner; Alexandre Podrabinek, journalist, former political prisoner; Zoïa Svetova, journalist; Maïrbek Vatchagaev, historian; Tatiana Yankelevitch, archivist, Harvard; Lydia Youssoupova, lawyer.