I recently travelled to Georgia and Armenia to meet human rights groups. After two days in Georgia we drove east, the hilly landscape gradually turning mountainous, sheep and cattle tended by shepherds in littered, post-Soviet villages. For a long time the road followed a small river, plastic trash snagging on rocks and branches. This could have been a landscape of extraordinary beauty; instead it was depleted and scarred by nearly a century of bad or indifferent governance.
Crossing the border into Armenia, the river was still there, the litter now older, almost indistinguishable from the brown water and grey rock. There were remnants of the Soviet state – giant concrete chutes channelling water from the steep mountains, occasional blocks of flats now, like the rubbish, taking on the colour of the dark earth. In one valley ruins from the earthquake in 1988 stood like archaeological remains.
Every village we drove through was half abandoned – the falling down houses haphazardly mended with metal sheets or planks of wood. Whole families move if they can, otherwise women and children remain while the men join the migrant labour force in Russia, sending meagre remittances home. I know there were children in these villages, because occasionally laundry – the only colour in this bleak world – hung from wires, drying in the still dusk. We saw no people, and no shops. We saw no other cars.
In Britain we sometimes forget the harsh reality behind the talk of human rights in transitional states. Human rights language is the same the world over, bland and institutional. Thus in Georgia many groups talked about "prison reform". The issue in fact was the widespread use of torture, revealed when secret footage was released of detainees raped with broom handles or burned with cigarettes, guards looking on, indifferent to the screams. The victims were ordinary criminals; this was part of police and prison routine. After the release of the footage, thousands of people took to the streets, the minister for corrections had to resign; 16 out of 17 prison directors were fired. Some claim the footage was staged; no one, however, disputes that those things went on.
Other groups talked about "corruption" and "transparency". Here is one case: an Armenian shopkeeper is visited by tax officials, demanding a bribe. He refuses, and takes them to court. Several years and many court cases later he wins his case, but by now the same tax officials have so terrorised his suppliers that he can't stay in business.
In Armenia campaigners talked about "hospital reform". Many people with learning disabilities rather than mental illness are institutionalised in mental hospitals. Even if you are let out, once in the system you can be committed at any time in the future by a doctor's order.
The human rights activists (some former dissidents) we met steadfastly rely on, and believe in, the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, despite the fact that tens of thousands of cases are languishing there in a seemingly permanent backlog. It's all they have.
European solidarity is an empty concept to most British people, at least judging from the media. But democracy and the rule of law on the margins of Europe matter to all of us. Georgia and Armenia, and 14 other nations, are in talks with the EU under the European neighbourhood policy. It offers a degree of economic integration in return for a commitment to democracy and human rights, the rule of law, market economy principles and sustainable development. Free trade for good governance – it's a win-win deal.
In Georgia and Armenia, however, so long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the state is still weak – and occasionally thuggish – the economies are largely oligarchical, and there is a lack of watchdog institutes – that function is almost entirely given over to civil society. As in all former Soviet republics, there is a history of institutional brutality and indifference lingering on in the army, the prisons, hospitals and orphanages.
And yet people in Yerevan, the capital, talked hopefully of an Armenian spring. Serge Sarkisian, the president (and Putin ally), won a second term in the recent election, but not with anything like the Soviet-style 90% majority pollsters had suggested. Significant numbers of ballot papers had been spoiled. (The fact that one candidate, a former dissident, was shot and wounded in January may have contributed to voter disaffection.) The main opposition candidate, the American-born Raffi Hovannisian (37% of the vote), held a shadow swearing-in ceremony on 9 April.
In this region, as in any other, individuals come and go, and sometimes, as we have seen in Georgia, good people turn bad. European integration is the best bet for good governance. The alternative for Armenia is Russia, where NGOs receiving foreign funding are now required to register as "foreign agents". European trade agreements and human rights requirements must be better than that, for them and for us.
Sigrid Rausing travelled to Georgia and Armenia with the Open Society Institute.