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U.S. Official Testifies on Russia Before Helsinki Commission

Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, testified today before the Helsinki Committee in Washington, remarking that although the United States wants to build positive relations with Russia, it would hold the country to high standards on human rights. The press release can be read here, and the full testimony here. Even by the latest standards of escalating rhetoric, Fried’s comments are very strong.

Russian Politics

Some excerpts – on repression:

The State Department has publicly protested, including at the OSCE Permanent Council, the recent police brutality employed to break up opposition marches in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Nizhny Novgorod. The EU also protested those actions. Authorities sought to prevent the marches from taking place at all: they denied permission to stage the events or tried to marginalize them by changing their venues; they harassed and detained Russians traveling to participate in these peaceful rallies; on the day of the events, disproportionate police presence wielded undue force against the protestors as well as journalists reporting on the events. Some of the same efforts were directed against members of the Russian opposition seeking to express their opinions ahead of the EU-Russia Summit in Samara May 18. The fact that the authorities allowed pro-Kremlin youth groups to engage in activity from which opposition activists were prohibited demonstrated selective use of the law. Nonetheless, it is encouraging that independent groups, despite harassment, were able to gather, garner supporters, and attract public attention.

On media:

The increasing pressure on Russian journalists is likewise troubling. Vigorous and investigatory media independent of officialdom are essential to dynamic, healthy processes in all democracies. In Russia today, unfortunately, most national television networks media-the primary source of news for most Russians –are in government hands or the hands of individuals and entities allied with the Kremlin. The growing agglomeration of print media in the hands of government officials or those allied with them likewise undercuts press freedom. Attacks on journalists, including the brutal and still unsolved murders of Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya, among others, chill and deter the fourth estate. Self-censorship remains a growing problem. Some space for free discussion remains, particularly on the Internet, as the vigorous and sometimes sympathetic coverage in the print media of recent opposition marches indicates, but it still appears to be shrinking.

On relations with the former satellites:

Russia’s relations with its neighbors and with Europe remain an issue of considerable concern. Moscow often still approaches its neighbors with a zero-sum mentality, particularly when it comes to those countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine, which choose to pursue closer Euro-Atlantic ties. We and European countries have spoken out against Russia’s use of energy to apply political and/or economic pressure on neighbors, such as in the case of Ukraine in 2006. We are concerned by apparently political interference with infrastructures, as in the case of claimed structural deficiencies that restricted traffic on a bridge to Estonia this month, prolonged “repairs” to an oil pipeline to Lithuania, or the closing of Russia’s only legal border crossing with Georgia last year. Russian-Georgian relations, after a period of extreme tension, have shown tentative signs of limited improvement, but Moscow could do much more to normalize relations. Russia maintains the economic and transportation sanctions it imposed against Georgia last fall. Likewise, it continues to take actions that call into question its professed support for Georgia’s territorial integrity by supporting separatist regimes in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions; it provides the same support to the separatist regime in Moldova’s Transnistria region. The United States continues to call on Russia to end these policies and work with our European partners to implement confidence-building measures designed to bring the sides in each conflict closer together. At the same time, we encourage Russia to play a more constructive role and to use its influence with the separatists to advance a peaceful resolution of each conflict in Georgia. The United States has had productive high-level discussions with Russia on these issues. Russia recently sent officials to Tbilisi to discuss reducing tensions in South Ossetia, and publicly scolded South Ossetian de facto authorities for violations of existing agreements. We have also encouraged both sides to ameliorate their relationship and understand that Russian and Georgian officials are scheduled to meet soon for this purpose.