Dreaming of normal neighbourliness

///Helsinki Times

When first started to get involved in foreign policy matters towards the end of 1980s, I was a young leader of a very young (Green) party. Our natural orientation, as a grassroots movement, was to make contact with the old dissidents and new movements in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. This was not popular among Finland’s political elite of the time. Our only “allies” were a few elderly gentlemen in Finnish politics, who had been banished to the political desert by President Urho Kekkonen because of their sharp opinions about our Big Neighbour. It was not always so much fun to be supported by them, I can tell you.[:]

In 1987 I participated in a forbidden human rights conference in Moscow. I was deeply impressed by the courage of those people who were observed and harassed by the KGB. In 1989 we invited the green movements from all over the Baltic Sea region to Finland to discuss what was not supposed to exist: environmental destruction in the socialist camp. That was real news in the West. The Berlin wall came down that year and the Soviet Union collapsed just a bit later.

In the early 1990s everything seemed to be moving in the right direction in Russia. At least so it seemed.

It is not just me who thinks that things now look worse for the political “dissenters” than they did prior to the Gorbachev era. In Russia today, just the hint of a different political opinion gets one into deep trouble. Even worse, the security apparatus is immediately alarmed if anyone dares to address the still ongoing conflict and violence against the civilians in Chechnya.

This is what happened to Oksana Chelysheva and Stanislavs Dmitrievsky in Nizhny Novgorod. Their Chechen-Russian Friendship Society was abolished by Russian courts with a clever mix of two fresh laws, one on NGOs, the other on extremism. Both of my friends are now on the list of extremists, and FSB is watching their every step. Their case is currently pending in the European Court of Human Rights. If they are extremists, then indeed Vladimir Putin is a pure democrat, as the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder has repeatedly called his friend. Black becomes white, white becomes black.

But, but… Isn’t it true that one must be patient since Russia never had a chance to learn democracy? Hasn’t Putin, after all, created order in chaos, and doesn’t Russia need stability first, in order to have democracy? Why defend the rights of just a handful of people who are dissatisfied with the political system?

We should not be misled by such arguments. Russia has, first of all, joined European institutions such as the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which oblige them to guarantee political rights and freedoms. These rights belong to every individual and are not subject to any kind of majority voting.

Secondly, by denying its citizens the freedom of expression and assembly, Russia is also contradicting its own interests. The people we now see marching in the streets of Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Chelyabinsk and St. Petersburg belong to the most creative section of society that can really contribute to the development their country. We have not seen anyone throw a bottle during these demonstrations.

It is not only wrong but also stupid to beat these people, detain them, and hold their passports until their flight has taken off. I agree, it was utterly unwise that the German government denied some critical journalists access to the recent G8 summit. It simply undermined the credibility of Chancellor Angela Merkel who had just a couple of weeks earlier told President Putin to allow critical opinions at the EU-Russia summit held in Samara.
Russia is so close; Moscow is just one night’s train travel away from Helsinki.
What a fantastic country we have next to us. It is sad that we cannot have normal relations with our neighbour. Normal means that we can meet with them without being accused of “foreign” intervention in their internal business. My Russian friends tell me that it is their life insurance that we get engaged and actively support the democratic movements and defenders of human rights in their country. Even foreign businesses will face hardships as long as the rule of law is not consolidated.

It was great to see how the European Parliament showed solidarity to Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, one of the top people in the Other Russia coalition, the umbrella of the democratic opposition. I am – once again – really proud that I was a member of that Parliament for eight years.