Does Norway have what it takes to pressure Russia?

Opposisjonspolitiker Grigory Javlinskij og Bellona-leder Frederic Hauge på fredagens seminar.
(Foto: Annicken Vargel/Bellona)

Publish date: June 16, 2009

Written by: Anne Karin Sæther

Translated by: Charles Digges

During last week’s seminar dedicated to the crisis in Russia, opinions were shared on what roll Norway could play in the authoritarian and calamity-ridden country. Russian opposition politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who came to Oslo for the seminar, said Russia must take on the clean-up job itself without relying on other countries to step in.

Friday’s seminar, arranged by Bellona and The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, was dedicated to the financial and human rights meltdown in Russia. Yavlinsky, who is head of the opposition Yabloko party and a pre-eminent economist, Russian human rights activists Svetlana Gannushkina and Alexander Nikitin, chair of the board of diectors of Bellona St. Petersburg, were the keynote speakers.

All three of the prominent speakers were crystal clear in their descriptions of today’s Russia: The country lacks democratic institutions, is authoritarian and is corrupt from the top down.

“We have no democratic system. We have an authoritarian regime and a successful imitation of a democratic system, said Yavlinsky. “We do not have an independent parliament, and we do not have an independent judiciary. Without these two things, you have no laws either. That is to say that we have some papers, but that is not the same as having law that is equal for all,” he said.

Gannushkina used the word “catastrophe” to describe the current situation and argued that Russia will completely collapse, at least for a period.

“The lack of respect for the law leads to corruption, and human rights exist only on paper,” said Gannushkina. “Thw words are empty of meaning.”

Gannushkina emphasised that the crisis could be used  to influence the current situation in today’s Russia, and that Norway must pressure Russian authorities while still cooperating with them.

Yavlinsky was dubious that any future help would have any real significance.

“Russia has a long way to go. Nothing can help us. We must do it ourselves,” he said before adding, “I agree that democratic values must be fought for, but I am not in an position to lecture Norway. What I mean is that in the first place we need a good example. It is difficult to look at Iraq, Guatanamo and so on and then demand that Russia improve itself. On the other hand, it is important to support Russia in an intelligent way by supporting the right people there.”

Independent of Russian oil and gas
Both Bellona and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have emphasised that Norway should support Russia’s civil society, and thereby strengthen the work with human rights and the environment.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin thinks Norway has a bigger opportunity than other countries to pressure Russia.  

“Norway has a clear advantage others don’t, as Norway is not dependent on Russian oil and gas,” he said.

Hauge: a new attitude
Bellona president Frederic Hauge also drew out the tensions of the relationship.

“We are experiencing a new attitude from Europe to Russia, and that this brings more criticism. Russia must deal with this, and has a huge need to show the world that a form of dialog can be found,” said Hauge.

“It is now extra important that Europe work with organisations present in Russia, for example, Bellona.”

According to Nikitin the relationship between Russia and European countries is the most difficult since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago.

“(Norwegian) Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre provides few clear answers about what Norway should do. He tries only not to provoke,” he said. “According to Gahr Støre, much has changed since the end of the Cold War and everyone is ready for a new relationship. This is fine, but it is important to remember that Russia is now an authoritarian and unreliable regime.”

“Norway must dare to ask complex and uncomfortable questions of its neighbour: When will there be an end to corruption?  When will the ourcome of court cases be determined according to the law? When will political arrests and murders end? When will Russia’s mass media be free – and many other similar questions,” said Nikitin.