- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
According to an annual report on human rights in the European Union issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Europe is a dark, dark place, filled with Nazis and xenophobes.
The massive, 153-page "unofficial translation" of the report provides an account of human rights violations in all 28 European Union states. These transgressions include allowing torture and mass surveillance, deteriorating prison conditions, failure to combat human trafficking, ill-treatment of refugees and migrants, and even genital mutilation. And, of course, severe violations of the freedom of expression.
Some of the worst culprits include the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and especially the three Baltic states — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, all of whom have a sizable Russian minority that, according to the report, is being mistreated.
European countries have been guilty of many serious human rights violations in the past year. But coming from Russia — a country with a vibrant population of political prisoners, whose government largely controls the media, whose ethnic minorities are severely discriminated against, and whose laws prohibit the expression of one’s sexual orientation — the accusations are of course hugely hypocritical.
Here’s the dark picture of Europe that Russia would have you believe.
Xenophobia, Nazism, and Racism
One of the most pressing problems the EU should be dealing with, according to Russia, is the rise of xenophobia and racial hatred. The report mentions "Nazism" 24 times, referring to the revival of the far-right ideology in Europe, especially in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Greece, Italy, and Hungary. It’s a problem that public opinion in the region "clearly underestimates." The socio-political context of the neo-Nazi revival is the recent economic and financial crisis, as well as rising immigration. Discrimination against ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma, is rampant.
While all of this is true (though the Nazi threat might be a tad exaggerated) the Russians really should not be the ones pointing fingers. Ethnic discrimination, particularly toward the minorities of the Northern Caucasus is so widespread in Russia that even then-president Dmitry Medvedev admitted in 2011 it was a problem that could cause serious problems for the country and which should be dealt with.
In a surprising twist, Russia, which recently suppressed in bloody and brutal fashion an insurgent movement in Chechnya, cast itself as an upholder of Chechen rights in the Foreign Ministry’s report, disapprovingly citing a Polish court ruling that held that a customs official who had called Chechens "despicable parasites" and "Caucasian idlers" had "not exceeded the limits of freedom of expression."
When it comes to the rights of homosexuals, Russia has a somewhat different interpretation of what does and does not constitute a human right. Last year, Russia implemented legislation which accord the country’s citizens the right to be protected from "gay propaganda." In the Russian view, many European states regularly violate this fundamental "right." In "their aggressive promotion of the sexual minorities’ rights," European countries have attempted to "enforce on other countries [presumably Russia] an alien view of homosexuality and same-sex marriages as a norm of life and some kind of a natural social phenomenon that deserves support at the state level," according to the report.
But in an attempt to add Germany to the list of human rights offenders, the report’s authors have a bizarre change of heart and come to the defense of sexual minorities. "Despite the aggressive propaganda of homosexual love within the European Union and fierce criticism of third countries for alleged violations of sexual minority rights, it would be wrong to believe that the [sic] Germany’s legislation in this area is free from discrimination and its society is completely tolerant. Facts show that cautious and negative attitudes towards members of the LGBT community, including homophobia, are widespread in the German society."
Freedom of expression
From there, the report only gets better as it tries to upbraid European countries for their alleged violations of press freedoms. According to the report, the EU imposes "significant restrictions on the freedom of expression and the media." In Germany, for instance, "commercialization" of the press "adversely affects the quality of information and comprehensive coverage." Though the Russians refrain from suggesting a way to fix Germany’s media problem, the obvious solution would be implementing the Russian model — where the authorities own or control most media outlets.
Forgetting that Russia has launched a massive and intrusive surveillance program to up security ahead of the Sochi Olympic, the report also criticizes EU nations for carrying mass surveillance activities as revealed by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Omitting their own atrocious prison labor camp system, which was most recently described by jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, EU nations also come under criticism for their deteriorating prison conditions.
The European Union still has a lot to work on. In an unfortunately worded statement from the report, Russian experts write that "the existing system of protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms in the EU remains ineffective and flawless." And, yes, the Russian Foreign Ministry really distributed a document with that egregious a translation error.
But there’s a glimmer of light in the tunnel. Luxembourg, one of the European Union’s founding members, had no "noteworthy violations." There, the human rights situation "remains favorable as a whole."
What a relief.