The Moscow Times reports that the new French government of President Nicolas Sarkozy is wasting no time in confronting Russia over its support for Iran and its vile attacks on human rights in Russia. Dispatching Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a well-known rights advocate, to meet with his Russian counterpart, the French government first blasted Russia's obstruction of Euro-U.S. sanctions against Iran and then carried out meetings with Russian human rights activists:
Human rights groups found the visit by the foreign minister a more positive opportunity, providing him with their impression of what they called an increasing rollback of political freedoms. "I told him what it is happening ahead of the elections," said Lev Ponomaryov, head of the group For Human Rights. "We have no real opposition, since it has been taken under control. We are not allowed to have meetings or to gather." He told Kouchner that only loyal opposition groups were being allowed to take part in the State Duma elections on Dec. 2 and that they would only get into the parliament if they "behaved." Ponomaryov also said the democratic process started by President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s came to a halt when Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. "We are going backward," he said.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that while private groups had made it clear that the human rights situation was deteriorating, government human rights officials had been more careful in voicing their concerns. Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who also met with Kouchner, told him that most nongovernmental organizations operate "normally" in Russia. "They sometimes encounter difficulties with bureaucracy, but I don't believe the powers that be want to get rid of them." He added that there was some irritation over the fact that NGOs sometimes receive foreign financial support, but that the level of irritation was probably exaggerated.
Alexeyeva said Kouchner listened "carefully" and asked questions about Chechnya and the neighboring republic of Dagestan. Both Ponomaryov and Alexeyeva said they were very pleased that the French foreign minister was interested in what was going on in the country. "Maybe the last French government was also interested in the human rights situation in Russia, but this is the first time I was invited to such a meeting," Alexeyeva said. "It is very pleasant." Part of Kouchner's visit was also devoted to laying the groundwork for a Moscow visit by Sarkozy in mid-October, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy said by telephone Tuesday.