On the eve of an EU-Russia summit, a leading human rights group urged the Western Europeans on Thursday to challenge the Kremlin about its rights record.
Human Rights Watch issued a list of grievances, including torture, prevention of peaceful dissent and unlawful detentions in Chechnya, and said failure to press Moscow about them would only erode the European Union's already shaky relations with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is to join the EU in talks in Portugal on Friday, and the New York-based group urged EU officials to raise with him a "deteriorating environment for civil society" in Russia, abuses in Chechnya and European Court of Human Rights findings criticizing Russia.
"The absence of sustained and consistent EU engagement on human rights at the highest levels ... cannot but have signaled to Russia's leadership that the EU does not attach great weight to safeguarding human rights in its eastern neighbor," the rights group said in a report.
The twice-annual EU-Russia summits are never upbeat events - reflecting a steady decline in relations in recent years over trade, energy, human rights, Balkan conflicts and other issues that prevent the EU from concluding a broad strategic partnership agreement with the Kremlin.
Human Rights Watch urged Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates - host of Friday's summit in Mafra, Portugal - to be tough on Russia.
"Speaking up about repression," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch is "about treating Russia like a fully fledged partner that is capable of hearing and addressing criticism."
Human Rights Watch said that as Russia becomes more assertive in international affairs - thanks in part to its control of gas exports to the European Union - it has become less responsive to the rare foreign expressions of concern about its worsening human rights record. EU expressions of concern, meanwhile, have been muted by energy concerns, the rights group said.
Russia's Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, said that Moscow would treat any military intervention in the affairs of Belarus as an attack on Russia