Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Russia as secretary of state was understandably dominated by the fallout from the April 7 US air strike on a Syrian air base. While he met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other top officials, he didn’t meet with any of Russia’s civil society leaders. In the past, US secretaries of state have prioritized these meetings on visits to Moscow. The decision not to meet civil society leaders is sadly consistent with the Trump administration’s retreat from a long-standing practice of support for human rights and democracy activists overseas.
When I was in Moscow in March, I spoke with some of Russia’s human rights leaders about the implications of the Trump administration and the rise of anti-rights populism in Europe. My Russian colleagues felt it was important to convey to Tillerson their concerns about President Trump’s apparent agenda and help explain Russia’s broad social and rights landscape. But they were not given that opportunity.
Russian human rights defenders are troubled by the Trump administration for a variety of reasons. But they all felt that if high-level administration officials suddenly stopped meeting with civil society, it sends a troubling message. When a secretary of state—or foreign minister of any rights-respecting state—meets with Russian civil society and listens to their concerns, this signals to the Kremlin and other authorities that civil society is important, and that meeting and discussing issues with them is a normal thing to do in a functioning democracy.
Trump indicated early on that human rights would have no role in his foreign policy, and in particular that rights would have no role in the US relationship with Russia. After the State Department condemned the widespread arrest of peaceful protesters in March, it seemed the Trump administration’s determination to drop human rights from its agenda with Russia might not be an irreversible stance.
But the failure to meet with Russia’s human rights leaders suggests otherwise. It signals these activists do not matter and this reinforces the Kremlin’s efforts to marginalize their voices. These days in Russia, that’s a dangerous signal to send.