U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Thursday about a new effort by oppressive governments to "re-Sovietize" much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, taking particular aim at Russia for its crackdown on democracy and human rights groups just hours ahead of critical talks with that country's foreign minister.
Clinton's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will focus on the violence in Syria. They'll be joined in Ireland's capital by the U.N. mediator for the Arab country, Lakhdar Brahimi, in a three-way attempt to breathe new life into diplomatic efforts to stem the violence.
However, speaking to a group of lawyers and civil society advocates on the sidelines of an international human rights conference, Clinton took aim at what she described as a new wave of repressive tactics and laws aimed at criminalizing U.S. outreach efforts. The trends are indicative of a larger reversal of freedoms for citizens of Russia, Belarus, Turkmenistan and other countries that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
"There is a move to re-Sovietize the region," Clinton lamented.
"It's not going to be called that. It's going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that," she said, referring to Russian-led efforts for greater regional integration. "But let's make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it."
In a windswept tent outside the Dublin conference center hosting the annual meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Clinton heard tales of struggle from 11 human rights advocates.
Andrey Aranbaev, an environmentalist from Turkmenistan, accused Western nations of forsaking his compatriots.
"My country Turkmenistan is world-famous for two things: one of the largest gas supplies and gross human rights violations," he said through an interpreter. "Almost all international actors are talking about Turkmenistan's gas. But almost no one is talking about the gross human rights violations."
"Human rights and democracy in Turkmenistan was sold for gas," Aranbaev added.
Igor Kochetkov of the Russian LGBT Network said Russian authorities were trying to prohibit even the discussion of discrimination based on sexual orientation. And Olga Zakharova, a journalist with Freedom Files in Russia, said even use of social media was becoming more restrictive.
Clinton said she understood the complaints many of them lodged.
"We agree with your assessment that the space for civil society and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is shrinking, and governments are becoming much more aggressive in trying to stifle dissent, prevent the free expression and exchange of views," she said.
"It's distressing that 20 years into the post-Soviet era ... so many of the hoped-for indicators of progress are retreating," Clinton said. "And the impact on individuals and organizations is becoming more oppressive."
Clinton said there is a concerted effort to eliminate both American and international assistance for human rights advocates.
"We are trying to fight that, but it is very difficult," she said. "We will have to come up with new ways to support you, since everything we have been doing in some places, most notably Russia, is being criminalized. And the impact is not so great on us, but it's terrible on you."
The problem is compounded by America's limited influence with some governments, she added.
In Belarus, "we have struck out so far," Clinton said.
Ukraine, she said, is "one of our biggest disappointments."
And in Turkmenistan, the U.S. raises human rights issues all the time. "We get no response," she said.
Speaking later to the 57-nation OSCE, Clinton offered more muted criticism of Russia.
She reiterated concerns about a new Russian law that requires organizations and journalists receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents," a move the U.S. believes is designed to stifle internal criticism of President Vladimir Putin's government. His foreign minister, Lavrov, was in attendance.
For his part, Lavrov proposed Thursday new rules for OSCE election monitoring missions to avoid what he described as double standards in a year that had votes in both Russia and the U.S.
"Hundreds of observers were sent to some places, while only several were sent to others," he said. "The same facts in various countries, for example early voting, were assessed differently."
Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik contributed to this report.