Can the Council of Europe stand up to Putin?
As the European consensus for sanctions against Russia is eroding, the Council of Europe has found itself in a difficult position.
Last month, the first Russian citizen ever convicted of extremism for online comments won his case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). It was the first time that the Strasbourg-based court became involved in a case related to online freedom of expression in Russia. The judges found that Russia’s legal system had violated Savva Terentyev’s freedom of expression by handing him a year’s probation for a 2007 online post in which he wrote that “it would be nice to burn crooked cops”.
The ruling is only the latest in a series of judgements coming from Strasbourg that condemn Russia and its suppression of dissidents. Vladimir Putin may have cowed the world’s governments with his threats and braggadocio, but thankfully the ECtHR is providing some kind of bulwark. But their defiant stance could soon be scuppered by the court’s parent body, the Council of Europe, which is poised to become the first European institution to lift sanctions on Russia that have been in force since the onset of the Ukraine crisis – even though its purpose is to reject and try to prevent the very types of abuse that Putin’s government habitually employs.
At its next meeting in October, the Council’s legislative arm, the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), is expected to vote on a resolution to that would effectively neuter its own powers. The resolution would make it extremely difficult, even impossible, for the assembly to impose sanctions against member delegations. The purpose is clear: to provide a pretext for lifting sanctions against Russia, notably the suspension of its voting rights in the assembly. The sanctions are intended to punish Moscow for its campaigns in Crimea and Ukraine which began in 2014. But the Council has for months been talking about welcoming Russia back into the fold.
Of course, Russia hasn’t fulfilled any of the conditions imposed by PACE for lifting sanctions, chief among which would be reversing the annexation of Crimea. Putin, as usual, applied pressure with the stick and not the carrot. He slashed Russia’s annual payments to the Council by 20 million euros and pulled his delegation out of PACE, threatening a permanent withdrawal if the sanctions aren’t removed. The blackmail appears to have worked.
Contempt of court
To critics, this is a wretched farce. The Council’s founding mission is to preserve human rights and democracy in Europe. According to some Ukrainian commentators, it would forfeit all power to do so by waiving sanctions on Russia. Yet the Council appears desperate to please the Russian premier, whatever the cost. Its secretary-general Thorbjorn Jagland, who has described Russia’s potential departure as a “disaster”, has visited the Kremlin for several summits with Putin and even congratulated him on his reelection earlier this year – despite reports from international observers that the election was conducted in an “overly controlled” environment marked by “continued pressure on critical voices.”
Jagland has explained his willingness to forgive Russian aggression by saying that the country’s withdrawal from the Council would compromise human rights in Russia. Yet if this is his position, he clearly hasn’t read the transcripts of his own court over recent months. As a member of the Council, Moscow is supposed to subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). But the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which enforces the convention, has repeatedly found Russia to be in breach.
There are myriad examples to choose from. Last October, for instance, judges condemned Russia for imposing a suspended sentence on rights activist Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, simply for publishing statements by Chechen leaders in a newspaper. Less than a year earlier, the ECtHR decreed that Russia’s “gay propaganda laws”, which allow activists to be charged with promoting homosexuality, to be discriminatory. Perhaps most damning was the case concerning Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny, whose 2014 fraud conviction was deemed “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
Far from respecting these judgements, Russia has passed legislation to ignore them and warned it will not respect the decisions of judges elected without its participation. This is a clear violation of the ECHR, which obliges all members to abide by any judgements conveyed in Strasbourg and does not allow for exceptions. But Putin presses ahead with his campaign to crush opposition and deny individual freedoms.
Climate of fear
According to activists from the Open Democracy platform, Putin’s government has passed 50 separate laws that “strangle opposition activists and raise the level of fear”. The feminist punk band Pussy Riot are only the most famous victims of this campaign, while the jails are packed to bursting with like-minded citizens. Russian monitoring groups say the number of people jailed for hate speech has increased five-fold under Putin. Many of the ‘culprits’ were convicted for simply liking or sharing memes on social media. It’s all sadly reminiscent of the Soviet era, when the secret police cast a dark shadow over daily life.
For Putin, readmission to PACE would mark yet another victory. He’s strengthened his alliance with China, and his ally Bashar al-Assad is closing in on victory against the Syrian rebels. Six months on from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal on British soil, the international community has yet to punish Russia, despite clear evidence of state involvement. Donald Trump may have approved the use of sanctions on countries which meddle in future U.S. elections, but he is already talking about lifting the sanctions Russia currently faces for its involvement in the 2016 presidential vote. Little wonder that his Kremlin counterpart carries himself with even more swagger than usual these days.
For the Council, bowing to Russia’s demands would be a potentially fatal blow. By giving in to blackmail and pulling its own legislative teeth, PACE would both set a dangerous precedent and prevent itself from punishing future transgressions by ECHR members. Having made several notable achievements in its 60 year history, from leading the reconciliation of Europe after the Cold War to abolishing the death penalty across Europe, letting Russia wriggle off the hook would be a regrettable climb-down. If the Council of Europe won’t stand up to a bully and serial rights abuser like Putin, the very purpose of its existence is thrown into question.
Maryla Król is a Geneva-based research assistant at an economic think tank. Her research focuses on US politics and the EU-US relationship.