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Russia’s return to PACE

Irrational compromise or defending Russian citizens from their government?

July 10, 2019 - Givi Gigitashvili - Articles and Commentary

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Photo: PACE (cc) flickr.com

Last week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) restored voting rights to Russia, suspended in 2014 after the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. The overwhelming majority, 188 deputies, backed the decision, with only 62 against and 10 abstentions from the vote. In an equally controversial turn of events, the second motion, which was passed that day, took away the right of PACE to punish any national delegation with the withdrawal of the right to vote.

The timing of the vote was not coincidental. Two years ago, in June 2017, Russia halted its payments to PACE following three years of only sending one-third of its dues in protest of the revocation of its voting rights. As the rules of the Council of Europe (CoE) clearly state, any country that abstains from contributing financially to PACE for two consecutive years must have its membership revoked— it was a make or break moment for the Council. Especially since the Kremlin seemed to be losing patience and even threatened to leave the CoE on its own accord should the sanctions remain in place.

Preventing Russia from leaving PACE was what many countries, led by France and Germany, wanted to avoid. Forcing Russia out of the CoE would — they argued — deprive its citizens the right to file complaints against their country’s authorities in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The Russian people, among all the CoE nations, have filed the highest number of complaints against the authorities. More than that, the proponents of reinstating Russia as a full member of the CoE believed that it was its membership that helped improve the human rights situation in the country by virtue of introducing some positive changes to the country’s legal system — such as establishing a moratorium on the death penalty or introducing  long-overdue reforms to the penitentiary system. Forcing Russia out of the CoE could put this process in danger.

The majority of Eastern European delegations, who voted against the motion, did not, however, buy into these arguments and argued that the Council sold itself out in exchange for Russian money.  Especially since, according to a 2015 law, the Russian constitutional court has the power to decide whether or not the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling should be implemented or not. Incidentally, Russia is the only ECHR member that can defy the decision of the court. In 2017, Turkey slashed its payments to CoE, and the institution run up a deficit of 46.5 million Euros — over 10 per cent of its annual budget. Its financial situation became dire enough that the CoE Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, claimed he would have to lay off roughly 250 staff members. Russia’s membership in the  CoE could mean patching up the budget hole as it agreed to pay its outstanding membership fee, which amounted to over 60 million Euros as of 2019.

Nations against allowing Russia back into the CoE argued that making such a concession without any reciprocal steps from the Kremlin’s side on the issue of  Crimea sets a perilous precedent. Since 2014, PACE adopted seven resolutions actively demanding that the Russian authorities restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine, to stop persecuting the Crimean Tatars, and immediately release the Ukrainian seamen captured in the Kerch Strait, as well as all illegally detained persons, hostages and prisoners of war. Countries such as Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Georgia expressed concerns that giving a green light to Russia’s return to PACE, despite not meeting any of the demands initially put forth by CoE, will only embolden the Kremlin and empower  more aggressive towards its neighbours.

Indeed, the Ukrainian delegation loathes the not-so-unrealistic prospect of members of the Crimean parliament being included into Russia’s delegation to PACE. In fact, prior to the June 2019 meeting which fully restored Russia’s rights as the CoE member, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavel Klimkin, threatened to abandon the Minsk peace talks should Kremlin regain its voting rights. Ukraine was particularly disappointed in two key mediators in the peace negotiations, France and Germany, who were the most vocal advocates for Russia’s return to PACE.

Russia’s return has therefore exposed the fact that European countries do not have a common position and therefore a shared perception of Russia as a threat. In addition, they seem to lack a clear strategy. For many Eastern Europeans, it was a moment of clarity; should Russia try to jeopardise their security in the future, Western European countries may choose to side with the Kremlin. Estonia’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Mart Helme, went as far  to suggest that his country should suspend its activities in the CoE and that the Eastern European nations should rely more on the United States for its security guarantee rather than their Western European partners.

The concerns of the Eastern Europeans are shared by many in Russian civil society, whobelieve that major European countries camouflage their desire for Russian money and only pretend to care about the Russian citizens and its civil society. Human Rights organizations argue that PACE should not have made unilateral concessions without forcing Russia to fulfil its human rights commitments as doing so undermines the effectiveness of international legal protection mechanisms. As Garry Kasparov put it, “the excuse that a handful of persecuted Russians can use the CoE and the Court of Human Rights to sue Putin for a few dollars is like putting a bandage on stage four cancer.”

In Russia itself, the mood is mostly celebratory. The majority of Russia’s political elites appreciate the country’s membership in CoE, which they see as an essential international organization where Russia has political influence. For them, the restoration of voting rights is a step forward towards breaking the current isolation imposed on Russia. It was also interpreted as a sign that the significance of the Ukrainian problem is dwindling amid a long-standing deadlock in the peace process when the European countries realised that sanctions against Russia lacked effectiveness. Many in Russia believe that Europe finally decided to look beyond contentious issues and normalise its relations with Moscow.  Although the west currently sanctions four out of the eighteen members of the Russian delegation in PACE, they will be able to join PACE sessions and the ban on entry to the European Union will become invalid. The speaker of the Crimean parliament even argued that Europe has finally started to see Crimea as part of Russia.

Not everyone in Russia is equally excited about the restoration of voting rights. Some members of Russia’s political elite see its membership in PACE as worthless, as it does not bring the country any significant foreign policy dividends and limits Moscow’s power over its domestic and international affairs. These elites are worried that Russia will continue to be criticised for its human rights violations, so paying a membership fee to the CoE is a waste of money.

In all likelihood, Russia’s unconditional return to PACE will undermine the international standing of the institution and its reputation as an objective defender of European values and the rule of law. Especially since the restoration of  voting rights happened not only because Russia did not back down on the issue of Crimea, but in fact continued to commit subsequent crimes: its involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, meddling in the US and European elections,  poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripals in the UK and giving Russian passports to Ukrainians living in Donbass. The fact that the decision about PACE was made in spite of mounting evidence that Russia is not going to play by the rules and become a more reliable partner for Europe enables the Kremlin to reinforce its international position and show to its domestic audiences that Europe is bending to Russia’s demands. Even the minority that is not enthusiastic about returning to PACE cannot deny that. Especially since — in a dramatic blow to Ukraine — Europe is deviating from the “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” formula, which puts the effectiveness of the Minsk talks into question.

Perhaps, most worryingly, welcoming an unapologetic Russia sends a detrimental signal to other CoE members: violations of human rights can go unpunished — as long as you pay the membership fees on time.  

Givi Gigitashvili is a political risk analyst focusing on Russia and Eastern Partnership countries. Previously, Givi has been engaged with a number of think tanks in Kyiv (Maidan of Foreign Affairs), Riga (Latvian Institute of International Affairs), Berlin (Institute of European Politics) and Warsaw (Center for Social and Economic Research), where he contributed to a variety of research projects.

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