This past year every session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has become more “Ukrainian.” At each session the deputies from 47 countries agreed to submit for consideration at least one question that was directly related to Ukraine or the Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
The PACE autumn session was no exception. Moreover, it could mark a turning point. The Kremlin had hoped to change the balance of power in Strasbourg — to get out of its purely defensive positions and through fortunate circumstances move to a diplomatic offensive. But it did not work out that way.
However, the current events in PACE are only a tactical rather than a strategic victory for Ukraine. Moscow has an ambitious task — to restore its powers in PACE at the January session. Kyiv is trying to block this process.
Currently none of the parties is guaranteed a victory.
Russia’s return to PACE
Those following the diplomatic (and not simply the economic) sanctions against Russia remember that the PACE session hall became one of the first places where Moscow suffered a tangible diplomatic defeat. Back in March, the PACE bureau decided that the world has no right to “swallow” the annexation of Crimea. In April, at the next plenary session, the Assembly decided to deny Russia the right to vote in PACE until the end of 2014.
At the time, the situation was not terribly alarming for the Kremlin. Putin believed that the world would resist for a while and then agree to the new “status quo.” During this period, Moscow maintained a bellicose rhetoric and excluded any possibility of compromise on its part. Then, Russia announced that it was not particularly interested in the Assembly. If PACE deprived Russians of the right to vote, they would simply end all cooperation in the Assembly bodies.
The Russians carried out their threat. In April, the entire Russian delegation left Strasbourg and did not attend any committee meetings. But time went by. Finally, it was understood in Moscow that this self-isolation only hurt the Kremlin since Russians were not successful in lobbying on important issues “from a distance.” Therefore, Russia launched its operation “return to PACE.”
Our sources (European Pravda — unit of Ukrainska Pravda — Ed.) state that Assembly President Anne Brasseur in recent weeks had several rounds of discussions with the Chairman of the Russian State Duma Sergey Naryshkin. They even considered his possible visit to Strasbourg.
However, Moscow decided to proceed step by step and to send only one deputy to the PACE session — Olga Kazakova. On Tuesday, September 30, she appeared as co-speaker on a key resolution for Russia — the condemnation of neo-Nazism. Success in lobbying for this document was to highlight the influence of Russian diplomacy and to guarantee the return of the right of the Russian Federation to vote in PACE at the next session in January.
It appears Moscow was confident of victory. A week earlier, it was planned that Alexey Pushkov, head of the Russian delegation at PACE, would also go to Strasbourg with Kazakova. Pushkov is “heavy artillery.” He knows how to negotiate with the parliamentary groups that are uncertain of their decisions. However, in the Kremlin it was decided for some reason that he would not be needed.
In the absence of Pushkov, the role of the “official Russian lobbyist” was played by Petro Symonenko. The leader of Communist Party of Ukraine came to PACE possibly for the first time during the period of the current Verkhovna Rada. He even brought to Strasbourg journalists from the portal Golos.UA, who shocked PACE employees with their plans to work during the session without knowing either English, or French, or German. (Symonenko’s wife Oksana Vashchenko is a director at the publication — Ed.)
However, even if Symonenko’s media support was all good, he certainly turned out to be an inadequate lobbyist.
The preparation of the “anti-fascist” resolution was a longstanding, planned project of PACE. Marietta de Pourbaix-Lundin, an experienced parliamentarian from Sweden, who is more commonly known as the PACE speaker for Ukraine, was given the task of preparing the document. However, there was “one problem” — her draft report had not a single word about “Ukrainian neo-fascism.”
Olga Kazakova, with the support of the Russian diplomatic machine, was supposed to “solve this problem.” At first, everything went according to plan. The Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination by a majority vote approved the Russian amendment that fundamentally changed the nature of the resolution.
In fact, the PACE decision was to be transformed from an anti-fascist to an anti-Ukrainian document. The original draft of the resolution prepared by Pourbaix-Lundin presented neo-fascism as a pan-European problem, and no specific country was mentioned. With the Russian amendment, Ukraine was “transformed” into a key country, where the glorification of fascists and their supporters was supposedly common.
In particular, the Russian proposal emphasized, “the decision of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which recognizes the SS organization as criminal as well as all its components, including the Division ‘Halychyna.’ It went on to state that “the Assembly expresses its deep concern about the growing trend of glorification in any form of neo-Nazi movements, neo-Nazism as well as former members of the Waffen SS, including the construction of their monuments, memorials, and the organization of demonstrations.”
One of the Ukrainian deputies shared his concerns with Ukrainian Pravda. “The Russians have chosen the sure path to PR success,” he said. “If PACE supports this amendment, Ukrainian right-wing parties will be declared Nazis. And then (Russians will have) the explanation: ‘See, Strasbourg has acknowledged it.’ If PACE rejects it, they will say that it is covering up the crimes of Nazism,” he concluded.
The Ukrainian deputies admitted that they did not rule out the worst case scenario. However, the Ukrainian delegation prepared its plan of counter attack.
“If the amendment on ‘Halychyna’ passes, we will propose that the rest of the resolution should include the list of more than 20 foreign SS division. It would list two Russian divisions, including the Vlasov army,” explained Serhiy Sobolev (Batkivshchyna Party), the deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada delegation to PACE.
The failure of the Russian plan occurred during the meeting of the PACE political committee. Here, the Russians were supported by more than a third, but fewer than half, of the deputies. It became obvious that the amendment probably would not pass in the hall. However, practically nobody expected the complete collapse (of Russia’s plan) during the plenary discussion.
Kazakova, as co-speaker, was among the first to speak and she tried to set the tone for the discussion. She told the room about the atrocities of the SS “Halychyna” and assured her audience that history was being repeated. “The Assembly must not be indifferent to the fact that in the Donetsk Oblast mass graves have been found of people who died because of torture and abuse that are very reminiscent of Nazi repression,” she declared.
Only one PACE deputy of the 45 of those who took to the floor during the discussion supported Kazakova. Even Russia’s old friends among the Serbs, British, and Armenians decided not to bring up this subject. The Cypriot communist George Loucaides spoke briefly about Nazis in Ukraine but even he did not urge the hall to vote for the Russian amendment (and ultimately even he did not support it).
However, anti-Russian rhetoric was heard much more frequently in the speeches.
“The Russian Federation does not prevent the appearance of these (Nazi) groups and even encourages their activities, finances, legitimizes and justifies them… The neo-Nazi groups that are waging war in Eastern Ukraine are kidnapping, torturing people,” said Tinatin Bokuchava (Georgia).
The Moldovan Ana Gutu also accused Moscow of supporting extremist movements in Ukraine and Moldova, and deputies from Western Europe recalled the discriminatory laws that have been adopted in Russia recently.
The voting on the Kazakova amendment brought an end to Russian attempts to regain the trust of PACE. Only 29 deputies voted to support it; 83 voted against. Another 12 chose not to demonstrate their commitment to Russia and abstained from voting.
Petro Symonenko was unable to mobilize even the left-wing forces. In the communist group, there were three votes against the Russian initiative while the socialists were completely split.
Waiting for the key battle
However, despite the evident failure of the meeting on September 30, this is only a tactical rather than a strategic defeat for the Kremlin.
Obviously, the Russian Federation will mobilize all efforts to return to PACE in January. Additionally, sources report that the President of the Assembly, Anne Brasseur, and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, want to see Russians in the session hall. Besides, in the closed sessions held by the leaders of the PACE political groups, anti-Russian sentiments are much less pronounced than was the case in spring and summer.
Finally, the financial aspect should not be overlooked. In the Federation Council of the Russian Federation threats have been made to stop payment of the Russian contributions, which represent more than 10% of the budget of the Council of Europe.
For officials in Strasbourg, this is more than a sufficiently significant amount to justify efforts to preserve Russia’s participation. Although, in any case, the final word does not remain with the Council of Europe, and not with Jagland, but with the PACE deputies elected from 47 countries.
At present, it is not only difficult to predict the results of the January session; it is practically impossible.
The debates on Ukraine scheduled to begin on October 1 will be an important indicator. They will demonstrate which deputy groups are predisposed to justify Russia’s actions on Ukrainian territory.