I leave you, I leave you not. How Russia tricked the Council of Europe into self-amputating its powers

Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland was the first official of the Council of Europe to promote the return of the Russian delegation. Photo: ©Council of Europe/ Ellen Wuibaux 

International

On 24 June, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will vote on a resolution which will severely limit the continent’s largest human rights organization to sanction its violating member states. It’s an open secret that the resolution is being pushed through to accommodate Russia, whose delegation was sanctioned from participating in PACE after the country occupied Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and stirred up a war in Donbas in 2014. Over the three years that Russia has been trying to get reinstated in PACE, it has pursued different narratives. And it seems that the one of repeated threats to leave the Council of Europe altogether is what broke the camel’s back. But is there any substance behind the threats? And would unilaterally admitting Russia back to PACE really help dialogue and the promotion of human rights, as Russia’s advocates insist?

The push to reinstate the Russian delegation in PACE started in 2016 but has really picked up speed now. On 3 June, PACE’s Rules Committee approved a draft resolution capitulating to the demands of the Russian delegation. The resolution constitutes a “self-amputation” of PACE’s own powers to sanction any delegation, not only the Russian one, although it carries a benign appearance of harmonizing the participation of members states in the two bodies of the Council of Europe, PACE and the Council of Ministers, where Russia was not sanctioned and participates fully.

If adopted on 24 June by the majority of PACE Assembly Members, it would, in the words of Professor of European law Michel Waelbroeck “deprive the Assembly of one of the most effective means at its disposal to ensure the effective guarantee of the principles and values of the Council of Europe,” which would be a “strategic defeat for human rights defenders.”

How did PACE arrive at this self-destructive perspective and in what way did Russia manage to convince its supporters in the Council of Europe to push through this resolution, despite the aggressor state making no effort to rectify its aggression against Ukraine, and even intensifying it?

Ukrainian analysts point to the strategy of “financial blackmail”: Russia stopped paying its obligatory contributions to the Council of Europe, causing an annual deficit of 33 million euros, or 7% of the budget, which brought about a financial crisis in the organization.

But it wasn’t the lack of money which appeared to reach Russia’s goal. Rather, it were the threats to withdraw from the Council of Europe, which started as early as 2017. Euromaidan Press’ sources confirm: the very thought that Russia, with its track record of human rights abuses, would leave the organization, triggering its withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights and rendering Russians powerless to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, was enough to chill the blood of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters in the Council of Europe and persuade them that giving in to Russia’s demands is the least evil.

However, upon a closer look, the messages coming in from Russia regarding its possible withdrawal from the Council of Europe have been contradictory. Ukrainian diplomats are confident: Russia is bluffing.

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Dmytro Kuleba. Photo: mfa.gov.ua

“Of course, each member state has a right to leave the Council of Europe, and Russia is not an exception. But we need to understand that the thesis ‘we need to make concessions to Russia, otherwise it will leave the Council of Europe’ is an argument which was tossed into the discussion to increase the pressure on the opponents of the Council of Europe ceding to Russia. During the whole crisis, three arguments were applied regarding Russia’s absence in PACE, with a higher degree of pressure each time.

 

2016: Russia is not in PACE and that’s not right.

 

2017: Russia didn’t pay the money and we will be forced to stop its rights in PACE and the Council of Ministers (by the way, this is a manipulation, the Council of Ministers really does have the right to this, but there aren’t enough votes to realize it).

 

2018: if we don’t make concessions to Russia, it will leave the Council of Europe,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the Council of Europe, told Euromaidan Press.

Russian politicians don’t hide their hopes that the lifting of political sanctions on Russia in PACE will be the first step towards lifting EU economic sanctions against Russia – something that is worries Russia far more than the PACE resolutions calling to stop its aggression against Ukraine. However, if PACE lifts sanctions on Russia, it would be the first step towards deconstructing the European system of pressure on the aggressor, believes Dmytro Kuleba.

I leave you, I leave you not: a chronology

Starting from 2017, Russia and its friends in the Council of Europe (CoE) have sent many contradictory signals on whether the country would leave the organization or not. Paradoxically, they have succeeded in the widespread establishment of a narrative that the CoE must unilaterally give in to Russian blackmail without expecting any changes in Russia’s behavior for the good of the average Russian citizen.

The idea that Russia would leave the Council of Europe first came up in October 2017, when Russia had cut their payments to the CoE and a resolution was adopted opening the door for the return of the Russian delegation.

Then, the prevailing narrative, propelled by PACE Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland, was that Russia’s non-payments would mean its withdrawal from the CoE. However, at closed meetings with Assembly Members, he already mentioned that the Russian delegation would withdraw from the Assembly if sanctions were not lifted. At a meeting with the EPP group, Jagland insisted that if Russia did not vote for the Secretary General, Commissioner of Human Rights, and judges of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), their authority would not be recognized, and, consequently, 130 million Russian citizens would suffer. Jagland, however, failed to mention that he himself was chosen without Russian approval, which did not prevent Russia from recognizing his authority – perhaps because of Mr. Jagland’s campaign to reinstate the Russian delegation in PACE.

From that time on, Mr. Jagland started openly lobbying for PACE to make concessions to Russia so that the delegation does not withdraw from the CoE during visits to European capitals. His main argument was that a country that didn’t pay its membership fees could not be a member of the Council of Europe; but instead of pressuring Russia to pay the fees, he suggested “forgiving” the country’s aggressions and caving into its demands.

Jagland’s rhetoric was complemented by tantalizing statements of Russian politicians that Russia would indeed go. For instance, on 25 April 2018: Russian Senator Aleksei Pushnov tweeted that PACE should not “multiply resolutions, but think of how to return Russia. Otherwise, the CoE risks losing not only Russian money, but Russia altogether.”

After being elected in January 2018 as PACE President, Michele Nicoletti became another advocate for Russia’s return to PACE. His position was, like that of many other European officials, contradictory: on the one hand, he insisted that “no country could blackmail us and put forward conditions”; on the other hand, he openly supported lifting political sanctions on Russia “to engage them in dialogue” and even chaired a committee for that aim.

It is then that, according to the sources of European Pravda, that the Russians put forward an ultimatum: they would pay no contributions to the CoE budget until their delegation is returned; they will not implement any PACE decisions even if they are returned to Strasbourg; PACE should not just lift sanctions this one time, but remove the right to sanction a national delegation altogether.

But on 13 September 2018, Ivan Soltanovsky, Russia’s permanent representative to the CoE, told Izvestiya that Russia would not leave the organization, as this platform was important for its national interests, that crises end “sooner or later,” and that slamming the door is easier than returning back later. One week later, on 20 September, Duma Speaker Valentina Matvienko canceled out that statement by declaring that a decision to leave the CoE was “ripening” inside Russia. The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed yet a third position: that Russia was ready to stay in a CoE where “no member state would be discriminated” and would have “equal rights.”

After a resolution to lift the sanctions pressure on Russia failed on 9 October 2018, Mr. Jagland announced that the Council of Ministers was obliged to sanction Russia as well as PACE in June 2019, on the second anniversary of Russia’s non-payment of membership fees. Moreover, for the first time, he assumed that Russia’s exclusion from the CoE was a real possibility if the country didn’t resume its payments.

Valentina Matvienko responded on 11 October, when she informed that Russia would decide on its membership in the CoE by January 2019, and immediately precipitated movements to “forgive Russia” by European politicians. On 12 October 2018, Mr. Jagland announced it wasn’t too late to “stop Ruxit,” which was by this time “not about Europe which is begging for Russian money,” but “human rights of millions of Russian citizens, European unity, support of dialogue between member states,” and on 6 November 2018, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared he was “worried about signals from Russia concerning the country’s possible exit from the CoE” and supported PACE initiatives to “find a solution” to the situation.

By this time, the CoE had made a budget without the Russian contributions – apparently, the argument that Russia would need to be kicked out if it didn’t pay up was no longer relevant.

In 2019, attempts to “forgive” Russia in PACE picked up speed.

On 21 January 2019, after Russia once again informed they would not send a delegation to PACE, PACE President Liliane Maury Pasquier, after being reelected to her position, announced that PACE should search for ways to lift sanctions on the Russian delegation. Days later, Konstantin Kosachev, head of international relations Committee of the Federation Council, said that Russia was preparing a plan for the country’s exit from the CoE.

In April 2019, Thorbjørn Jagland stated that the CoE should lift sanctions on the Russian delegation to avoid creating new “division lines” in Europe and declared that PACE’s mandate was “human rights,” including protecting Russian citizens.

At that time, it became clear that German Assembly Members started leading a non-public campaign to reinstate Russia in PACE. Andreas Nick, head of the German delegation, told then that Russia’s acceptance back to PACE would not mean the approval of the annexation of Crimea or aggression in Donbas, that the UN, OSCE, and the Minsk process were better platforms than the CoE for solving these conflicts, and that PACE should be preserved as another platform for dialogue which may be useful in the long run.

“Our ambition lies in creating a more effective sanctions mechanism together with the Committee of Ministers, obliging members states, and making the Council of Europe a lot stronger in the role of protecting human rights, rule of law, and pluralistic democracy,” Nick said then.

It is hard to see how the Council of Europe will become stronger in protecting all those things if PACE unilaterally capitulates to Russia’s demands. Dialogue envisions mutual compromises; yet PACE is on the doorstep of caving into Russian blackmail without any reciprocal steps. Were Russia to release all the illegally held Ukrainians and stop giving out Russian passports in Donbas, it would send a signal that the country is ready for dialogue. Unfortunately, Russia has not shown any such readiness. Moreover, it is difficult to see how affirming Russian human rights violations and violation of international law in occupied Crimea and Donbas could achieve anything but the opposite of Nick’s stated goal.

On 5 May 2019, Ivan Soltanovskyi mentioned that Russia did not rule out withdrawing from the CoE and European Convention on Human Rights if “no compromise would be found.”

But on 17 May 2019, Sergei Lavrov said that Russia was not aiming to leave the CoE, “like the rumors try to portray it,” and is not refusing its financial obligation. This statement was made at the Council of Ministers meeting in Helsinki.

Yet, on 24 May 2019, PACE President Liliane Maury Pasquier called upon PACE Assembly Members to create conditions for the return of the Russian delegation.

By this time, the narrative that Russia’s exit needs to be excluded from PACE so that ordinary Russians don’t suffer had become so widespread that it had migrated to the talking points of the leaders of the two nations spearheading the campaign to return Russia to PACE: France and Germany.

During Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s visit to Paris in 17 June 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron said the remarkable statement that it’s not the Russian state that suffers from the sanctions on the Russian delegation in the CoE, but Russian citizens, despite them not being affected in the least, which is why France wants to prevent “Russia’s full exit from the CoE”:

“Because Russia’s membership in the CoE means partaking in a single jurisdiction space, the possibility to sue against the Russian state. If Russia will be expelled from the CoE, all this will become impossible.”

And the next day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated she wants to return the Russian delegation to PACE, but at the same time insisted that the CoE should not forget about Russia’s violations.

Thus, over two years, Russia has managed to go from being threatened with exclusion from the CoE for not paying its membership fees to convincing Europe’s top politicians that lifting sanctions on Russia is the only way to help ordinary Russians by preventing the country from leaving the Council of Europe.

What Russia gets from being a member of the Council of Europe

However, the narrative of “don’t you dare pressure us, or we’ll leave” is set bare when one examines what Russia gets from the Council of Europe.

Its problems with the organization have been accumulating since Russia’s war against Georgia, to the extent of some wondering why Russia was still a member state.

But this is easily explained: the growing political isolation of Russia forces the political elites of the country to value any more or less prestigious international fora. Apart from that, membership in the CoE allows Russia to influence it and use it as a tribune, as well as maintain a large permanent staff in the heart of Europe. Russia’s authorities continue using all this and is unlikely to stop using in the future.

“If we look at the argument logically, it’s clear that Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe is against its interests,” Ukraine’s permanent representative to the CoE Dmytro Kuleba told Euromaidan Press.

 

“First, a part of Russia’s legitimacy comes from being a member of the Council of Europe.

 

Second, only PACE sanctions present a danger for it in the organization. It can avoid implementing the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights because it has a corresponding law [the law allows Russia to not implement ECtHR decisions if they contradict the constitution – Ed]. The convention monitoring can be critical to Russia, but the country go for years without implementing it. Only PACE sanctions deal a blow to Russia, and because of this it wants to destroy them. I’m not God to give a 100% guarantee of what Russia will do. But I don’t see logical and emotional reasons for Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe.”

The voice of Russian civil society

While many European officials believe that all of Russia’s civil society is begging to lift sanctions on Russia to only lessen the threat of their country slamming the door on the CoE, Russian voices are far from being unanimous in this matter.

Take, for instance, a memorandum of Russian human rights organizations asking to loosen sanctions on Russia in PACE which is widely cited by European officials as a reason to cave into Russian demands. Russia’s arguably most reputable human rights organization Memorial didn’t sign it, explaining that:

“By appeasing a serious breach of international law and ignoring Russia’s human rights obligations, the CoE will trigger devastating consequences for international protection mechanisms. In the long run, such actions are bound to harm our country.”

Speaking to Euromaidan Press, Memorial Board member and one of Russia’s most famous human rights defenders Svitlana Gannushkina insisted that ordinary Russians carried responsibility for the actions of their leadership, and that Europe must be firm with Russian officials to make them carry out the commitments Russia undertook. Therefore, sanctions can’t be lifted:

You cannot bow down to the offender. Our common task is not to lift the sanctions, but to stop the violations.”

What can Europe do to really help Russian civil society? Ms. Gannushkina gives a few ideas: hold joint meetings of EU and Russian politicians with Russian and global human rights organizations, so they will be forced to listen to each other. This, and not giving in to the whims of Russia’s elites, will benefit Russian society in the long run.

Facing the consequences

Whereas in the short run, the consequences of killing the Council of Europe’s sanctions mechanism will mean that PACE will soon be forced to accept a Russian delegation with the inclusion of MPs from occupied Crimea, with no way to sanction them, writes Serhiy Sydorenko, editor of European Pravda. It will send a signal to other countries with human rights violations, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan, that nothing is forbidden. After all, what reason is there to uphold the rule of law if there is no punishment?

In the end, lifting sanctions on Russia will be the first step to the death of the Council of Europe as an authoritative international forum. Just recently, the position of the Council of Europe played a key role in solving the situation in Moldova. The USA, which had, in the end, supported the new authorities, did so because they knew that the Venice Commission would do the same, which led to the resolution of the crisis. This was possible only because of the authority of the Council of Europe as an impartial arbiter. And this status will be gone as soon as the Council of Europe will abandon values in favor of pragmatic considerations in a strategically important question for Russia. Particularly, the Council of Europe will no longer be seen as an impartial arbiter by countries of Eastern Europe.

If Russia is unconditionally returned to PACE, not only will the image of the authoritative organization be destroyed. The Council of Europe per se may follow suit.

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