As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) gathered for their autumn session in Strasbourg, all eyes were on the vote for the resolution “Strengthening the decision-making process of the Parliamentary Assembly concerning credentials and voting.” Despite having no reference to Russia in its text, it was designed to allow sanctions to be lifted on the Russian delegation in 2019.
At the evening session on 9 October 2018, PACE delegates did not gather enough votes to change the sanctions rules and postponed this question until the next year.
The debates in the Assembly showed that there are insufficient votes to change the sanctions rules as Russia had demanded – this would have required two-thirds of the votes of the delegates.
A failed vote would have meant that the resolution was “killed.” To avoid this, rapporteur Petra de Sutter proposed to stop the debates and postpone the discussion until January, referring the draft resolution back to the committee, European Pravda reported.
“I heard very emotional arguments, even anger [about the attempts to ‘forgive Russia’ – ed]. There were constructive arguments as well. But we see that there will be no votes. So I propose postponing the discussion until January,” she explained.
This means that Russian delegation will remain under sanctions for at least a year. The Ukrainian delegation saw the vote as a victory. However, the victory is for the battle, not the war.
The push to return Russia to PACE
Last year, under Russian pressure, PACE started the process of reassessing its own procedures. The delegates were ready to limit themselves so that the Russian delegation would return to the assembly.
In 2017, Russia exacerbated the crisis by stopping paying their membership fees to the budget of the entire Council of Europe and warned that they could stop recognizing its other organs such as the European Court of Human Rights, members of which are elected currently without the participation of the Russian delegation.
The Russians demanded they return without the threat of sanctions being renewed, without implementing any of PACE’s demands – at least seven resolutions calling upon Russia to deoccupy Crimea and get out of eastern Ukraine.
Then Russia would resume payments to the Council of Europe – €33 mn annually; or 7% of the CoE budget. And stop threatening the Council of Europe with Russia’s complete withdrawal from the institution – a red line for European diplomats.
Up till 8 October, Russia’s arguments were persuasive, Sydorenko writes. At the closed meeting of the Joint Committee, which gathered key representatives from both PACE and the second wing of the Council of Europe, the Council of Ministers, Russia’s representative Ivan Soltanovsky had convinced the vast majority of ambassadors that if PACE would change its own regulations and complicate the sanctions mechanism, this would be a good step, but it still left a crack for the possibility to apply sanctions on Russia. More radical measures should follow: sanctions should be canceled, PACE delegates shouldn’t have any levers for applying sanctions; all limitations should be approved by the ambassadors of 47 member countries; Russia should be included in the process.
Otherwise, “the future of the Council of Europe is in question, and I am not bluffing,” Soltanovsky said, hinting that Russia was considering withdrawing from Europe’s largest human rights organization.
The legal note which broke the camel’s back
According to Serhiy Sydorenko, editor at European Pravda, one of the reasons for this intermediary victory of the Ukrainian side are the excessively enthusiastic attempts of PACE Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland to persuade the delegates to vote in favor of the resolution, making it much more difficult for the Assembly to impose sanctions on a delegation. Titled “Strengthening the decision-making process of the Parliamentary Assembly concerning credentials and voting,” the resolution proposed increasing the threshold of votes for applying sanctions to a delegation from 50% to 2/3, which would have made the reapplication of the sanctions applied to the Russian delegation after Russia occupied Crimea in January 2019 much more uncertain.
Up till the day of the vote on 9 October, the outcome was difficult to predict.
Prior to the session, he started promoting a legal note penned by Jörg Polakiewicz, Director of the Directorate of Legal Advice and Public International Law at PACE. The document was handed out to delegates one week before the session, and it is still classified. But its conclusions are categorical: PACE doesn’t have a right to sanction any national delegation. Including, of course, Russia.
According to Polakiewicz, in punishing the Russians, PACE had systematically abused its statute rights, Sydorenko, who has seen the document, writes. This practice must be stopped, i.e. PACE should overturn its own powers.
This did not ring well with the PACE delegates, even those from Russia’s camp of supporters, who actively expressed their discontent with the document after the Secretary General presented it.
If the sanctions mechanism was really illegal, why had PACE worked on its amendment for one and a half years? Why is the document so secretive and prepared without the involvement of PACE?
“Are we some kind of goofs? He’s telling us: go play with your toys, but, actually, you are nobody in PACE and have no authority in PACE. What kind of attitude is that?” is how one of Ukraine’s friends described the situation to European Pravda.
An unexpected outcome of the vote is that, for the first time, the issue of whether Russia should be excluded from the Council of Europe was laid on the table.
“They have no place in our ranks”
Russia’s harshest critics in PACE belong to two parties – the liberals and conservatives. This time was no exception. Mart van de Ven from The Netherlands, who presented the liberals’ position, was the first to state: Russia’s threats to leave the Council of Europe could become a reality, but this should not stop PACE from prolonging sanctions.
“And the fact that Russia does not engage in dialogue, does not take steps towards this, does not send a good signal in this context,” he added.
Olivier Becht, his liberal colleague from France, developed this idea:
“If we vote against [changes to the sanctions procedure], we will push Russia to withdraw from the Council of Europe. And this will be a catastrophe. If we vote for it, then we will tell Russia: what it does can be forgiven. And this is also a catastrophe because it’s impossible to imagine something worse than what Russia has done in Ukraine,” he said and reminded about Churchill’s quote that if one chooses between dishonor and war, whoever chooses dishonor will also receive war.
The British conservatives and Laborists were even franker: they openly spoke about Russia crossing a red line, and its membership status in the Council of Europe has become quite urgent.
Angela Smith, who represents the group of British socialists, started by saying that Russia had played the blackmail game for too long. “I will not be intimidated. Such countries [as Russia] should not be in our ranks!”
Supporters of Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe were found also in Iceland. Sunna Ævarsdóttir, a delegate from Iceland socialists, called upon her colleagues to not hide from reality.
“Maybe it’s time to part ways with the Russian delegation? This would be more honest. It would be right to discuss if Russia could be a member of this club in the first place, and this dialogue should be held at all levels in the Council of Europe,” she explained.
In any case, the question of PACE’s sanctions on Russia won’t be actual in 2019. And in the meantime, a discussion could be held about Russia’s place in the Council of Europe.