Why Russia’s return to Europe’s key body is dangerous. In 10 Questions and Answers

September 7, 2018
After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of Ukrainian Donbas, the country faced sanctions from the West, including from the US and from the EU. Moscow also found itself marginalized in a top European institution committed to defend democracy, human rights and rule of law on the European continent: the Council of Europe. Today, Russia is trying to return, on its own terms, to the Council of Europe’s key body: its Parliamentary Assembly. In the 10 questions and answers below we explain what is going on and why it is dangerous

1.What is the place of PACE in the world, what influence does it have?

The Council of Europe was created after World War II to protect Europe by defending three principles: democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Through its recommendations, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) demands action on behalf of the 800 million Europeans it represents – and the 47 governments of the Council of Europe, represented in the Committee of Ministers, are obliged to respond. In practice, the Assembly often acts as the "engine" for the Council of Europe, driving forward new ideas, setting strategic direction, and initiating many of the Council's most important activities.

More specifically, using its powers under the founding Statute, the Assembly can:

  • Demand action from 47 European governments who must jointly reply;
  • Conduct probes to uncover new facts about human rights violations;
  • Question Presidents and Prime Ministers on any topic it chooses;
  • Observe elections and send delegations to mediate in crisis hot-spots;
  • Negotiate the terms on which states join the Council of Europe;
  • Inspire new national laws by proposing and giving opinions on treaties;
  • Request legal opinions on the laws and constitutions of member states; and
  • Sanction a member State by recommending its exclusion or suspension.

The CoE, and PACE in particular, lost some significance and political relevance as the EU, in the course of enlargement, ousted CoE authority; candidate countries gave priority to EU conditionality over CoE commitments. However, PACE remains essential and plays crucial role for Eastern European and Caucasian countries not belonging to the EU.

2. Why isn't Russia currently attending PACE meetings? Are sanctions applied against Russia, and if yes, why?

The reason of sanctions against Russian delegation and its participation in PACE works are closely interlinked.

In the wake of Russia's aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, PACE decided to suspend the Russian delegation's right to vote; its right to representation on the Bureau, the Presidential Committee, and the Standing Committee; and its right to participate in election observation missions.

At the same time, PACE did not suspend the Russian delegation's credentials, maintaining that political dialogue is the best way to find a compromise.

Instead of accepting this invitation, however, the Russian delegation withdrew completely from PACE and decided not to submit credentials for subsequent sessions. Thus it has rejected full cooperation with the Assembly.

3. What evidence do we have that Russia is trying to return to PACE?

Russia is persistently working to return to PACE without fulfilling any preconditions contained in previous resolutions of the Assembly. In order to triumphantly return to PACE in January 2019, Russia and its supporters invented a new way: to amend the current sanction rules of the Council of Europe.

These changes, if made, would guarantee that Russia cannot be sanctioned when it submits its delegation to the Assembly. Moreover, it will be virtually impossible to apply sanctions in the future against any member-state causing serious damage to the protection of human rights in Europe. In this way, Russia has de facto proceeded on the principle: if you cannot change the policy of the Council of Europe, change its rules.

On 28 June 2018, the Bureau of the Assembly decided to make public the report of its Ad hoc Committee on the role and mission of the Parliamentary Assembly (AS/Bur/MR-PA (2018) 8). That Committee was formed by the Bureau's 15 December 2017 decision to collect and summarize proposals for the reform of the Assembly. The main task of the committee was the preparation of proposals for the implementation of the Resolution 2186 (2017) «Call for a Council of Europe summit to reaffirm European unity and to defend and promote democratic security in Europe».

The Bureau decided to refer the Ad hoc Committee's report to the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, as well as to the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs, to be taken into account when preparing their reports on the issues dealt with by the Ad hoc Committee.

All but two issues discussed by the Ad hoc Committee were deferred for indefinite consideration – both involving proposals for report at the Assembly's 2018 part-session in October, 2018:

  1. Proposals aimed at maintaining, changing or supplementing rules about ratifying and challenging national delegation credentials, representation rights, and/or participation rights; and
  2. Proposals regarding the voting rights of members or the voting procedures of the Assembly.

Proposals of both types are crucial to accommodate Russia's long-standing condition that it will only return to PACE if there is no threat that they will be sanctioned.

This selectivity of the Bureau clearly demonstrates that while other proposals consolidated in the ad hoc Committee will be further considered without rush, these two issues were artificially selected as urgent priorities.

Though the deadline for presenting the report of the Ad hoc Committee was set for December 2018, it was prepared expeditiously – by former PACE Chairman Mr Michele Nicoletti, among others. The rush has a good reason: if the rules of procedure are not amended at the October 2018 session of the Assembly, it will be impossible for Russia to return to PACE in January 2019. Consequently, the entire year would be lost and the next opportunity would only occur in January 2020.

4. How would Russia's unconditional return to PACE contradict the values and principles of the Council of Europe?

The sanctions imposed on the Russian delegation are justified by Russia's behavior. The illegal annexation of Crimea and the active support given to the secessionists in eastern Ukraine constitute serious violations of the basic principles of the CoE within the meaning of PACE rule 8.2a: "The substantive grounds on which credentials may be challenged are serious violation of the basic principles of the Council of Europe mentioned in Article 3 of, and the Preamble to, the Statute…".

That article reads as follows: "Every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council as specified in Chapter I".

Russia's aggressive actions against European legal order and Ukraine were approved by both chambers of the Russian Parliament. Russia ignores the rule of law by annexing and occupying parts of Ukraine. Russia also systematically violates human rights – among other violations, by holding political prisoners. Therefore, unconditional return to PACE without the correction of Russian policies will be in contradiction to the values and principles of the CoE.

Europeans cannot disregard the violations of international law by the Russian Federation while deciding on the future of PACE relations with Russia. Any decision aimed at reinstalling Russia at PACE should be based on the Council of Europe Statutes and values, rather than on fears of financial consequences if certain states fail to honour their commitments and obligations. If the Council of Europe allows Russia to succeed in blackmailing it into an unconditional return, it will compromise and discredit itself. In this case, the weak Council of Europe will lose its full authority among Europeans.

5. Is Russia's unconditional return in line with PACE resolutions?

Russia is ignoring previous resolutions relating to the situation in Ukraine, in particular resolutions 1990 (2014), 2034 (2015), 2063 (2015), 2063 (2015)), 2112 (2016), 2132 (2016), 2133 (2016), and 2198 (2018).

In particular, the Assembly urged the Russian authorities to "execute in full all the demands contained in Assembly Resolutions №2132(2016) and №2133(2016) to stop military aggression against Ukraine and restore its territorial integrity", and to "execute in full all the demands contained in Assembly Resolutions №1990(2014), №2034(2015), №2063(2015) to ensure the rights of minorities in Crimea".

Most importantly, in Resolution 2132 (2016) – "Political consequences of the Russian aggression in Ukraine" – the Assembly reminded Russia of all of the demands set up by PACE in previous resolutions and resolved that "only significant and measurable progress towards their implementation can form the basis for the restoration of a fully fledged, mutually respectful dialogue with the Assembly".

Therefore, the unconditional return of Russia to PACE would be in clear violation of PACE Resolution 2132 (2016).

6. What consequences would Russia's return have on PACE, the CoE, other sanctions against Russia, and values in general?

Any decision aimed at reinstalling Russia at PACE should be based on the Council of Europe Statute and values rather than on fears of financial consequences of failure of certain state to honour its commitments and obligations. If the Council of Europe allows Russia to succeed in blackmailing, it will compromise and discredit itself.

Against the background of a loud corruption scandal in PACE it could trigger a full-scale crisis in the organization – a crisis of values and of trust as well.

It is important to note that a change to the Rules and Procedures would limit the monitoring procedures that give real power and influence to the Parliamentary Assembly. It means that any kind of violation taking place in any member State would not be responded to by the Assembly, and the composition of the delegation would not be affected as it was before.

7. What techniques and strategies are used to bring Russia back? How do the advocates of Russia's return to PACE explain the necessity of this?

We can talk about the complex of techniques and strategies. There is outright financial blackmail, behind-the-scenes political agreements at the highest level, public and non-public work with PACE members, public discussions using rhetorical techniques, and different active measures in the information space aimed at increasing or reducing the image of key players.

At the formal level, Russia and its advocates are pursing the idea of amending PACE Rules of Procedures so as to eliminate the possibility of imposing sanctions or make it virtually impossible to apply them. The inability of PACE to impose sanctions will be a guarantee for Russia that it can continue its policies without any consequences.

The main argument of the advocates of Russia's return is that Russia's membership allows its population to maintain access to the European Court for Human Rights as a part of CoE. However, in contradiction to the European Convention for Human Rights, Russia has adopted a law that honors Russian Constitutional Court decisions over judgments of the ECHR.

The role of Russia's financial contribution for the preservation of the CoE's vital activity is also being leveraged as an argument for readmission.

8. How likely is it that Russia would withdraw from PACE and what consequences would follow?

It is most unlikely that Russia would pull out entirely. Such an extreme response would be an admission that it no longer considers itself as devoted to the principles of democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights. This would contradict Russia's search for recognition and international respectability. Russia's preferred solution is to remain formally within the institution so that it can maintain control, but to behave as if it were outside.

9. Some people claim that Russia leaving PACE would be detrimental to human rights in Russia, which is why a compromise must be made. So maybe we shouldn't provoke Russia?

Proponents of a Russian return to PACE stress the risk of a withdrawal from the CoE and the ECHR, which could lead to depriving its citizens of protections of their human rights. The fact that Russia has already removed this protection by granting its constitutional court the power to declare judgments of the ECHR illegitimate considerably weaken such argument.

The Russian Federation has clear foreign policy tasks. The potential decision to withdraw from the CoE would be understood as a rejection of its commitments, and of common values, such as human rights and rule of law. This certainly contradicts Russian interests.

10. Will this be a first in the history of PACE – has any national delegation in PACE been restored in its role despite not fulfilling any PACE demands?

An interesting precedent is related to Greece during the "Regime of the Colonels" rule. Here is some information from the Wikipedia:

On 21 April 1967, just weeks before the scheduled elections in Greece, a group of right-wing army officers led by Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonels George Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos seized power in a coup d'etat. By September 1967, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands went before the European Commission of Human Rights to accuse Greece of violating most of the human rightsprotected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following the coup, 6,188 suspected communists and political opponents were imprisoned or exiled to remote Greek islands. The complete lack of press freedom coupled with nonexistent civil rights meant that continuous cases of civil rights abuses could neither be reported nor investigated by an independent press or by any other reputable authority. This led to a psychology of fear among the citizens during the Papadopoulos dictatorship.

The Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands took a very hostile stance towards the Junta and filed a complaint before the Human Rights Commission of the Council of Europe in September 1967. Greece however opted to leave the Council of Europe voluntarily in December 1969 before a verdict was handed down.

In January 1975, the junta members were arrested, and in early August of the same year the government of Konstantinos Karamanlis brought charges of high treason and insurrection against Georgios Papadopoulos and nineteen other co-conspirators of the military junta. The trial was described as «Greece's Nuremberg».

During the third part of the PACE session, 27 November 1974 P.Dankert (Netherlands) and E.Collins (Ireland) presented the report «Readmission of Greece to the Council of Europe». Greece became again the member-state of the Council of Europe and after seven years Greek national delegation returned to the PACE.

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter