Russian Return to PACE Divides Europe, Safeguards Activists

July 1, 2019

On Monday 24th June, during the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), member states voted in favour of allowing the Russian delegation to regain its voting rights in the assembly, thus ending a five-year standoff between the Council of Europe (CoE) and the Russian Federation.

In 2014, Russia had had these rights suspended following the illegal annexation of Crimea, though was allowed to remain in sessions merely as an observer. In response, Russia refused to attend meetings and began withholding payments. The Council, consisting of 47 member states from across Europe, is mandated to uphold the civil liberties of democracy, rule of law and human rights. A prerequisite for joining the council is the ratification of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. However, this recent decision has been made as the Kremlin continues to disregard human rights in both its domestic sphere and on foreign soil.

To make matters worse, the U-turn appears to be strongly motivated by the financial requirements of the Council. In 2017, Russia increased the pressure by launching a counter strike to the sanctions and refused to pay two thirds of its full annual contribution to the Council’s budget, then subsequently suspending its contribution in 2018 and 2019 entirely. Crucially, if a member refuses to pay for two consecutive years, then they can potentially be expelled from the organisation. The Kremlin would not have waited for the humiliation of being pushed out, and was making very real threats to leave on its own initiative. Having already lost Turkey’s contribution in 2017, its 7th highest contribution, the Council could not afford to lose Russia, its second highest contributor (roughly 9% of the Council’s budget), as well.

Whilst neither the Council nor the Kremlin wanted a Russian exit, Monday’s vote is a major victory for the divisive aims of Kremlin foreign policy. Regardless of its merits, the decision has exposed cracks between western and eastern European countries. This is evidenced by the stark contrast in voting patterns between those countries bordering Russia and those more geographically distant. 80-100% of MPs from the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia opposed lifting the sanctions. The delegations of Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Slovakia registered their anger and disappointment at the result by symbolically walking out of the parliament.

France and Germany were the main drivers behind the movement to reinstate Russia. The UK was the only member from western Europe to disagree with the motion. The vote has been interpreted as an insult to the younger democracies bordering Russia.; the message of which being: ‘if the Kremlin is patient enough, it shall eventually be forgiven for invading your country because we need its money’. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lamented the “pity that our European partners didn’t hear us and act differently”. The Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin, said there was a feeling of “betrayal” and suggested it would be hard to regain the trust that once existed for CoE. The perception that this was an act of weakness due the Council’s financial dependence on their imperialist neighbour will not fill those living closest to Russia with much faith in Western institutions and their supposed unfailing commitments to their fellow members.

However, the controversial decision has been welcomed by many human rights activists and members of Russian civil society. Many fear that, if Russia were to leave CoE and become isolated, then its already deplorable human rights record could become significantly worse. If Russia were to exit the CoE, they would no longer be under the jurisdiction of its sister institution – the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This would remove a vital legal mechanism through which Russian citizens can and regularly do appeal against their government.

Whilst it is true that, in 2018, Russia topped the list for human rights offences presented to the court, it also has the record number of victories for individuals over their government. Russia does, albeit begrudgingly, comply with a large number of rulings and has paid out substantial compensation to victims. Last year, the total number of pay outs came to $12.4 million.

Russia will continue to be a disruptive member of the Council. In 2017, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that Russia did not have to comply with the ECHR on any rulings that contradicted the its own constitution. This gives Russia more power to evade the demands of the court. Whilst, officially, the reason for the vote is said to be the opportunity for continued dialogue between Moscow and other European capitals, this generic response has been widely criticised. There is no doubt that by effectively caving in to Kremlin blackmail, CoE has paid with its credibility and integrity, but just how damaging the decision will be in the long term remains to be seen.

Despite its commitment to the ideals enshrined in the Convention, perhaps risking any further fragmentation caused by Russia’s threatened departure was simply too dangerous for the Council. Furthermore, by retaining Russia’s membership, the Council retains the ability to monitor Kremlin conduct both domestically and within the territory of all its member states. The Council can continue to provide and publish condemnation of abuses of human rights and the rule of law by the Russian authorities, and it can continue to demand certain standards of behaviour from the Russian government and compensation for Russian citizens who have suffered under its transgressions. Efforts can be made to repair the damage in the minds of Ukrainian and Georgian delegations, as other members can show solidarity to their cause by taking stances against Russia in the assembly. The strength of the Council’s resolve towards the Kremlin will be shown in time. However, as a hopeful sign, just days after the vote, the assembly called for the reopening of an investigation into the murder of Boris Nemtsov.