The delegations of Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine and all walked out of a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) session to “consult with the government” following the decision to reinstate Russia’s delegation earlier this week.
"The unconditional restoration of the Russian Delegation’s rights without the Russian Federation honouring any of the Assembly’s numerous demands runs counter to the core values of the Council of Europe and its Statute," reads a joint statement released by the group of delegations.
“The future of the Council of Europe is under threat as it is in danger of losing the trust of the people it stands to protect. We return home to consult with our governments and parliaments about the joint actions in the next sessions,” the spokeswoman said.
The crisis was sparked by the decision on June 25 to readmit Russia to the Council. Russia had been suspended following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. With elections for a new general secretary coming up, Russia was threatening to quit the Council completely, something that many members of the Council don't want to see.
The decision has split the Council down the middle. Almost all of the western European members voted overwhelming to allow Russia back in. However, those countries close to the Russian border voted against readmission. Many of those countries have suffered directly from Russian aggression, with Ukraine and the Baltic states standing out.
Still the assembly voted in favour of a report that will allow the return of the delegation from Russia with 118 for, 62 against, and 10 abstentions. Ukraine’s delegation protested the decision loudly but were unable to convince their colleagues.
Ukraine started the charge by announcing shortly after the Russian vote that it was going to suspend its participation in the European human rights organisation, but would participate in any vote on imposing sanctions on Russia.
The same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed "disappointment" with the decision of the PACE "to approve without limitation" the rights of the Russian delegation.
Appeasement or practical politics
The decision to reinstate Russia has provoked a crisis amongst Europeans.
“Russia belongs in the Council of Europe – with all the rights and obligations that entails.” – Foreign Minister @HeikoMaas welcomes the compromise reached for Russia to remain in the @coe: “This is good news for Russia’s civil society,” the German foreign ministry tweeted.
What worries the older members of PACE is that if Russia leaves the Council then what little leverage western Europe has over Russia will be lost.
Excluding Russia would be a blow for human rights as Russia is now the only major European power that is not a member of either Nato or the European Union (EU). Expelling it would also mean it would no longer have to adhere to decisions made in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Russia joined PACE in the early 90s and as part of its accession process was forced to repeal the notorious article 121 of the Criminal code that made sex between men illegal. Among the obligations Russia took on was to become a member of, and adhere to, the decisions of the ECHR.
Kicking Russia out of PACE would mean even this weak and ineffectual leverage would be lost and Russia could act with impunity. As a member, nominally any Russian has the right to appeal to the ECHR for justice in the face of Russian lawlessness and some do. However, as the ECHR has limited powers the court is unable to offer Russians citizens any real protection from the abuses of their own government.
Most of the commentary criticising the council’s decision focused on “appeasement” and pointed to the fact that Russia is backing separatist rebels in the Donbas, who are fighting an undeclared proxy war, Russia continues to occupy the Donbas, and half a dozen Ukrainian sailors captured during the Kerch Straight naval clash last November are still in Russian jails.
Behind the loss of leverage is the fear in some western capitals that if Russia is expelled from PACE it will only be pushed further and more irrevocably into the arms of China, which is starting to become more assertive on the international stage, and Russia will, in effect, leave Europe.
The counter argument is that the only way to deal with Russia is to isolate it, to expel it from PACE and to wait for social pressures to build up until the Russian people finally turn on President Vladmir Putin and oust him and his government.
However, the policy of isolation has been a failure so far. Sanctions have caused a great deal of economic pain and Russia’s economic growth is anaemic. Putin was forced to address four hours worth of domestic concerns during his annual call-in earlier this week, culminating in a promise to take the rubbish out but the RUB25.7 trillion ($390bn) investments planned for the 12 national projects designed to deal with this problem. But while Putin’s regime is struggling in the face the rising social discontent, it is nowhere near collapse.
More realistically the relations between Russia and the Council are not working very well. The recourse to the ECHR should be one of the major boons of membership for regular Russians but the Kremlin has managed to swamp the process and bog it down into ineffectiveness, argued human rights lawyer Kirill Koroteev in an op-ed in Vedomosti this week.
“In Strasbourg, many speeches were made on all concessions being made by European bureaucrats for the sake of preserving the right of Russians to apply to the ECHR. But here, too, Moscow has a rational strategy to weaken the ECHR, to turn it from a regulator of new human rights issues into an accountant that prepares lists for compensating victims of systematic violations of laws and conventions,” Koroteev argued. “Russia supplies the ECHR with standard cases of torture and the dispersal of peaceful demonstrations on an industrial scale, and the ECHR has to spend a lot of resources on handling complaints about serious and almost indisputable human rights violations.”
Koroteev goes on to say that the Council has been ineffective in dealing with other human rights abuses amongst members, highlighting Azerbaijan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s over-reaction to the coup attempt.
“If it is unable to respond promptly and adequately to the challenges of the pan-European demands for democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights, the Russian contributions can only hasten its gradual extinction. Instead of fire, smoke,” wrote Koroteev.
The ball is now in the air as the newer members of Europe withdraw to their capitals to consider their next move. The whole affair has shown how deeply divided Europe is on the Russia issue and highlights how weak the intuitions designed to promote and protect human rights are.