The return of the Russian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in late June captured headlines and gripped public attention in Russia. The general trend in the media was to present it as a major achievement and even a victory, as well as a harbinger of the end of the sanctions that were first imposed on Russia after events in 2014.
There are grounds for this positive reaction. A decision on the expediency of maintaining Council of Europe (CoE) membership was formulated in Russia earlier this year following interdepartmental consultations, when the involved ministries and agencies voted for it. Henceforth, that decision influenced Russia’s agenda in Europe, including its position at the May session of the CoE Committee of Ministers, which adopted a majority resolution to reinstate the Russian delegation in PACE. This approach also largely influenced Russia’s bilateral ties with the leading European states in the first half of 2019, primarily Germany, Italy and France. This goal was attained largely because the strategy had a definite positive effect.
Another new development that can be seen as a Russian geopolitical achievement is the split of PACE – and Europe as a whole – over Russia’s return. Like the CoE Ministerial in May, a stormy hours-long discussion on this issue at PACE led to the division of the Assembly into a European majority that supported the return of Russia and a group of countries and deputies – Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the UK, Poland and Sweden – that were firmly against it. The difference in positions on the “Russian question” gradually became much more outspoken, although the media preferred not to focus on the split, for obvious reasons. At the same time, this split has clearly helped mitigate the anti-Russia consensus that developed in Europe after the 2014 events, and can therefore be seen as a major achievement for Russia, probably a larger achievement even than the return of the Russian delegation to PACE.
But if we look at the preservation of Russia’s CoE membership not as a one-time victory but from a larger perspective, we will see that this could face Russian political practice with serious human rights challenges, which we have preferred to disregard in the context of the post-2014 conflict with Europe. Russia’s CoE membership has been reaffirmed and any uncertainties in this connection have been lifted, which amounts to the confirmation of the human rights commitments Russia made in the CoE voluntarily at a time when 25 percent, or even 30 percent, of the continental countries protested against this.
It is notable that the next day after the Russian delegation returned to PACE the assembly adopted a resolution, which, while reaffirming Russia’s status, also presented six requests to the Russian authorities. One is “to immediately pay all fees due to the Council of Europe budget,” while the other five requests concern matters of serious discord between Russia and the majority of CoE countries. These requests include: to release the Ukrainian sailors captured in the Kerch Strait; unconditionally and fully co-operate with the joint investigation team in bringing those responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 to justice; take effective measures to prevent violations of human rights of LGBTI people, in particular in the Chechen Republic; reopen the investigation of the murder of Boris Nemtsov; as well as enable complete and unfettered direct access of all human rights monitoring agencies to all locations in which Russia has operational activities (a clear reference to Syria). According to the resolution, PACE expects to be able to assess Russia’s response to these requests at the April 2020 part-session. In case of sharp differences, the assembly may again propose restricting the level of participation of the Russian delegation.
This resolution was supported by a majority of PACE delegations, including those that voted for Russia’s return two days earlier. In other words, the split and the loss of consensus over Russia lasted barely two days. Moreover, PACE has held a separate discussion on the murder of Boris Nemtsov and adopted a resolution that stated its “serious concerns” over the official version of the murder. The resolution mentions Russia’s unwillingness “to identify the instigators and organizers” of Nemtsov’s murder and openly puts the blame for this on Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin and a deputy prosecutor general. Moreover, PACE has taken a giant step that was never even considered at the mainstream level before: it has invited “all member and observer States and partners for democracy that have adopted ‘Magnitsky laws’ to consider including” in the sanctions those Russian officials who are allegedly guilty of hindering the investigation of Nemtsov’s murder. Two of these officials have been named in the resolution.
Next, Russia failed to ensure the election of Leonid Slutsky as PACE Vice-President. Like several other major European countries, Russia has a permanent right to nominate a delegate to the post of PACE vice-speaker. The candidates proposed by national delegations are usually declared elected without a ballot, with the exception of cases where the candidacy is disputed by a group of deputies. Slutsky’s candidacy was disputed, and the Assembly decided to hold a vote by secret ballot. Slutsky was not elected either in the first round, when a majority of the nominal roll of PACE delegates is required, or in the second round, when he did not receive an absolute majority of the votes cast. PACE suggested that Russia nominate someone else. One of the reasons Slutsky was not elected was a letter from an international group of journalists concerning harassment allegations against Slutsky, which the Ukrainian delegates distributed at PACE.
The strategy of the Russian delegation is becoming relatively clear against this background. In light of the harassment allegations by the human rights mainstream, Slutsky should not have been nominated at all. It was clear from the start that he would not be elected. Had the Russian delegation been poised for compromise and for as painless a return to PACE as possible, it would have nominated a different candidate. The nomination of Leonid Slutsky shows that the Russian delegation is set to press its point and that it will not budge.
The Russian delegates have said they would not honor PACE resolutions that were adopted while Russia was absent from the assembly. But the recent resolutions on Nemtsov and the resolution to submit the other five requests to Russia were adopted after Russia’s return. Will Russia honor them? This would be great in the context of human rights. But Russia’s current political position on these items clearly differs from the views of the European mainstream. Therefore, in the next few months, Russia will become an object of much more serious and substantiated criticism than if it had remained outside PACE or withdrew from the Council of Europe altogether.
Another reason to maintain CoE membership is Russian citizen access to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The main argument of many PACE delegates who supported Russia’s return was not the expediency of continued dialogue with Russia, but the desire to provide ECHR access to 140 million Russian citizens who want to protect their human rights from the actions of the Russian authorities.
It is a regrettable fact that the largest number of lawsuits in the ECHR has been filed against Russia. The runners-up, by a significant margin, are Turkey, Ukraine and all the other countries. The sheer number of lawsuits filed by Russian citizens against the Russian authorities shows that, however unpleasant it may be, political and legal practices in Russia do not comply with the Council of Europe’s human rights priorities. Another problem is that Russia usually delays the implementation of, or refuses to implement, ECHR decisions, including on the payment of compensations awarded by the court. The number of such cases is growing. Overall, this means that Russia is Europe’s “bad guy” when it comes to political and legal practice even if we forget about the Ukrainian conflict. In this context, is Russia’s decision to return to PACE and preserve its CoE membership evidence of the intention to revise the national policy towards the ECHR and its decisions? Because the political and media outcry over Russia’s failure to remedy the situation with the ECHR will be much harsher now.
The Russian media have recently started giving more coverage to Russian politicians who say that the ECHR’s decisions on Russia are politically motivated. The differences are very acute, as shown by the public debate between the ECHR and the Constitutional Court of Russia on the limits of the court’s interference in Russia’s internal affairs and Russia’s decision to honor ECHR rulings only if they comply with the Russian Constitution. The fact that the ECHR communicated the case of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 to Russia several months ago shows that the court is very likely to hear and adopt a judgement in this case. If the court resumes hearing the case and decides that Russia is guilty of violating a major human right, that is, the right to life, the global negative effect on Russia will be very powerful.
The internal political discourse over keeping CoE membership that has continued in Russia for the past few years was actually focused on the ECHR rather than PACE. The question was whether Russia would be better off withdrawing from the court’s jurisdiction or maintaining it in the current political situation. One more argument in this discussion was that a large number, or nearly 50 percent, of the cases Russia lost in the ECHR concerned the rights of prisoners. Part of the Russian public has a negative attitude to the idea of expanding the rights of prisoners and improving prison conditions. This may sound dreadful from the human rights viewpoint, but it is understandable in light of rampant corruption and violent crime in Russia. However, it has been decided to return to PACE and hence to maintain ECHR jurisdiction in Russia.So, if we see Russia’s return to PACE not as a one-time political victory but as the resumption of its human rights commitments, the country will have to choose between adjusting its political and legal practices and its attitude toward its biggest problems like the downing of MH17, to more closely align itself with the positions of the majority of CoE members, and facing much harsher criticism and stronger pressure from Europe. More importantly, it will be reasonable criticism, because returning to Europe was our choice.