Ruxit: Russia without Europe?

Modern world politics is rich in neologisms. It would seem that the term “Brexit” appeared only recently but now everyone is used to it and the word has become something quite natural. A number of similar terms have been coined such as Frexit, Polexit, Italexit and the like and all of them are being exploited by Eurosceptic parties in various EU countries to put into question their own membership in the alliance.  However, there is yet another word derived from Brexit that up until not so very long ago has been rather obscure, at least in Russia, although it was directly related to it. The term was invented and presented in public by Thorbjørn Jagland , a Norwegian politician currently serving as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Addressing a recent news conference held jointly with the Finnish foreign minister, he happened to mention that Ruxit was approaching and Russia’s likely withdrawal from the Council of Europe. 

The context of this situation is quite clear: Russia was stripped of its vote at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) after the onset of the Ukraine crisis. In response, the Russian delegation refused to attend any meetings and generally suspended its contributions to the budget of the Council of Europe. According to the rules of procedure, a country that fails to pay its contributions within a strictly defined timeframe can be expelled from the Council of Europe on formal grounds. For Russia, this period will expire in 2019. Given that the CE leadership failed to push through a decision to restore Russia’s vote at PACE’s autumn session (and it is far from certain that a decision to this effect will be adopted at the next winter session), the likelihood of Russia’s expulsion for failing to pay its contribution to the budget is becoming increasingly more real. Under these circumstances, some Russian politicians urged the country to voluntarily withdraw in the winter or the spring of 2019 without waiting to be expelled.  

Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko was the first leading Russian politician to declare in public earlier on in the autumn that an understanding was growing ripe in Russia that we might withdraw from the Council of Europe. Other similar statements followed and, logically, a discussion was launched at the working interagency level of various solutions to the problem. Hence, Secretary General of the Council of Europe Jagland has come up with a name that the world can easily understand: Ruxit. 

But if this does in fact happen, what consequences will Ruxit entail for Russia and Europe as a whole? Another question is whether Europe needs Russia and vice versa?

On the one hand, it is clear that post-Crimea Russia is and will be a target of serious criticism from many political forces at the Council of Europe. The divergence of values and approaches to practical politics is obvious and no debates are required when it comes to this. On the other hand, it is also clear that, if we call things by their proper names, the PACE vote and Council of Europe membership do not constitute the most serious leverage of pressure as far as Russia is concerned by comparison, for example, with sanctions.  

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Let us be objective: The average person on the street in Russia did not find it a very hard job to cope with the country’s expulsion from G8 in 2014, and many probably did not even notice. So far, there are no reasons to believe (as is to be regretted, perhaps) that the majority of the Russian public will care to any particular degree over Russia’s withdrawal or expulsion from the Council of Europe. 

Therefore, it should be taken for granted (again, this might be disappointing) that the differences with the Council of Europe failed to change Russia’s policy and will not do so in the future. For this reason the key Ruxit-related question should be formulated somewhat differently: Does Europe need this Russia? Meaning Russia as it is now, with no prospect of being different in the near future. The other pertinent question is whether this post-Crimea Russia needs Europe?

Here we can already compare the pro et contra arguments. On the one hand, the Council of Europe leaders are quite right in saying that the Russian expulsion/exit will dramatically reduce the chances for at least some dialogue or compromise in the future, with only the OSCE remaining from the formerly rather numerous multilateral diplomacy tools. On the other hand (although the truth of it cannot be denied), some parts of the Russian political spectrum emphasize the fact that a dialogue means being heard and understood by the other party. Under the present circumstances, this is far from easy, Ruxit or no Ruxit. In this context, participants in our own domestic debates on the CE start calling into question another “pro” argument which has it that Russia’s presence at the Council of Europe and PACE was helping us to influence European politics and expand, if only slowly, the number of what is known as “Russia-understanders,” if not friends of Russia.  It should be admitted that the post-Crimea realities have largely emasculated this argument.
It is no longer possible to influence the European mainstream in any meaningful way, while the “friends of Russia” remain what they are and Russia does not need a Council of Europe to contact them

Media policies on both sides are also playing up the value gap between Russia and Europe and this is an added factor that is increasingly pulling Russia away from Europe in mutual public perception. Incidentally, this value gap had reached an acute stage even before the Ukraine crisis in 2013, when Russian laws restricting propaganda for homosexuality were passed. As I see it, approving those decisions six months before the Sochi Olympics was ill-timed, to say the least, even if we refrain from analyzing their subject-matter. This produced a strong negative effect comparable only to the sending of Soviet forces into Afghanistan six months before the Moscow Olympic Games. The ensuing value conflict brought about a dramatic swing towards conservative social values in Russia. Logically, the next step was to declare Russia the only supporter of “traditional European values,” while the rest of Europe has already defected on them.
It is this emphasis on Russia as “the other Europe” or even “the true Europe” that has rapidly created a situation where “the first Europe,” “the erring Europe” has proved foreign and redundant as far as Russians are concerned. Taking into consideration this logic, the decline of the West, as predicted by Oswald Spengler, was obvious. In this context, the Council of Europe appeared as something alien as well as redundant

This value conflict was later extended to an important and highly politicized matter concerning the interpretation of the past in modern-day Europe. The dramatic differences in views on the role of the USSR and Communism in the Second World War between Russia and a number of other member countries of the Council of Europe led to ever greater alienation as well. In this context, Russia’s perception of the Ukraine crisis was largely influenced by its concept of history that was diametrically opposite to that of its opponents in the West. As a result, the value, historical and identity divisions between Russia and Europe has become an accomplished fact. 

There are two other restraints as regards Russia’s perception of Council of Europe membership. One is related to the abolition of the death penalty. Russia has assumed its obligation to commute the death penalty to life imprisonment under the Council of Europe Conventions. At the same time, a fair share of public opinion in Russia has refused to accept this imperative and is insisting that the death penalty be reintroduced. Apart from conservative moods prevailing in society, this attitude can be explained by the fact that in recent decades Russia has been exposed to an international terror onslaught. Terrorist attacks would kill peaceful civilians, while terrorists would later relax in jail at the expense of the taxpayers. 

The other restraint is about Russia’s perception of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a crucial institution within the European system. As is common knowledge, Russia leads in the number of suits submitted against the member states. Looking in retrospect, it is the ECHR rulings that played an important constructive role in improving Russia’s penitentiary system and prison conditions, in fighting corruption, and in many other matters as well. At the same time, a number of Russia-related ECHR decisions have left a feeling of being politically motivated and biased. So this impression is only growing with the passage of time. The incisive and unexpected altercations between the ECHR and the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation have raised the problem to a fundamentally new level. As a result (to reiterate: possibly regretfully), Russia’s post-Ruxit withdrawal from the ECHR jurisdiction will be accepted with much relief by many forces in Russia. 

The PACE’s winter session and the outcome of the diplomatic negotiations will show whether the formal Ruxit is consummated or not. But regardless of Russia’s Council of Europe prospects, it must be honestly postulated that at the axiological and historical identity level, a “worldview Ruxit” has happened and is a fait accompli. The only question which remains is whether Russia and Europe will be able to have a dialogue after steering clear of each other on the principle “not together, but near,” or we will see progress only at the level of Russia’s bilateral relations with individual European countries.  
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.