On January 29, 2019, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion, dedicated to the uneasy relationship between Russia and the Council of Europe. The situation is as follows: in 2017 Russia suspended payments to the organization’s budget after it was stripped of voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. According to the rules of the organization, in this case the country’s membership can be suspended after two years – that is, in June 2019. Despite the obvious tensions, the parties can still come to a consensus, so today it is important to understand the positions of each other and to reveal the essence of the accumulated contradictions.
Russia’s acquaintance with the Council of Europe began in the times of the USSR. At that time, because of its ideological standpoint this organization was assessed as “anti-Soviet”, and its values seemed alien and hostile. Now everything is different. But it was the issue of values that Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs, focused on.
In 1996, Russia made a conscious choice in favour of democratic values, which had previously been rejected. “It was our own choice, a conscious choice, and I believe that it was correct, we definitely should not reconsider it. From the point of view of values, nothing has changed, and we are ready to follow and practice the values that are in the statute of the Council of Europe and which have defined its profile since its establishment in 1949,” he said.
Unfortunately, already at that time a number of not completely legitimate obligations were imposed on Russia, for example, related to the military and defence spheres, but this was never a problem. “This topic has never become critical. Continuing the discussion of relevant topics, we never questioned the European choice of Russia and the readiness to cooperate in all areas,” Kosachev stressed. “The period that followed Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe proved to be very fruitful. Russia has joined more than 60 conventions of the Council of Europe. <...> Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe is justified. ”
According to Kosachev, the main problem with Russia’s membership is not in the values of the institution at all, but in the decisions of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), which has since 1985 the right to impose sanctions on national delegations – not only on procedural but also on political motives. This mechanism was implemented with regard to Russia in 2014, when its delegation was deprived of the rights to vote, nominate candidates to governing bodies and participate in monitoring missions.
The refusal to pay membership dues might seem a manifestation of aggression, but this was a deliberate decision related to the infringement of the Russian delegation’s rights.
“In 2015, 2016 and partly in 2017 payments were made in full, despite the problems in the PACE and the non-participation of the Russian delegation. We tried to do something with the regulations, because they are unjust and undemocratic, but the reaction was zero,” Kosachev said.
Developing on this idea, Ivan Soltanovsky, permanent representative of Russia in the Council of Europe, said that Konstantin Kosachev made an “absolutely correct” diagnosis of the state of affairs, describing the prerequisites of the crisis.
“Despite this, we are working for a positive result,” Soltanovsky said. “Delegations of most countries pragmatically support the resolution of issues, but our rights are discriminated. We need fundamental changes in the Council of Europe’s regulations, but this requires a dialogue. ”
A completely different, not so conciliatory point of view was expressed by Timofei Bordachev, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club. “If Russia had reasons to stay, it would have not pursued an independent foreign policy, which now provokes such anger and disappointment among the European partners. As a great power with global responsibility, we try to be squeezed within the framework of this institution. What happened after 2014 is a reason to think about what we want in the future, how we see our relations with Europe and the Council of Europe,” the expert said. After all, he stressed, Russia is a great power and should behave accordingly, while the Council of Europe is an association of small and medium-sized countries.
However, the position of Timofei Bordachev was not supported either by Konstantin Kosachev or Ivan Soltanovsky. “Many countries, indeed, perceive the Council of Europe as a “lobby” for joining the EU, but Russia never wanted anyone to like it. The Council of Europe is an inclusive pan-European structure where everyone is united around values, and the values of large countries cannot differ from the values of small and medium ones,” Kosachev said.
“There is no reason to rethink our membership in the Council of Europe,” Soltanovsky confirmed. “We need to remain and actively work towards the creation of a single common humanitarian and business space. If we want to return to the idea of Greater Europe, we cannot do this without the Council of Europe.”
One way or another, passions run high, and until June, when Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe may be suspended, there is not much time left by international politics standards. Although many conflicts are often caused by someone’s excessive pragmatism, in this case the problem lies more likely in its lack. Russia, as all experts agreed, could remain in the Council of Europe, but it needs to find its place.