Why PACE has turned its gaze toward post-Soviet conflicts

Why PACE has turned its gaze toward post-Soviet conflicts

As has been reported, last April the Monitoring Committee met during the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  A special subcommittee was created at that meeting - the Ad hoc Sub-Committee on Conflicts between Member States of the Council of Europe.  This new entity, which will be directly responsible for looking into so-called «frozen conflicts» in the former Soviet Union, should have official status and begin its work in June.  It met for the first time in Paris on May 27.

The new subcommittee was set up as part of the PACE Monitoring Committee and will, as reported on its official website, cooperate closely with it, in order to explore any «situation in which active armed conflict has been brought to an end, but no peace treaty or other political framework resolves the conflict to the satisfaction of the combatants». Thus it is no surprise that it was the head of the assembly’s Monitoring Committee, an Austrian by the name of Stefan Schennach, who spearheaded the establishment of the subcommittee on conflicts between Council of Europe member states.  The was the same gentleman who took it upon himself to send an observer mission to the Crimea to investigate the humanitarian situation there, as well as any potential violations of human rights.

PACE also particularly emphasizes that the new structure will not become yet another mechanism for resolving conflicts, but will aim to use the elements of parliamentary diplomacy in order to support the existing mechanisms for mediating strife.  

The list of conflicts cited by an anonymous staffer on the freshly minted subcommittee is quite interesting.  Initially those would include Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, northern Cyprus, Transnistria, and Crimea.  In addition the new organization might focus on the conflict in eastern Ukraine - pending developments in that region.

None of this seems particularly striking, especially given how any bureaucratic institution loves to «spawn offspring.»  Of course the work of its «mother» - the PACE Monitoring Committee, which is responsible for verifying the fulfillment of obligations assumed by members of the Council of Europe - is more directly linked to the post-Soviet states.  The issues emanating from the regions in conflict (and those areas are certainly not universally regarded as being «in conflict») regularly assume the form of bitter debates, while the elites of the post-Soviet nations are being subjected to manipulation by foreign actors.  Any pan-European structure such as the OSCE, in some way or other finds itself faced with a vast landscape, from the republics in Novorossia - the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) - to Nagorno-Karabakh, but the OSCE’s work has been the recipient of ... how shall we put it ... very mixed reviews.  

«Like other international organizations, we will not talk about the larger issues that fall within the context of conflict resolution, but will focus on the more specific aspects of that process,» stated Stefan Schennach.  The idea of inter-parliamentary cooperation, including with representatives from the legislative bodies of unrecognized or semi-recognized states, is becoming more popular in Europe.  Perhaps this will make it possible to offer individual gestures of humanitarian assistance, but it will hardly resolve the conflicts themselves - although it can’t hurt ...

Some of the events associated with the emergence of this new entity support this not overly optimistic premise and are also linked to the «initial» list of conflicts that will be the object of its focus.  So, the obvious crisis of the Eastern Partnership project suggests that a legitimate subject of discussion might be a kind of safety mechanism that would enable Europeans to keep abreast of what is happening, including the aforementioned «specific aspects.»  The Armenian political scientist Stepan Safaryan, who is spearheading the subcommittee on frozen conflicts, suggests that PACE wants to create some leverage for itself, adding that Strasbourg does not currently have that capacity.  He stated, «The committees previously created to address this issue drafted reports and offered assessments, which had some impact on the political processes.  Now PACE wants to restore that capacity by creating a specialized structure.» 

This desire is of course entirely understandable, viewed through the lens of geopolitical logic, as well as bureaucratic.  However, it should not be forgotten that for Russia the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts are no longer an issue: that question was put to bed on Aug.  26, 2008, and since then Moscow has been building its relationships with the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia, recognizing them as independent subjects of her foreign policy.  Also, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are taking part, as independent entities, in the Geneva format of consultations on security in the Caucasus, and it is not yet clear how the new structure will be able to help there.  According to Irakli Khintba, the head of the Expert Department of the Presidential Administration of Abkhazia, the new structure’s hypothetical recommendations will not apply to Abkhazia.  Abkhazia is not a member of PACE.  In addition, the representative from Abkhazia pointed out that that agency’s actions toward the republic have always been overtly hostile, adding, «We remember how PACE repeatedly demanded that Russia withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia, the bias with which it assessed the Russian-Abkhaz Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership, and the one-sidedness and hostility we saw in their reports on the situation in Abkhazia.» 

In turn, the deputy director of the Caucasus Institute, Sergei Minasyan, expressed doubts about the viability of the idea itself, recalling that at one time the Turkish minister for EU affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, tried to create a similar subcommittee, but it shut down within a few years because the Armenians took no part in its work.  It is possible that the new subcommittee will suffer the same fate.

In a similar vein, when and if PACE discusses «the conflict in Crimea,» it is not clear what there will be to say - that region is a constituent part of the Russian Federation, and any attempts to exert external influence there without Moscow’s consent (which, as we know, is no longer involved in PACE’s work) cannot be seen as anything other than interference in Russia’s internal affairs.  Suffice it to recall the failed attempt by an OSCE mission to force its way into Crimea with obviously dubious objectives, in early March, ten days before the referendum vote on the peninsula.  According to Jean-Claude Mignon, who reported to the Council of Europe about the status of Ukraine’s commitments, the work of the new PACE subcommittee on frozen conflicts should be consistent with OSCE’s experience in this area.  It would be unfortunate if the «inter-parliamentary cooperation» occurring under the aegis of PACE and its new committee knowingly took the low road ...

And the additional involvement of any of PACE’s entities in the conflict in the Donbass could have a positive impact only if it adheres to the spirit and the letter of the Minsk agreement, fully taking into account the position of the power structures in the DPR and the LPR.  Should that occur, the instruments of parliamentary diplomacy could help to unify the parties’ positions and encourage Kiev to officially reject militant rhetoric and actions (which, incidentally, seems unlikely at present).  

Finally, given the many problems within the Council of Europe itself (in Belgium, Spain, Great Britain, etc.), such excessive attention to post-Soviet conflicts seems out of proportion, and in addition may have any number of causes and repercussions.  There is a real question as to whether European institutions sincerely wish to pursue a constructive path: otherwise PACE would not have remained indifferent to the blockade of Transnistria, which has lasted for many years and has now become extremely punitive.  At the same time, Russia could incorporate some of Europe’s more innovative practices and strengthen her inter-parliamentary contacts with de facto state entities she does not recognize (Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, northern Cyprus, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics).  Obviously the history and civilization of all of these places, with the exception of northern Cyprus, are inseparably linked to Russia, and none need to be in the safekeeping of PACE.