On Oct. 9, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) decided to refer back to its Rules Committee a draft resolution containing changes to the rules that would have made it harder to keep the sanctions against the Russian delegation in force.
The document titled “Strengthening the decision-making process of the Parliamentary Assembly concerning credentials and voting” failed to garner two-thirds of the delegates’ votes. A failed vote would have killed the resolution. To prevent such a scenario, Petra de Sutter, the author of the document, proposed to end the debates in light of the profoundly divided Assembly. Consideration of the issue has been postponed until 2019. As a result, the Russian delegation will remain under sanctions for at least another year.
CE Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland supported the resolution. Jörg Polakiewicz, Director of the Directorate of Legal Advice and Public International Law at PACE, believes PACE lacks the right to sanction a national delegation. Marija Pejčinović Burić, Chairperson of the Committee of Ministers of the CoE, is among those who think the anti-Russian sanctions are illegal. Addressing the PACE Assembly on Oct. 10, she said the conclusions offered by Mr. Polakiewicz were worth considering. The majority of delegates from Germany, France, and Italy want Russia back and the sanctions lifted. The UK and Ukraine fiercely oppose the idea.
Russian lawmakers have been absent from the PACE sessions since 2015 to protest the punitive measures that deprive them of their right to vote, participate in ruling bodies, and take part in election-monitoring missions, among other things. Last year Moscow suspended its payments (€33 mm annually; or 7% of the CoE budget) into the Council of Europe’s coffers until the delegation’s credentials are fully and unconditionally restored. Russia had been one of the largest donors to the Council of Europe’s budget, along with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy.
Moscow warned that it would not recognize other CoE bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, as legitimate if they were elected without the participation of the Russian lawmakers. For instance, Moscow has every right to ignore the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) until the Russian delegation regains its full rights at the Council of Europe’s PACE. Russia’s non-participation in the vote to approve the CoE’s senior officials in PACE, including the Secretary General, Deputy Secretary General, Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Judges of the European Court of Human Rights, casts doubt on their legitimacy.
Last year, Pedro Agramunt, the leader of the parliamentary assembly, had to resign after being stripped of his powers for paying a visit to Syria in March accompanied by Russian MPs. This is a good example of how PACE encroaches on the rights of elected officials who show an independent streak. A year ago, the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe's decision-making body, called on Russian authorities to let opposition leader Aleksei Navalny run for president – a blatant example of meddling in internal affairs. The CoE stepped has clearly overstepped its authority in an effort to exert political pressure.
Russia did not invite PACE monitors to its parliamentary elections in 2016 or its presidential election in 2018, which was indicative of that deteriorating relationship. However, there were around 300 electoral observers who came to monitor the 2018 presidential election at the personal invitation of the State Duma and Federation Council.
The Assembly is a unique platform for addressing critical European matters, but without Russia, the discussions of many key issues are rendered pointless. Without Russia, the CoE will cease to be a pan-European institution — something that is a real source of pride for its leaders. Discussions conducted in PACE will no longer be a Europe-wide conversation. But Russia will not lose much. It can always use the podium of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to participate in discussions and broadcast its views.
If PACE is to serve as a platform for exchanging opinions and launching initiatives, no member’s rights can be restricted. The CoE along with PACE needs Russia as much as Russia needs it, perhaps even more, but this is a disappointment. Enough is enough. Moscow’s frustration with the Council of Europe’s agencies is growing. In Moscow, talk of leaving the CoE is in the air. Participation in international organizations should serve national interests. If it does not, Russia is big and important enough to do without the CoE’s agencies, but the Council will be emasculated and never again be what it is today. By failing to institute reforms, it has shot itself in the foot.