NY Dispatches: Russia and the Council of Europe

On Friday news broke that Russia reached an agreement with the Council of Europe, which will result in Russia remaining a member of Europe’s most important human rights organisation. A qualified majority of the CoE’s foreign ministers approved the deal, mediated by France and Germany.  Seven countries, Ukraine, the UK, Poland, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were against the decision and loudly contested it. They were right. 

The story that culminated in the agreement on Friday is a very ordinary story of weak institutional resistance and blackmail. It started in 2014 when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) decided to suspend the voting rights of the Russian delegation due to Russia’s annexation to Crimea. The decision was the first in what later became a series of principled steps aimed at cleaning up the tainted record of the Council of Europe. The decision sent a clear message that the voting rights of the Russian delegation would not be reinstated as long as the annexation lasts.

The process of cleaning up the house seemed to gain momentum in 2017 as PACE forced its president, Pedro Agramunt, a Spaniard who took a trip to Syria together with other members of the assembly, to resign. The trip was organised by Leonid Slutsky, the head of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, the central figure of a sexual abuse scandal, and Russia’s point-man in PACE who had done his utmost to undermine the institution’s standards and was one of the matchmakers between the Russian government and France’s far-right National Front (now National Rally). However, it seemed that by organising the trip to Syria, Slutsky finally went too far. In the same year, following allegations of large-scale corruption by the Azerbaijani government and its agents, PACE called for an independent investigation. The institution, it seemed, was on track to regain its credibility.

But 2017 also saw a counterattack. The Russian government, unwilling to leave an international institution that it had spent years to undermine, refused to pay its mandatory contribution to the CoE budget. This was unprecedented blackmail: Russia is one of the biggest contributors to the CoE budget and its decision caused a shortfall of 5 percent. The Russian government, both through its official channels and through Slutsky made it clear that it would only resume paying its membership fees not only if the Russian delegation’s voting rights were reinstated, but if the Council of Europe changed its own rules so that in the future no delegation could be sanctioned in the same way. In a remarkable move, the Russian government cast itself as the injured party rather than the culprit and announced that it wanted to see the Council of Europe significantly weakened or else it was ready to eviscerate it financially.

The Council of Europe had the means to resist the blackmail and to expel Russia: following two years of non-payment of duties, the institution has the right to initiate the expulsion of a member. But this didn’t happen. Instead, governments across Europe as well as the institution’s secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, scrambled to accommodate Russia’s demands. They were aided by those who argued that Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe would be bad for Russian citizens and human rights  because they would lose the European Court of Human Rights as a legal safeguard of last resort. They were wrong.

When Russia became a member of the Council of Europe in 1996, the overwhelming expectation was exactly this. Membership in Europe’s most prominent human rights institution was supposed to lead to an elevation of human rights standards domestically. This did not materialise, especially as human rights standards in Russia dropped in the second half of 2000s. Attacks on journalists became commonplace. Opposition activity was stifled. In 2015, Russia passed a law that declared the legal superiority of Russian institutions over international law by giving the Russian constitutional court a say over which judgements are implemented.  The roots of the law go back to 2005, when Konstantin Markin, a 39-year-old radio intelligence operator in Russia’s army asked the head of his unit for three years’ parental leave to take care of his three children. Markin had recently been divorced and as a consequence of the terms of the divorce, had to raise his children alone. However, the head of his unit rejected his request. According to Russian law, only female military personnel could go on such a leave, even though the law did not make such a distinction between males and females outside the military. Military courts also dismissed his case at first. However, once he turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2006, the military unit suddenly reconsidered its decision. The ECtHR delivered a final verdict in the case in 2012, acknowledging that Markin’s rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, were indeed violated. Yet, in December 2013, the Russian constitutional court overruled the judgement and in 2015 the Russian legislature turned this into law.

By Russia’s exclusion from the Council of Europe, Russian citizens would not have lost the safeguards provided by the European Court of Human Rights, because they have lost it long ago. This of course does not mean that Russia does not implement any ruling passed by the court in Strasbourg; however, since 2015 Russia has upheld the right to cherry-pick. Even before that, it was second only to Italy as regards the number of judgements not implemented, but while Italy’s backlog was made up, overwhelmingly, of cases related to the length of court trials (under Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights), the judgements that Russia refused to carry out were overwhelmingly cases concerning grave human rights violations.

Furthermore, even if Russia had been deprived of its membership in CoE, it would still be bound by the Paris Charter of OSCE, another document that lays down core standards of human rights. Membership in OSCE, an organization that, unlike the Council of Europe, also oversees security issues is genuinely important for Russia’s security-focused foreign policy. Thus, it is unlikely to leave this forum.

Yet, instead of calling Russia’s bluff, the Council of Europe apparently decided to bow to blackmail and weaken its own standards, leaving the clean-up operation started in 2014 and accelerated in 2017 in limbo. This is bad news for the Council of Europe, bad news for the protection of human rights in Europe, and bad news for defenders of human rights in Russia.

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