On the night of 24 June 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a shameful, though long-awaited decision to restore the Russian delegation’s voting rights. Russia lost this right in 2014 due to its aggression in Ukraine. According to the resolutions at the time, its voting rights were to be restored only if the Kremlin started to comply with international law and stopped occupying Ukrainian territories.
Obviously, nothing of the sort has happened; on the contrary, Russia has fired on and seized Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov, as well as captured and arrested its crew members, indicating an escalation of aggression. The Kremlin-controlled separatists have periodically intensified their attacks on the Donbas front, apparently testing the reaction of the new Ukrainian President and the public sentiment in Ukraine.
The number of Ukrainian political prisoners under arbitrary detention (and often torture) in Russia has exceeded 100. Repressions in the occupied Crimea, where Crimean Tatars are most persecuted, have become a common occurrence.
It happened due to Western naivety, which even decent politicians fell victim to – Bundestag member Frank Schwabe (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and Belgian MEP Petra de Sutter (Greens/EFA). Frank Schwabe is the driving force behind the German delegation and the Chairperson of the Social Democrats’ fraction in PACE. He is known for his active involvement in the defence of human rights around the world, including the rights of sexual minorities in the Caucasus. He is well aware of the situation of the Chechen LGBT community: homosexuals are almost regularly hunted down in the Chechen autonomous republic run by Ramzan Kadyrov.
Petra de Sutter, the author of the report “Strengthening the decision-making process of the Parliamentary Assembly concerning credentials and voting” adopted yesterday, is also compassionate. This is, of course, a euphemism, but the resolution based on her report allows delegations from “member States which are not represented in the Assembly” to be ratified credentials right now, at the June session. This includes Russia (as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is less of a public concern).
Since the Assembly had previously imposed sanctions on the Russian delegation (which in practice led to Russia’s expulsion from PACE), with the adoption of this resolution, it has retreated from some of the principles set out in its own Charter. In its official speeches and statements, the PACE members beautifully justify this with the “need for a dialogue” or “importance of participation”, turning a blind eye to the fact that the Council of Europe has, in fact, unconditionally capitulated to Putin (who has not conceded a single millimetre of his positions – oh, sorry, territories). But this does not change the fact that among PACE delegates there is a widespread belief in the power of pompous language.
Both Frank Schwabe and Petra de Sutter strongly defended the rule of law and civil rights in Poland, which were threatened by the policy of the Law and Justice party.
Their current point of view is very sad. We were not able to influence them sufficiently and consider this our defeat (as an NGO working in post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, we regularly participate in the Assembly’s sessions, despite the efforts of the Polish government, which in the summer of 2018 banned my wife and the President of our Foundation, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, from entering the Schengen area).
It seems that many Western politicians sincerely believe that Russia’s return will help ordinary Russian citizens, who will now be able to file complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) again. Indeed, Russians have applied to the ECHR more often than citizens of other Council of Europe member states, but the problem is that Russia has often simply not complied with ECHR decisions. Nevertheless, numerous Russian NGOs actively lobbied for Russia’s return to the PACE, asking European politicians “not to leave them alone with Putin”. The question of how much of their actions were part of the Kremlin’s strategy to gain the sympathy of Western MPs remains open. It is noteworthy that Russia’s most prominent human rights organisation, Memorial, opposed the decision to unconditionally return the Russian delegation to PACE, which disgraces the Council of Europe.
A separate issue is financial blackmail by Russia. In 2017, in response to the sanctions, it stopped paying its membership fees to the Council of Europe (which accounted for 7% of the organisation’s annual budget). However, this problem does not seem to be impossible to solve, given the total number of members of the Council of Europe – 47; they could show solidarity, proportionally redistribute contributions among themselves and compensate for this amount.
Diplomatic isolation at the Forum of the Council of Europe was a painful, symbolic slap in the face for Putin, a blow to his prestige. The return of Russians to the meeting rooms (especially since the Russian delegation includes individuals under EU sanctions) encourages them to continue their aggression and proves the impotence of the West — a West that is thus once again compromised, giving further reason to believe that its structures are toothless bureaucratic molochs whose trademark is “deep concern” in response to global crises. This view is widespread among Ukrainians who do not understand Europe’s carefree accommodating attitude towards the Kremlin, which openly positions itself as its adversary. Paradoxically, the split in Ukrainian society and Ukraine’s disillusionment with Europe are also important to Russia. Unfortunately, the narrative of “Western hypocrisy” has now received an additional argument in its favour.
The Ukrainian delegation is considering a boycott. Other options are not ruled out: procedural battles, challenging the credentials of the Russian delegation. The ideal response to the resolution would be a boycott by participating countries that stand in solidarity with Ukraine: the Baltic states, Poland, and the United Kingdom. However, this idea may prove dangerous, as even Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, on the eve of her resignation, called for Russia’s return to the Council of Europe, explaining that for the international community, Russia’s membership in PACE “is one of the few ways to hold Russia accountable for human rights violations.” She then traditionally added that the UK would never recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea. Earlier, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron also spoke in favour of Russia’s return.
In theory, Poland is in favour of maintaining sanctions, but in practice, our delegation to PACE is mostly passive, and Polish parliamentarians see PACE meetings primarily as an opportunity to travel abroad – if they participate at all – and the intense political conflict in Poland clearly doesn’t help here. Our country has long ceased to be a successful defender of Ukraine in the West.
On 26 June 2019, the delegations of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia and Slovakia decided to leave the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe due to the “unconditional restoration of credentials of the Russian delegation”