Russia Returns to the Council of Europe

Russia Returns to the Council of Europe

On the 25th of June, the Council of Europe voted to reinstate Russia’s membership of the Parliamentary Assembly, the first case of sanctions against Russia being lifted since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Critics – most significantly the Ukrainian delegation – argue that this sends a dangerous message and undermines the principles of the Council of Europe. Proponents argue that Russia’s return is a significant step towards protecting the human rights of Russian citizens and opening up a forum for dialogue.

Russia’s Initial Suspension

After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia faced a wave of penalties from both its American and European partners. The EU imposed sanctions against Russian businesses and individuals and NATO halted all cooperation. The Council of Europe followed suit, suspending Russia’s voting rights in the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). In response to this, Russia paused its annual membership payments, threatening its position within the organisation after two years of failing to contribute to the budget. The issue of Russia returning has been debated on several occasions, including in 2015 and then again in 2018, with the secretary-general of the European Council creating a committee to find a compromise with Russia. However, it was not until last week that Moscow was welcomed back into the Council of Europe. 

Russia Returns

On 25 June, after 8 hours of debate, PACE members voted in favour of restoring Russia’s membership to the body, with a split of 118 to 62 in favour and 10 abstaining. The exact resolution read: “The members’ rights to vote, to speak and to be represented in the Assembly and its bodies shall not be suspended or withdrawn in the context of a challenge to or reconsideration of credentials.” This marks the first case of major sanctions against Moscow being lifted since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Following the vote, Russia submitted a bid to join PACE’s summer session, during which a new secretary-general and judges for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will be appointed. Russia had also threatened to leave if it is blocked from participating in these votes. Notably, a clear geographic split could be identified in the vote, with the majority of Western European states, including Germany, France, Italy and the Nordic countries, supporting Russia’s return. Alternately, those in Eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic states and the UK, were firmly against the motion. 

A Positive Step for Human Rights? 

Support for Russia’s return to the Council of Europe is largely seen in terms of human rights. The Council of Europe oversees the ECHR, meaning Russia’s membership in the Council also makes it part of this human rights body. In turn, Moscow’s withdrawal from the Council would mean that Russian citizens would be unable to take their cases to the ECHR, further endangering the already fragile human rights situation in the country. Indeed, Russia has had more complaints filed against it in the ECHR than any other country, dealing with 12,000 cases in 2018 alone. As summarised by the  human rights group the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, the impact of Russia’s departure from the Council “would be felt most not by the Kremlin, but rather by the Russian people”. It is also suggested that having Russia return to PACE will promote further cooperation between Moscow and its Western counterparts; both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron stated Russia’s return was necessary for maintaining dialogue. Russia’s permanent representative to the Council also emphasised that the body “is an extremely serious platform for dialogue with the participation of the Europeans”.

However, it is likely that financial concerns also motivated the decision to allow Russia’s return. Russia is one of the five largest contributors to the Council’s budget, paying €33 million per year. As a result, the withdrawal of Russia’s payments in 2017 was a significant blow to the institution, costing almost €90 million by 2019. On 25 June, PACE stated that: “a contingency plan has been drawn up to absorb the size of the debt left voluntarily by a member state [Russia]” and that “implementation of the plan will mean that a significant number of activities and whole areas of the work of the Council of Europe could disappear, some of them irretrievably”. Combined with Turkey’s decision to give up its status as a principal contributor, Russia’s exit from the organisation thus posed a real financial threat. 

Concerns from Ukraine 

Still, the decision to re-admit Russia to the Council was met with serious criticisms, mostly from the Ukrainian delegation. Prior to the vote, the Ukrainian ambassador, Dmytro Kuleba, stated that Moscow’s return “would be a unilateral surrender of the Council of Europe to Russian demands” and that “Ukraine [would] consider the Council of Europe as a discredited institution.” Such sentiment was then reiterated after the results of the vote, with the Ukrainian representative, Volodymyr Ariev, saying the decision sent a bad message:

Do what you want, annex another country’s territory, kill people there and you will still leave with everything.”

The Ukrainian delegation then walked out of the assembly. Since then, it has been announced that Ukraine will recall its ambassador to the Council and temporarily suspend its membership of PACE, casting doubt on Ukraine’s future in the Council of Europe. Kiev’s concerns highlight that Russia has been readmitted without carrying out any of the demands placed on it by PACE. There is also concern that it will lead to further Western sanctions being revoked. 

Ukraine was not alone in its concerns. A statement was made by delegations from the Baltic states, Georgia, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine opposing the decision. The statement asserted: “this step sends a very wrong signal” and that it is unclear how the Council is protecting human rights when it “comes across as more interested in protecting the well-being of an aggressor”. Several then took to twitter to re-emphasise this. The Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics said the vote was “regrettable” and “undermines respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights”. Similarly, Georgian foreign minister David Zalkaliani tweeted that Georgia “principally opposed this decision” and that “it is crucial to take measures in order to prove that CoE remains committed to its values”.

Categories: Eurasia, Politics

About Author

Rowan Hart

I am currently in the final year of an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Oxford. Prior to that, I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. There I wrote my thesis on Russia's relationship with the EU, for which I was awarded the Colin Seymour-Ure Prize for best undergraduate dissertation in Politics and IR. At Oxford I have continued to focus on Russia's institutional ties with Europe, currently researching Russia's relationship with the OSCE.