Does Russia Need Membership in the Council of Europe?

A year ago, it seemed that since the restoration of Russia’s full powers in PACE, this issue has gone off the agenda.

However, the adoption of amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation revived it: in order to justify the need for amendments to Russia’s sovereignty in terms of international legal obligations, it started to be said that it would be better to leave PACE than to touch the constitution.

It should be noted here that due to the predominance in the minds of the majority of citizens of the agenda that is widely covered in the media space, many believe that the Council of Europe consists only of PACE, and we have this Russophobic talk – “a square peg in a round hole”.

However, this is far from the case. So let’s talk about what the Council of Europe is.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe started its work in 1949 and is the oldest and most representative organisation in Europe. It consists of 47 states, where more than 800 million people live. For comparison, the EU has 27 states. Unlike the European Union, the Council of Europe cannot issue binding laws, but has some powers to enforce individual international agreements reached by European States on various topics.

Russia became a member of the organisation on February 28th 1996. Upon joining, Moscow pledged to bring its legislation and political system in line with European standards and agreed to test these obligations. To date, the Russian Federation joined the 60 legal acts of the CoE, including the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (with the exception of the protocol to abolish the death penalty — a decision on the moratorium of the Russian Federation taken separately), the Convention concerning the protection of national minorities, prevention of torture, local authorities, cooperation in the field of education, sports, film, etc.

Since 1996, representatives of Russia have actively participated in five main formats of cooperation with the Council of Europe, including:

  • Inter-governmental (Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, CMCE);
  • Inter-parliamentary (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE);
  • Inter-regional (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe);
  • Judicial (European Court of Human Rights);
  • Through non-governmental organisations (INGOs Conference of the Council of Europe).

Here is what the official website of the Russian Foreign Ministry says about Russia’s activities in the Council of Europe:

“The Council of Europe (COE) was founded in 1949 with the aim of ‘achieving greater unity among its members in order to protect and implement the ideals and principles that are their common heritage and to promote their economic and social progress (Article 1 of the CoE Charter); currently it unites 47 member countries.

According to the Charter of the Council of Europe, this goal should be achieved ‘by considering issues of common interest, concluding agreements and carrying out joint actions in the economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal, and administrative fields, as well as by maintaining and further implementing human rights and fundamental freedoms’ (Article 1, paragraph b, of the CoE Charter).

A distinctive feature of the Council of Europe is the development and adoption of legally binding international conventions covering a wide range of ‘soft security’ sectors, including counter-terrorism, criminal justice development, personal data protection, education, culture, sports, healthcare, etc.

The multi-level structure of the Organisation allows for the participation of more than twenty federal authorities in the relevant interaction. Among them – the constitutional court of the Russian Federation, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, Prosecutor-General of the Russian Federation, Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, Russian Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry, Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, Healthcare Ministry, Culture Ministry, Education and Science Ministry, Communications of Russia Ministry, Sport Ministry, Labour Ministry, Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation, Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Protection of Entrepreneurs’ rights”.

Therefore, when the powers of the Russian delegation to PACE were suspended in April 2014, Russia continued to actively participate in other formats of the Council of Europe’s activities.

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For example, the same website tells us that during this very period:

  • During a working visit to Moscow on October 20th 2017, Secretary General of the Council of Europe – T. Jagland met with Chairwoman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation V. I. Matviyenko, Chairman of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation V. V. Volodin, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, and Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation T. N. Moskalkova.
  • On June 20th 2018, Secretary General of the Council of Europe T. Jagland was in Russia on a working visit, during which he was received by the President of the Russian Federation V. V. Putin. Meetings were organised Between T. Jagland and Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov and Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation T. N. Moskalkova.

Note: the Secretary General of the Council of Europe came to the “isolated”, “exiled from PACE” Russia instead of waiting for its apologies and assurances of loyalty in Strasbourg…

The website of the Russian Foreign Ministry tells us about the same period:

  • The list of sectoral programs of interaction between Russia and the CoE is approved at the meetings of the specific high-level committee at the level of senior officials. At a meeting of the committee in Moscow on October 24th 2016, based on requests from Russian authorities, the directions of cooperation in 2017-19 were outlined.
  • On November 21st 2018, Russia-CoE consultations on programs for 2019-20 were held in Strasbourg, and an updated program document was presented, which was finally agreed between the parties in April 2019.

And here is another important aspect of Russia’s activities in the Council of Europe, which usually falls out of the field of view of sofa international law specialists:

“Participation in the CoE conventions, as well as in their development, allows our country to make a significant contribution to the creation of a pan-European legal space. Russia has ratified 65 of the 225 legal acts of the Council of Europe, including the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (in 1998), the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (in 1998), the European Social Charter (in 2009), and the Convention on the Counterfeiting of Medical Products and Similar Crimes involving Threats to Public Health (in 2018).

In 2005, with the active participation of the Russian Federation, the main anti-terrorist document of the Council of Europe was developed – the Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, which contains fundamentally important and relevant provisions on countering public promotion of terrorism, recruitment and training of terrorists (ratified by Russia in 2006).

Another 17 conventions and protocols have been signed and are awaiting ratification. In particular, in 2017 Russia signed the Second Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. On October 10th 2018, the Russian Federation was among the first states to sign the Protocol amending the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, and on November 8th 2018 – the Convention on Offences relating to Cultural Property.

Russia participates in 9 of the 14 autonomous organisations of the CoE system: the partial open agreement on forecasting, prevention, and assistance in the event of natural and man-made disasters, the group for cooperation in the fight against abuse and illicit trafficking of narcotic drugs (so-called Pompidou Group), the European Audiovisual Observatory, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (‘Venice Commission’), the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), the Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport (EPAS), the Enlarged Partial Agreement on Cultural Routes (EPACR), the Fund for the support of joint film production and rental of cinematographic and audiovisual works (Eurimages), the European Pharmacopoeia (as an observer).

In particular, within the framework of GRECO, Russia is currently undergoing the fourth round of evaluation – to prevent corruption among parliamentarians, judges and prosecutors.”

And about money:

“A distinctive feature of Russia’s participation in the work of the Council of Europe is its membership in the group of five main CoE budget payers (Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia, and France). The amount of the Russian Federation’s contribution to the consolidated regular budget of the Council of Europe in 2019 is €30,459,888.69.

Due to the status of being the main contributor, the Russian Federation has several advantages (translation of meetings of CoE bodies and materials into Russian, functioning of the CoE website in Russian, the maximum possible number of seats in PACE (18), etc.).”

By the way, Turkey in 2017 refused the status of main contributor.

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About the conflict between Russia and PACE

Some sofa experts referred to this conflict as a rift between Russia and Europe, clearly wishful thinking. The evidence to the contrary has already been presented by me above.

So, even between Russia and the Council of Europe, there was no conflict, because in accordance with the Charter of the Council of Europe, the Committee of Ministers acts on behalf of the Council of Europe. There is no such thing as a “Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe” in the Charter of the Council of Europe, but there is a “Consultative Assembly”, which, in accordance with Article 22 of the Charter, “is an advisory body of the Council of Europe. It shall discuss matters within its competence as defined in this Statute and transmit its conclusions to the Committee of Ministers in the form of recommendations.”

The conflict between Russia and PACE arose, as is known, in April 2014, after the “annexation” of Crimea to Russia. Russia was deprived of the right to vote in PACE and some other powers. In response, Russia refused to participate in the activities of PACE at all, and also reduced the payment of membership fees to the CoE by €11 million – for its activities.

Since Russia continued its activities in other structures of the Council of Europe, the contributions were paid in the amount of approximately 2/3 of its contribution. At the same time, Russia’s arrears on contributions and PACE’s financial problems were accumulating.

According to Article 9 of the Charter of the Council of Europe, “if a member of the Council of Europe does not fulfil their financial obligations, the Committee of Ministers may suspend its right to representation in the Committee (CMCE) and in the Consultative Assembly (PACE) until the said obligations are fulfilled.”

The Committee of Ministers has established a rule that Article 9 applies if a member country does not make payment within two years. Thus, the deadline for Russia was supposed to be June 2019.

Here it is interesting to see what positions Russia and the Council of Europe held when “hour X” approached.

Russia firmly defined its position:

1) Return to full-scale cooperation with the CoE is possible only if 2 conditions are met:

  • All its rights in PACE are returned to Russia without reservations;
  • The PACE rules of procedure are being amended to exclude any further sanctions against any country and its delegations;

2) Russia does not believe that it only needs to participate in the Council of Europe, and that the Council of Europe is no less interested in working with Russia than the latter is with it.

Therefore, when European officials threatened to exclude Russia from the Council of Europe, Lavrov calmly replied that Russia would leave on its own.

After a number of threats, the Council of Europe started to fuss

Russia’s possible exit from the Council of Europe was immediately called “Ruxit” (similar to Brexit). And it frankly scared Europe.

For everyone, the result of Russia’s excommunication from participation in the G8 was obvious – the influence of the G7 in the world and interest in it fell sharply, and all the main world events from the G7, which was immediately named “the US and its six”, moved to another platform – the G20, where the influence of the West was much less significant than in the former “eight”.

Recent invitations from Trump – to return Russia to the former “eight” – did not arose the slightest interest from Russia.

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No one wanted to have the same development of events with the Council of Europe. Feverish, on the verge of madness, the activities of Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Georgia to prevent Russia from returning to PACE did not give any result.

At the session of the CoE Committee of Ministers in Helsinki on May 17th 2019, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the creation of the Council of Europe, the Committee of Ministers adopted a decision in support of the right of all member states, including Russia, to participate on an equal basis in the statutory bodies of the CoE – the CMCE and PACE

According to the Charter of the Council of Europe, it is the CMCE that makes decisions that are mandatory for the internal life of the Council of Europe. Therefore, the outcome of the vote in PACE was a foregone conclusion: the report of the head of the Regulatory Committee, Petra De Sutter, “on improving the decision-making process of the Assembly regarding the powers and voting” was heard, and the June session of PACE changed the rules of its organisation, as well as fully restored the powers of the Russian delegation: The corresponding decision was supported by 116 deputies, 62 voted against, and 15 parliamentarians abstained.

In full, the delegations of five countries opposed the return of Russia: Ukraine (11 people), Georgia (5), Lithuania (4), Latvia (3), and Estonia (3).

What is the result of the confrontation?

1. Russia did not make any concessions, but firmly insisted on its own.

2. Russia returned to work in PACE on ITS own terms.

3. The leadership of the Council of Europe, for all its persistent Russophobia, did not risk taking the extreme step of excluding Russia from the Council of Europe.

Now let’s go back to the question: does Russia need this? And if it doesn’t need it, then who does?

The list of those who do not need Russia in the Council of Europe is shown above. These are the politicians of the Baltic States, Georgia, and Ukraine.

All other sane politicians, including Russian ones, understand that the Council of Europe is not able to fully resolve any European issue without Russia.

Russia needs a platform that has been working for many years and has shown its efficiency and effectiveness to solve many European and world problems in various fields.

What’s the point of abandoning it?

The entry into force of amendments to the constitution, which enshrine the right of Russia not to comply with the decisions of the Council of Europe bodies, primarily the European Court of Human Rights, does not change anything fundamental in the Council of Europe’s activities.

For example, Germany, Italy, Austria, and the United Kingdom do not officially implement an ECHR decision if their highest court finds that the decision contradicts the basis of national legislation. Moreover, the UK has generally threatened that it will withdraw from the ECHR if the ECHR continues to make decisions that contradict UK law.

Finally, it is a very common practice to ignore and not implement the decisions of the ECHR, with Albania, Turkey, and Ukraine leading the way. And Russia did not comply with 2/3rds of the ECHR’s decisions against it before the amendments were adopted.

Therefore, as a result of the five-year standoff with PACE, Russia has only strengthened its position in the Council of Europe, as well as its authority in the international arena.

Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe would not only negatively affect its real international authority, but would also deprive Russia of many tools of diplomatic influence on events taking place in one of its most important regions – the European one.

Therefore, I suggest that all those who are shouting that Russia should withdraw from certain international bodies and organisations take a closer look at the list of people who voted against the return of Russia’s full rights in PACE, and think: why am I in concert with them?


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