THE FUTURE OF RUSSIAN MEMBERSHIP AT THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE- ILYA KURSENKO OPINION BLOG
Since the fall of Communism, Russia looked for the long-awaited reunification of values and ideals with the partners to the West of its’ broad frontiers. Back in the historic years of 1991-1998 it felt as the whole world was out there applauding the democratic processes that took place in Russia and it will be fair to say that the still quite young and energetic union of European states was looking forward to establishing new relations with independent Russia. Relations that would reflect the new realities of the post-Soviet era, provide the people of Russia and Europe with the spirit of long-awaited recognition and respect for human dignity and rights once and forever on the Charles de Gauille’s ‘Europe from Lisbon to Urals’ or to be more precise ‘De l’Atlantique à l’Oural’. This is how it truly felt in the 90’s and the historic events that brought the ideological counterparts closer to each other, beyond any possible barriers of ideology, are such as Russia entering the Council of Europe on the 28th of February 1996 and its’ ratification of European Convention on Human Rights in 1998.
These key events in Russia’s democratic history are easy to be forgotten nowadays when the political winds change and new ideologies arise to such an extent that Russia is on the edge of leaving the Council of Europe – the event that if occurred would shut the gates of hopes for Russia-EU cooperation that could stretch beyond oil and gas export. It is imperative to remember what Russia joining the Council of Europe meant for the nation that wished to overcome the turbulences of transmission from communism to capitalism that were crowned by the dreadful default of 1998. If we consider history from the perspective of what average people saw it like and what they felt like we would be certain to state that European standards attracted both Russian public and the governing elite. These were the years they were united and open standing for the intensive EU-Russia integration. It has been over 20 years now from the moment Russia joined the Council of Europe and the results of this partnership have been made by the according institutions.
Unfortunately, most of the truly notable achievements have been left beyond the headlines. As if they were sacrificed for the demands of an empire that grows day to day in a geometric progression. This is so when one reads the letter from Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov to Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe. The head of Russian diplomacy having ensured all cliché phrases of cordiality and respect are pasted into the letter, states the importance of ‘ensuring truly pan-European activities of this Organization’ as well as considering it ‘important for the Council of Europe to carry out its activities without double standards and selective attitudes’. These statements reflect the way Russian administration poses itself on the international arena and are not surprising to those who have been following up with the official Kremlin rhetoric since 2014. It is regrettable that some very impactful milestones in the spheres of Russian civil society building have not been noted.
As such, this could be the work accomplished in Preventing Tortures that is carried out by European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). Monitoring the record of regular inspections, it can be noted with regret that since the degradation of the bilateral relations the frequency of these visits reduced dramatically to the point that in 2015 no inspection was carried out. No illusion should smoke over one’s mind that the issues this Committee addressed vanished. Reports prove that cases of torture and inhuman treatment in Russia have intensified since the rise of authoritarianism in the country.
After the Maidan in Ukraine the way the EU was portrayed in the Russian media has changed dramatically. State television invests huge efforts into creating the fear of an enemy ‘surrounding Russia’ and the strong President to challenge the world order ‘they created under the leadership of the United States taking advantage of a weakened Russia incapable of resisting the realities imposed upon it’. The EU sanctioning Russia for its’ actions in Crimea and East of Ukraine was openly portrayed as an enemy starting economic war against ‘Russia fighting for global justice’. This rhetoric in the atmosphere of real cooling of the bilateral relations damaged severely the image of EU institutions, organizations, companies, ideas, commitments presence in Russia. National survey polls prove the unseen deterioration of Russian public perception of EU.
This central cause of the fall of Russian trust in EU as into a stable and reliable partner shaped the way the public perceived Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe. It is the Kremlin propaganda calling for mistrust in European institutions proven by the actions of Kremlin not recognizing the verdicts of European courts, the statements openly dismantling the effectiveness of EU institutions. In the chaos of the hysteria caused by the increasing international tensions it is dangerously real to forget and eliminate forever from the pages of history what were Russia’s commitments over 20 years ago for joining the Council of Europe. Something that was missing from Minister Lavrov’s letter to Secretary Jagland.
Joining the Council of Europe in 1996 Russia gave promise to bring national laws and political system into the accordance with the European norms. Back in the years this was a challenging task the complexity of which was diminished by the efforts to bring the democratization of Russia to its’ finish. Thus, Russia’s membership at the Council of Europe was sincere and committed to taking the advantages of this membership as well as overcoming the political, economic and social crisis in Russia of 1993-1998. In 1996 President Yeltsin signs the death penalty moratorium fully committing himself to the obligations of the new membership. Russia ratified over 60 conventions dedicated towards humanitarian topics, primarily regarding the subjects of human rights. Taking into account that never before was this agenda so strong in Russia, the revolutionary role this partnership with the Council of Europe has played over more than two decades is obvious.
Many were alarmed by the recent news that Russian government might terminate its’ membership in the Council of Europe. These theories are well-based on the fact that since 2017 Russia has not paid its’ membership fees. Quite dramatic to realize how realistic this unwanted scenario might turn out taking into account the speed with which Russia-EU relations complicate and degrade. It is important to keep in mind one of the concerns of Russian government expressed in the absence of voting rights in the Council suspended on the ground of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The issue is complex and many keys to its’ resolution, without any word, lay in the general normalization of EU-Russia relations, which is very hard to foresee in the nearest future. It is more than a single book needed to outline the numerous reasons of why there is such a crisis in the bilateral relations. So far Russian government seems to be happy with what it has.
The degradation of the relations well illustrates the calls of Moscow for the new world order that would be built on the principles of multipolarity, just and equal dialogue. The demands of Putin’s empire reach for the ‘area of special influence’ as the former soviet borders are called. Russian government looks for intensifying its’ cooperation with alternative partners who do not place into the crown of negotiations the values of democracy, human dignity and respect, that just a decade ago seemed universal to the leading analysts and policymakers. The world of today has changed in the ways we could not predict it and to the deepest regrets the current Russian administration is confident with violating the principles on which a western democracy is founded. Logically, confrontation as we know it from the Cold War era ‘kill or die’ is in place once again. It is just even more dramatic that it was a century ago, since the current U.S. leader of the free world projects isolationism no EU leader was ready for.
Still, based on this analysis three main scenarios can be foreseen. In the first case, the withdrawal from the Council of Europe occurs, however, considering the stage at which Russia-EU relations are at this moment, no serious influence of this withdrawal is to be noticed. Despite the only fact that the numerous humanitarian missions that support Russia’s civil society forces will find themselves in an uncertain reality. They are likely to be shut down. This will, however, be the withdrawal Kremlin does not want, taking into account the numerous statements from Moscow to return to dialogue and to lift sanctions. Putin’s commitment to break out the isolation from the West does not suppose a step as echoing on Russian international status as its’ withdrawal from the Council of Europe.
The second scenario considers the possible improvement of the bilateral relations and the return of Russia’s voting rights that will eliminate today’s strongest Council-sceptic argument. However, this scenario is less likely to happen in the next 5 years at least, while the current Russian administration is in office saying categoric ‘no’ to any reconsideration of Crimean status and messing in the East of Ukraine. The EU found itself almost helpless in the face of Russian aggression and both parties are not sure what to expect from each other at the moment. This conflict has turned into a frozen one and will remain the main obstacle for the return to pre-2014 state of relations. However, it is not just this conflict as the reason, it is this conflict as the motive for the deterioration. The reasons could be found in the core principles of EU and Russia foreign policies. With the growing majority of post-Soviet states to increase their European integration and Russia posing itself as the opponent to this integration the conflicts are unavoidable and however appealing and nice the statements of both sides were, they are based on the principles of idealism mixed with realpolitik.
The third scenario is the one of a highest bet. It is the status-quo scenario that supposes Russia’s minimal abidance by the regulations of its’ membership in the Council. It worked out for 4 years since the relations crisis and considering the whole context of this deterioration Russian withdrawal is not expected. It is not the measure a EU side would consider as the measure of Russia’s punishment, unless there is something like the recent crisis in Azov sea conflict, which already shows the uncertainty of attitude within the EU. US President, unlike his predecessor, who would immediately respond strongly against Russia’s actions and provide the EU partners with confidence of response to Russian acts, does not seem that addicted to speaking and acting against Russia.
At the end we see how reasonably risky it is to foresee how EU-Russia partnership in the context of the Council of Europe will really turn out. At least we know how it was meant when it started, we see the scenarios of its’ development. With this in mind, we are half less likely to be misguided by the beliefs of ‘double standards’ and the ‘truly pan-European Organization’ – the celebration letters that cherish nothing that is really worth being cherished. Idealists are unlucky to live in the world of today. However strong the beliefs were not, we face the bold reality of the similarly-rooted realpolitik. The principle, that excuses the violation of human rights and easily forgets about the importance of human dignity – the context of EU-Russia relations with such a positive impact for Russian civil society. We are in a different world now. With some Cold-War sentiments we have not yet forgotten.
By Ilya Kursenko
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