Political season in Europe started with the autumn session in PACE where the assembly was split between those who wanted to bring the Russian delegation back (represented by PACE president) and those who were opposed to this (represented first and foremost by the Ukrainian delegation). Russia delegation is absent from PACE since 2014 when its voting rights have been suspended following Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. Rethinking Russia spoke about the importance of this suspension and the possibilities to unblock the situation to Birte Wassenberg – professor in Contemporary History at the Institute for Political Studies (IEP) of the University of Strasbourg, visiting professor at the College of Europe and author of the book “History of the Council of Europe (1949-2009).
Rethinking Russia: Russian delegation’s voting rights have been suspended in 2014 and later on Russia decided not to take part in the sessions, leaving the seats empty. Was this the first time that the country’s voting rights have been suspended?
Birte Wassenberg: Actually Russia has already had its voting rights suspended once – during the Chechnya war in the end of the 1990s. This was a way to protest against the hostilities that were happening at that time in Chechnya.
The same measure has been used against Greece and Turkey during the times of crises in 1970-1980s. Turkey lost its voting rights after the military coup in early 1980s, and it was a similar situation like with Russia today – Turkey lost the voting rights in the PA but retained the membership in the Council of Europe. The Greek case was in late 1960s. Both Turkish and Greek delegates lost their right to vote. So this is a practice that has been used by PACE several times.
RR: What do you think about this move – suspending the voting rights? Is it effective or is it rather a symbolic gesture?
Birte Wassenberg: It depends. In case of Turkey and Greece, the suspension was the result of the events in these countries, and actually both countries should have been completely excluded from the Council of Europe. In 1969 Greece finally withdrew from the Council of Europe because at that moment it was an authoritarian regime. When the regime changed and country became authoritarian, Council of Europe withdrew the voting rights, and it was kind of a soft measure because in my opinion Greece should have been excluded spot on. In the Turkish case in early 1980s there was the same situation: voting rights have been suspended, although the suspension should have been applied also to the Committee of Ministers, for example. Council of Europe should have excluded Turkey completely because Turkey was no longer a democracy.
As for the Russian case, it is a little bit different. Russia has not become an authoritarian regime: it is still a democracy. So in this case the suspension of the voting rights suspension was more of a symbolic nature. The suspension was political and moral pressure on Russia, to make it behave the way the Council of Europe members would like it to behave. Whether it was efficient or not, I cannot say because there is a huge disadvantage of this measure which is excluding Russia from the only forum for discussion between Russia and Europe. It is a big problem. Right now there is no way to use PACE as a mediation and reconciliation platform. If you suspend the voting rights, you cut off the possibilities for discussion.
However, one needs to understand the problem that the Council of Europe was facing. For the Council of Europe Russia has done something that was not compatible with the international standards, democracy, rule of law and human rights protection which are the basic principles of this organization. If it hadn’t done anything, then there is a problem of its credibility. It is a huge dilemma for the Council of Europe.
Russia continues to participate in the work of other CE bodies. If its membership gets suspended, at this point it will be the common Russians who will suffer since they will not have the opportunity to file cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which is open to all member states of the Council of Europe.
RR: In the last few days there were numerous reports about the possibility and necessity to bring Russia back to the PACE. Many countries supported this idea, PACE president Pedro Agramunt publicly backed the idea to bring Russian delegation back. However, on the 12th of October there were two resolutions passed on the situation of Ukraine that make it virtually impossible now for Russia to come back. On top of it Ukrainian politicians said they will fiercely oppose it and accused PACE president Pedro Agramunt of having pro-Russian views calling for his removal. What can be done at this point? How can this difficult situation which just got more complicated can be resolved?
Birte Wassenberg: It is a blocked situation. Ukraine probably needs this measure in order to feel the support, so they will oppose any initiative in PACE to bring Russia back. I am not surprised by the resolutions and by the problems in bringing Russia back. For the Council of Europe that previously suspended Russia’s voting rights, bringing Russia back would mean acknowledging that everything is fine. It will send a message: you can do anything you want; we will take you back anyway. And a European organization cannot do that. If Russia does not change anything it its policies with regards to Ukraine, Council of Europe cannot take Russia back. What can be done though, is to find a new way to bring Russia back to the discussion may be by creating a mediation group in the Assembly without giving the full voting rights. Council of Europe must create something special in order to create discussion and not to lose its dignity. The Council of Europe historically actually has been very good in inventing new mechanisms of cooperation, like, for example, the Venice commission (officially known as European Commission for Democracy through Law, Venice Commission is an advisory body that has been created after the fall of the Berlin wall in order to assist countries in the matter of constitutional law, – RR). Something needs to be done because we cannot stay in this situation for years. This cannot last forever.
RR: I am afraid Russia may not agree to a partial solution. The recent statements say that the Russian delegation will return to PACE only if its full voting rights are restored…
Birte Wassenberg: If this is the case, the situation will stay block at the level of the Council of Europe, and then it will be up to the top diplomats to find a solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Once a solution has been found there, then Russia and Ukraine will have an agreement and Russia will be able to return to PACE. If Russia does not agree to extraordinary discussion without the full rights being reinstated, then PACE will become second to the diplomatic solution around Ukraine.
RR: In your opinion is it fair to accuse PACE’s president of having pro-Russian views? Actually what he did was to call Russia to start dialogue and pointed out to the fact that the current state of relations between PACE and Russia does not benefit either party, and as the president he feels compelled to take action. How fair are the accusations?
Birte Wassenberg: It is not very fair. I truly believe that you can two very different opinions regarding this issue. When Russia applied to the membership to the Council of Europe in 1992, negotiations were suspended at a certain point because there was a war in Chechnya. Again PACE was divided between those who said that Russia should not be let it because it had a war inside its borders, and there were others who said that Russia should be let in and instead the nature of the Council of Europe should change. It should no longer be a club of democracy, a club of “good pupils” but more like a school of democracy where countries can learn. In this case you can be let in, you may not always be a good pupil, but you will be kept in and things will be discussed. These are two different opinions about how the Council of Europe should work, and it is not the first time in its history that we have those two opinions. The president of PACE clearly holds the second opinion, he thinks that it should be a school of democracy where “bad pupils” have a right to stay with a hope that once there is a discussion, they might change their actions which in practice means solutions to difficult situations. To say that he is pro-Russian is not very fair. He has a right to have his opinion on the subject.
RR: Last but not least, could you, please, briefly remind our readers about the place of the Council of Europe in the system of European institutions, and what does this organization mean for Russia?
Birte Wassenberg: Western Europeans do not remember anymore that the Council of Europe was actually the first European organization. Its PA was created in 1949 – even before the European Community. The Council of Europe has three basic values: protection of human rights, rule of law and protection of democracy which are the pillars of the European identity. These pillars have been later translated into the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950 and the establishment of the ECHR in 1959. This is the only European organization which is open to people: people of the member states can go to its court of human rights and complain for the human rights abuses. It connects the people and the European institutions. The problem of the Council of Europe is that throughout the history there were other European organizations that have been created, most notably the EU, which made the Council of Europe less important. Members of the EU place the EU first for a number of obvious and logical reasons.
However, the Council of Europe is still very important. And not only because of the ECHR but also because of the cultural and educational programs that it runs. Russia has become a member in 1996 and of course it must be very important for Russia to be part of Larger Europe. Just the way it is for the Western European countries. Council of Europe brings the Western European countries together with such countries as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey. This is the only organization that has such a scope – with the exception of OSCE which is dealing the the security. Council of Europe is a platform for the pan-European cooperation and nowadays it is becoming even more important. With the talk of the third world war or a new iron curtain coming where Russia is portrayed as opposing the EU, there is a different reality in the Council of Europe where Russia and EU countries are sitting at the same table and cooperating as equal members. It is very important for both Russia and European Union.
Interview by Yulia Netesova