A precedent now exists for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. On Tuesday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, allowed the Russian delegation to return with full voting rights, which it lost in the aftermath of the annexation.
One could argue about the sensibility of the original decision to take those rights away, but the reversal clearly happened for the wrong reasons. This doesn’t set a good example for other bodies and countries that have sanctioned Russia.
Despite its big-sounding name and the fact that it’s much older than the European Union, the Council of Europe, of which PACE is a statutory body, is not a particularly powerful international institution. Nor is it entirely meaningless. Set up in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Strasbourg-based group includes 47 member states, while the EU only has 28. When Russia joined in 1996, it had to impose a moratorium on the death penalty, to which it still adheres. Membership also places countries under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights – the venue of last resort for rights abuse cases. While Russia lately has felt uncomfortable with that obligation, and even asserted the supremacy of its own courts over the European one, it paid out 780 million rubles ($12.4 million) to plaintiffs last year to honor court rulings.
PACE, an assembly made up of member countries’ legislators, meets in Strasbourg for week-long sessions four times a year. It doesn’t make any earth-shaking decisions, but it does bring together those who write laws in the EU and in its immediate neighborhood. It’s a forum and a club whose membership means acceptance of a country’s European identity even if it doesn’t meet the EU’s admission standards (or, like Russia, doesn’t want to meet them). Besides, being part of PACE confers on a country some prestigious rights – such as the one to take part in election-observation missions.
So, when PACE voted to strip Russia of its voting rights, the Russian government was unwilling to shrug it off. The Russian delegation walked out of the assembly. Official Moscow started threatening to give up its Council of Europe membership altogether, and to ignore rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. But, most devastatingly for PACE, accustomed to a lavish budget (currently 416.7 million euros, or $474 million, for 2019), Russia cut its large financial contributions, paying just one third of what was due in 2017 and nothing in 2018 and 2019. Combined with Turkey’s decision to give up its status as a principal contributor, this constituted a serious financial threat.
Last year, PACE passed a resolution saying the Council of Europe “must face a cumulative financial risk of 42.65 million euros for the first time in its history” because of Turkey’s and Russia’s moves. Given the size of the budget, the council probably could live with the 10 percent reduction. I suspect, however, that for the group that budgeted 67.2 million euros for its governing bodies in 2019, the money was an important motive for caving to Russian pressure.
It isn’t, of course, the official reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have called on PACE to reinstate Russia for the sake of maintaining dialog, and Russian human-rights activists are in favor of keeping Russia under the human-rights court’s jurisdiction. But the vote on the resolution that gave Russia back its voting rights was closely followed by the approval of the European Council’s next two-year budget.
The voting was split along national lines. Most Western European and some post-Soviet delegations backed Russia’s return, while Eastern Europeans voted against it. Ukraine took the decision especially hard: Its delegation walked out of the assembly and asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to consider whether Ukraine should stay in the Council of Europe. But Ukraine, with a much smaller population and gross domestic product than Russia, is less financially important to the group. Besides, given its stated ambition of joining the EU, Ukraine would shoot itself in the foot by quitting a European institution in which it’s already present.
The clear financial motive behind Russia’s reinstatement is a blot on the Council of Europe’s reputation, and it will prevent the kind of meaningful discussions with the Kremlin that Merkel and Macron say they’d like to see. The Russian delegation to PACE is headed by a propagandist for state-run TV, Pyotr Tolstoy. He and other Russian legislators won’t listen to entreaties that Russia take human rights more seriously; they’ll see their return for what it is – a weak response to financial blackmail – and they won’t hide their cynicism about it.
As for the European Court of Human Rights, Russian rights advocates will heave a sigh of relief – but Moscow likely will feel empowered to be selective about which rulings it follows. After all, what will the Council of Europe do about it – strip Russia of its voting rights?
I am no advocate of sanctions against Russia for the principal reason that they punish blameless ordinary people for what a vote-rigging dictatorship does in their name. In the case of the Council of Europe, Russia’s symmetrical response to the sanctions threatened people mistreated by the country’s corrupt and cruel judiciary and penal systems.
But once sanctions are imposed, their application should be consistent. If Russia’s voting rights in PACE were suspended because of Crimea, Russia shouldn’t be able to get them back until the annexation is reversed or until PACE recognizes it (which is unlikely, to say the least). It is Russia’s fondest hope that all other Western sanctions, especially European ones, will fall away as Europeans realize the benefits of returning to closer economic cooperation. But the damage Europe would suffer from sacrificing its principles would probably outweigh the benefits, which is why even Russia sympathizers in the EU keep rolling over the sanctions.
The PACE precedent is, therefore, extremely dubious for the EU. Even if the Russia sanctions don’t change the Kremlin’s behavior at all, at least they show where Europe stands on it.