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Russia tests Council of Europe in push to regain vote

Russian politics

Russia tests Council of Europe in push to regain vote

Human rights body considers lifting sanctions imposed for 2014 Crimea aggression

Thorbjorn Jagland: 'The convention and court has been so important for Russian citizens' © Reuters

The Council of Europe, the leading pro-democracy body in the region, is considering lifting sanctions it imposed over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine for fear Moscow could otherwise pull out — dealing a blow to human rights protection.

Russia is demanding its voting rights be restored in the parliamentary assembly of the council, which oversees the 1949 human rights convention and European Court of Human Rights. The rights were withdrawn after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the council’s secretary-general, is touring European capitals warning of a serious risk that Moscow could withdraw or crash out of the 47-member body unless its demands are met. That would deprive 140m Russians of access to the Strasbourg-based court, where Russia accounts for a third of the caseload.

“It would really be very, very bad if Russia was to leave . . . because the convention and court has been so important for Russian citizens,” Mr Jagland told the FT in an interview. “It will be a negative development for Europe, because we will have a Europe without Russia. It would be a big step back for Europe.”

However, Ukraine and its supporters have warned that re-admitting Russia to the council assembly without concessions on Crimea or the conflict in eastern Ukraine would be caving in to blackmail by Moscow.

They say it could set off a chain reaction of weakening sanctions by other bodies, notably the EU. “It would be the first hole in the wall,” said one Ukrainian official.

The Council of Europe, which is separate from the EU, along with the human rights convention and ECHR are central pillars of Europe’s democratic order. Bringing Russia into the council in 1996 was seen as a key achievement of the post-cold war period.

Russia in the summer suspended its annual €33m payment into the council’s €450m budget. It said it would not recognise a new European commissioner on human rights to be elected in January, as long as it has no vote.

Valentina Matviyenko, head of Russia’s upper chamber and an ally of president Vladimir Putin, warned recently that Moscow might cease complying with European rights court decisions if it could not vote on officials and judges. Russia has already passed a law allowing its constitutional court to exempt it from fulfilling Strasbourg judgments.

Mr Jagland denied rumours that Moscow officials had threatened a pullout in private meetings with him. But he warned that refusing to pay into the budget or implement court judgments could lead to Russia’s departure on its own or other states’ initiative.

“My understanding is that this may happen,” he said. “The big political question is do we want this political development.

“Nobody wants to give a signal that we accept the annexation of Crimea. It is not about undermining this position of principle. But . . . we have to keep in perspective: what is our mandate. Our mandate is to protect human rights in Russia and Crimea, or wherever people live on the continent.”

The former Norwegian prime minister is pressing for dialogue between European ministers and the council’s assembly on resolving the issue before the assembly decides in January on extending Russia’s voting ban. Talks are also under way within the parliamentary assembly on restoring Russia’s voting rights and some leading members have launched procedural moves aimed at allowing this to happen.

Opponents of an unconditional deal with Russia say that it would set a precedent for others accused of backsliding on democracy, such as Hungary and Poland, and for Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have serious disputes with the council. Ankara recently cut its budget payment because of monitoring imposed of Turkey’s crackdown on government critics after last year’s failed coup.

Those against an unconditional deal also fear that re-embracing Russia before presidential elections in March would be a gift to Mr Putin.

Ukraine says Russia’s hints at withdrawal are an empty threat. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s ambassador to the council, warned that reconciliation “without Moscow paying any price will mean that this organisation will discredit itself both in Ukraine and across the region”.

“If it happens, Ukraine will review our relations with the Council of Europe,” he added.

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow said that campaigners there were increasingly concerned that Moscow would exit the 47-member body. “The European court . . . has been the most successful international protection mechanism” for rights in Russia, she said. It was the “court of last resort in a situation when they cannot find justice in domestic courts”.

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