Accessibility links

Neither Russian Nor Council of Europe Will Be The Same Again

  • Joel Blocker

Strasbourg, France Jan. 29 (RFE/RL) - Now that Russia is finally assured of joining the Council of Europe within the next four to five weeks, analysts and commentators are busy assessing how much its long-sought membership will change the country and the Strasbourg-based organization that promotes democracy on the continent.

Last week's approval of Moscow's application by the council's parliamentary assembly insures Russia's admission by early March.

Few analysts believe that either Russia or the council, which already contains 14 former Soviet-bloc states or republics, will undergo fundamental changes. But many analysts suggest that both Russia and the council will never be quite the same again.

Russia as a council member, they say, will have to be more responsive to the organization's democratic standards. In turn, they say the council must move to expand its activities and its influence in what will be its largest member state.

Some commentators say that's a positive development. They say admitting Moscow to the organization constitutes a necessary recognition of political realities. How, they ask, can the council fulfill its vaunted "pan-European vocation" without including in its midst the most populous European country of all? A London Times editorial today said: "Having extended the hand of friendship, the Council of Europe is placed to exert a beneficial influence on (Russia's great debate over who its enemies are and who it can count as its friends). It is surely right to have done so: for the outcome will affect every country in Europe."

Another reason put forward by those who approve Russian membership is that it will reinforce the position of human-rights advocates and democratic reformers in Russia. In its editorial Saturday, the French daily Le Monde explained that Russia's "participation in the Council of Europe will provide arguments to those defending human rights against arbitrary decisions by the government - just as the (1975) Helsinki accords provided the same to dissidents confronting the Soviet apparatus."

Other analysts see the matter in a diametrically opposed fashion. For them, because Russia is so far from fulfilling the council's democratic criteria for entry, the organization appears to have made a mockery of its own designation as "the democratic conscience of Europe." In a commentary in Britain's Observer yesterday, Adrian Hamilton spoke of the council's "betrayal" of democratic values. He said that the assembly's action "buried the raddled remnants of the West's hopes for a more moral international policy... Realpolitik," he concluded, "is not an argument for such a gross act..."

Both points of view have some - although not necessarily equal - merit. But council officials themselves say the argument that Russia should not have been admitted now because the council's own experts have found it a country "without rule of law" is not as compelling as it might at first seem. They point out that during the past two-and-a-half years the council has admitted several eastern members which also did not meet the organization's once strict entry criteria - notably, Albania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

In last Thursday's assembly debate, Ukrainian member Evgen Marmazov persuasively spelled out the counter-argument. He urged his fellow delegates to welcome Russia despite the absence of rule of law in the country. "We have accepted a series of countries that did comply with the host of standards set down by the assembly," Marmazov said. "A similar approach should be applied to Russia."

Marmazov's reasoning was, to be sure, essentially negative. But it was the force of negative reasons and questions, in fact, that carried the vote for Russia last Thursday: Negative questions like, why shouldn't Russia be treated the same as its neighbors already admitted to the council? Or, why should we risk isolating, even angering, a once - and perhaps soon again - great power by refusing to make it one of 39 European states formally committed to democratic values?

In any case, most analysts agree, the way that Russia and the Council of Europe treat each other in the next year or two will finally determine how much each will change. And that will test the ultimate wisdom of last week's decision to grant entry. Russia, they point out, will now have to be more responsive than before to a host of demands for rapid reforms requested by the council - and solemnly included in the same assembly resolution that effectively made it a member last week. They include ratifying within a year conventions on protecting human rights and safeguards for ethnic minorities as well on as the prevention of torture and the elimination of the death penalty (which still prevails in some other council member states, even though it is outlawed by the European Human-Rights Convention).

Short of sanctions or suspension - unlikely unless Russian behavior turns outrageous - the council has no way to force Moscow to live up to the pledges it made last week to the assembly. That will depend solely on Russian authorities themselves. Just after the vote last week, the head of the Russian guest delegation to the assembly, Vladimir Lukin, told reporters that Russian "realities" would affect Moscow's compliance with the council's demands. The will was there, Lukin suggested, but the ways to rapid reform were not always in place.

As for the council and its assembly, both bodies are looking for their own ways to increase their presence in Russia. Council officials say they are asking member states to quickly grant budget increases that will permit far more council action in its newest and most populous member. That will mean more legal and constitutional advisors, more low-level help in such difficult areas as Russian prison reform, greater presence outside of Moscow, and the like.

The parliamentary assembly, for its part, has already laid down its first card for greater intervention in Russian affairs. In a rider to last week's resolution approving Russian entry, the assembly established an ad hoc committee on Chechnya. The committee will not only monitor the conflict between Moscow and separatist Chechens. The rider says it will "respond to Russia's request for assistance with proposals with the Council's... convention for the protection of national minorities that might be acceptable to both sides."

When asked by reporters if the committee would be competing with the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) mission already established in the Chechen capital of Grozny, British conservative chairman David Atkinson said: "Not at all."

"Diplomats have their way of acting," Atkinson said. "We parliamentarians may have something different to offer." It was clear that the assembly - like its parent body, the Council of Europe - was determined to get to work quickly in its newest member state.