The basis for the debate was a report listing strengths and weaknesses in Russia's observance of human rights and democratic practice, judged by Council of Europe standards.
The report, first made public on 3 June, says Russia has made "very little progress" in improving its shortcomings. One of the rapporteurs for Russia, Britain's David Atkinson, told PACE today that Russia is not yet a full democracy.
"The fact is that Russia is not yet a free democracy," Atkinson said. "It has not yet held elections that are fair. This is because its national television broadcasting system is neither politically impartial nor free of state influence and control. Russia's judiciary, whilst we welcome the reforms that are under way, is not yet fully efficient, free of corruption, and independent of political influences."
The report lists the main threats to democracy in Russia as the continuing conflicts in the North Caucasus, questionable privatization deals, and corruption.
The report notes that obligations imposed on Russia by Council of Europe membership include abolition of the death penalty, bringing to justice those responsible for rights violations, particularly in Chechnya, and withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova.
At a lunchtime news conference, Atkinson pointed to what he saw as additional problems, including the high 7 percent threshold for parties to be represented in the Duma, and the military's laxity in allowing army conscripts to be so severely hazed that many commit suicide. He also referred to the need for better jail conditions, and the need for Russia to respect the Baltic states' independence, among other things.
In Moscow, Boris Kagarlitskii, head of the research panel called the Institute for Globalization Studies, comments that in his view little has been achieved in Russia.
"The only visible achievement in that respect [human rights] is that the death penalty has been suspended," Kagarlitskii said. "In most other respects, I think we have been steadily moving backwards. The big question is whether there was any other option because the social and economic structure of society leaves very little space for a real democratic process."
During today's debate, the Russian delegation in Strasbourg gave a sharp rebuttal of the criticism leveled against it.
The deputy chairwoman of the Duma's committee for international affairs, Natalya Narochnitskaya, used today's 64th anniversary of Germany's attack on the Soviet Union to lash out at European critics.
"The paradox today is that a country which liberated almost half of Europe from the prospect of ceasing to exist as nations in world history, and becoming shepherds and maids to the Third Reich [Nazi Germany], is now being taught democracy in such a mentor-like tone."
However, the Moscow branch of the rights organization Human Rights Watch said the criticism of Russia in the report is "very fair." Spokeswoman Rachel Denber said Human Rights Watch has come to the conclusion that Russia's approach to fighting terrorism in Chechnya is wrong and counterproductive.
"The degree of lawlessness and impunity for lawlessness in Chechnya not only is wrong and against the law, but also alienates the very population Russia needs on its side to fight terrorism," Denber said.
Russia, in turn, has not been slow to use the Council of Europe as a forum to criticize other countries.
A group of Russian delegates this week submitted to PACE an informal draft resolution critical of what it sees as the repression of the political opposition in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Ukraine's foreign minister, Borys Tarasyuk, said in Kyiv yesterday that the draft resolution was "provocative" and an attempt to divert attention from the debate on Russian commitments to the Council of Europe.
"Why did the Russian parliamentarians, members of the Parliamentary Assembly, keep silent when [President Leonid] Kuchma's authoritarian regime ruled in Ukraine?" Tarasyuk said. "Why did they keep silent when the authorities used administrative resources for the election campaign? Why did they keep silent when political assassinations were carried out in Ukraine? Why did they keep silent when in fact two attempts were made on the life of the opposition presidential candidate [Viktor Yushchenko]?"
PACE is scheduled to vote later today on a resolution which would broadly criticize Russian failings on human rights.
Two debates in the Parliamentary Assembly addressing the functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan and the situation of political prisoners there were expected to take place late today.