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Explainer: Will Russia Return To PACE Next Week?

The Council of Europe is seen during a debate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France
The Council of Europe is seen during a debate of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France

BRUSSELS -- On June 24, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will begin its summer session in Strasbourg and it is expected to vote on a report that could welcome Russia back to the chamber after a three-year hiatus.

If this happens, it would become the first set of major Western sanctions imposed on Moscow since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 to be revoked.

What Has Happened So Far?

In 2014, PACE reacted to the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and Moscow's backing of militant separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine by stripping the Russian parliamentary delegation of its voting rights, depriving its members of the right to lead committees and to participate in governing bodies and supervisory missions until the end of the year. Russian delegates could still speak at the sessions, initiate decisions and vote in the various PACE committees.

These sanctions were prolonged the following year before Russia, in 2016, decided it would no longer participate in the assembly. On top of that, Russia has for the past two years not paid its annual contribution of 33 million euros, roughly 7 percent of the council's budget.

There has also been talk that Russia might withdraw from the Council of Europe altogether if its delegation isn't reinstated and it can't vote on the next secretary-general to succeed Norway's Thorbjorn Jagland. This vote will happen at the June 24-28 session and many member states are now feeling the heat from Russia.

What Is The Report About?

The title of the report that is expected to be discussed on June 24, Strengthening The Decision-Making Process Of The Parliamentary Assembly Concerning Credentials And Voting, seems innocuous enough and its 12 paragraphs don't mention anything about Russia.

The report does, however, contain two key lines that, if passed, not only would blunt PACE's ability to impose sanctions similar to those on Russia in the future but would also welcome Russia back into the fold immediately. On the first issue, the report states that "the members' rights to vote, to speak and to be represented in the assembly and its bodies shall not be suspended or withdrawn in the context of a challenge to or reconsideration of credentials."

As for the Russian delegation returning immediately, the report states that "the assembly also notes that the Committee of Ministers, having regard to the importance of the elections of the secretary-general and of judges to the European Court of Human Rights, would welcome that delegations of all member states take part in the next June session of the Parliamentary Assembly."

If the report passes, Moscow's delegates could take part in key votes starting the following day. Looking at the agenda for the June 24-28 session, this is entirely feasible. The report will be debated and voted already on June 24 (normally no such debates are held the first day). On the morning of June 25 there is a scheduled session allowing the assembly to examine and approve the credentials of the Russian delegation and on June 26 the election of the new secretary-general, as well as judges to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), will take place

How Will This Likely Play Out?

At this point, it is considered likely that the report will pass and Russia would then be back with full voting rights almost instantly. In the foreign-ministerial meeting of the Council of Europe in Helsinki last month, a declaration was adopted overwhelmingly stating that "all member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis" in the organization, adding that its members "would welcome that delegations of all member states be able to take part" in the council's Parliamentary Assembly in June. This paved the way for PACE's Rules Committee to back the report by 18 votes to 6 during its meeting in Paris on June 3.

France and Germany have been the main drivers of the change and most of the delegates from Berlin and Paris will vote in favor. The main argument for reinstating Russia is that it is better to have Russia in PACE to promote dialogue even if one doesn't see eye to eye on many issues.

Keeping Russia out -- or having it leave the Council of Europe altogether -- according to those who favor Moscow's full return, will also prevent Russian citizens from taking their cases to the ECHR and will further exacerbate the budget shortfall.

Delegates from countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the three Baltic states will try to muster enough support to sink the report -- something that has happened on several occasions before at PACE when documents proposing easing the way back for Russia have been voted down.

What Happens To PACE If Russia Returns In June?

Those who argue against dropping the sanctions against Moscow say inviting Russia back could damage PACE's reputation. This would mean that Russia would return without actually having implemented any of the demands that the chamber put on it.

More importantly, it would create a precedent for other countries to follow, since sanctions in the future would be harder to impose. It would also weaken the assembly's right to challenge unbalanced delegations and could in a sense legitimize Russia's annexation of Crimea, if Russia decided to send a Duma member from the peninsula -- a scenario that PACE would find almost impossible to challenge.

More symbolically, however, restoring Moscow's voting rights could be interpreted by Russia as evidence that the West wants to "get back to business" and it could potentially lead to more Western sanctions being dropped in the future, though there are no concrete indications of that as of yet.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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