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Heading For The Door? Russia's Dispute With Council Of Europe Intensifies

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomes Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, during a meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow on October 20. The talks were described by Jagland's spokesman as "constructive."

MOSCOW -- Thorbjorn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary-general, traveled to Moscow earlier this month, meeting Russian officials to find a way out of a deepening dispute that could ultimately see Russia quit the bloc.

The visit followed weeks of tough rhetoric from top Russian officials threatening to ignore judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) unless Moscow is given back full voting rights on the council's parliament.

Russia was stripped of voting rights three years ago for illegally annexing Crimea from Ukraine and has since boycotted that parliament, known as PACE. In June, Russia suspended payments to the Council of Europe.

Jagland’s press secretary, Daniel Holtgen, told RFE/RL that the October 19-20 talks in Moscow were “constructive.”

But progress was not outwardly apparent.

On October 23, unnamed “senior” Russian lawmakers appeared to up the ante, warning in comments to pro-Kremlin tabloid Izvestia that the country might freeze its participation in the Strasbourg-based court, cut payments to it, and that such a decision could be imminent.

Now Russia sees that its threats that now the Council of Europe is more ready to negotiate its values and to overlook the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.”
-- Kirill Koroteyev, Memorial human rights organization

The spate of rhetoric has prompted gloomy forecasts from Moscow rights workers like Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora rights group, who speculated in a widely discussed Telegram post that Russia could be moving toward exiting the 47-member bloc.

Such a move would deprive Russians of a vital avenue for legal recourse at the ECHR. It would also be replete with symbolism: Moscow joined the Council of Europe in 1996 under then-President Boris Yeltsin, who came to power during the Soviet breakup and presided over a period of relative openness and closer ties with the West.

On October 27, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, redirected a question about Russia's willingness to quit. “What’s the speculation for? You need to ask directly in the State Duma,” he was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

Russian human rights lawyers, however, speculated to RFE/RL that Moscow was more likely trying to raise doubts about its membership, not necessarily to leave but rather to extract concessions from an organization founded on the principle of human rights in 1949.

Russia’s relations with the Council of Europe have been fraught since its PACE delegation was stripped of voting rights over its land grab in Crimea in 2014. Moscow boycotted PACE in protest; it has been absent now for 3 1/2 years.

Next year, the assembly is due to elect ECHR judges, the high commissioner for human rights, and a secretary-general -- and Russia has warned that those elections will not be “fully legitimate” without the participation of the Russian delegation.

The speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matviyenko
The speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matviyenko

On October 25, Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, said the country will not pay substantial membership contributions to the Council of Europe until the Russian delegation returns to PACE. Delegations are fielded annually, and Russia will have a chance to submit credentials for its 2018 delegation ahead of the session in January.

'Money Vs. Values'

Speaking to RFE/RL, Chikov was more circumspect than in his earlier forecast, saying he believes Russia is inflaming lines of tension with the organization in order to make Russia’s membership subject to “some kind of diplomatic bargaining.”

“Now [we are seeing] a certain kind of aggravation of the situation in order to force the Council of Europe to hold various talks with the Russian side that are already happening,” Chikov said.

Kirill Koroteyev, legal director for the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial, also said he believes Russia is trying to extract concessions. Russia’s decision to suspend payments to the Council of the Europe has won Moscow talks, he said, and shown the Russian government that it can win concessions using its membership contributions as "leverage."

“Now Russia sees that its threats worked -- that the Council of Europe has started finally to care about what's going on in Russia. And Russia continues to employ the same threat: to suspend the payments in even bigger amounts so that now the Council of Europe is more ready to negotiate its values and to overlook the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.”

Koroteyev said the Russian government likely appreciates that the restoration of full voting rights is “hardly possible” because of its occupation of Crimea, but that Russia could be returned partial voting rights.

“It will get some of the voting rights so that some State Duma members will be traveling again in business class to Strasbourg at Russian taxpayers’ expense and can select the most conservative candidates for judges,” he said.

Thorn In The Side?

The European Court of Human Rights is likely one of the biggest irritants for Russia, however.

The Strasbourg-based court issues judgments identifying violations in Russia considerably more frequently than in any other member state. In 2016, one in every five judgments delivered by the court related to a case in Russia. What’s more, in 2016, the number of judgments against Russia doubled from 2015 -- from 116 to 228.

Russia has repeatedly complained of a "politicization" of rulings from the court.

In 2015, President Vladimir Putin signed legislation asserting Russia's right to ignore rulings from the European Court of Human Rights if they are deemed to contradict the Russian Constitution.

That legislation has so far only been used to strike down an ECHR judgment ordering Russia to pay $2 billion to Yukos shareholders for bankrupting the now-defunct oil giant once headed by tycoon-turned-Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Yukos was broken up in 2003 and sold at auction, while Khodorkovsky was jailed in what was widely seen as a politically motivated case to bring him and other powerful tycoons to heel.

Otherwise, Russia nearly always pays out compensation to plaintiffs designated in ECHR rulings, although it does not always follow other aspects of the rulings.

Earlier this month, for instance, the Russian Supreme Court declined to drop a criminal conviction against Yaroslav Belousov, who was sentenced during a case against opposition protesters on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012 -- even though an ECHR ruling previously identified violations.

Russian anti-corruption campaigner and Kremlin gadfly Aleksei Navalny has submitted dozens of complaints to the ECHR. In 2013, a Russian court gave him a five-year suspended sentence in what critics called a politically motivated trial.

The Russian Supreme Court quashed that ruling after the court in Strasbourg found the conviction unsound. This year, however, he was tried and convicted on what his supporters say were identical charges and an identical verdict. Officials have said that verdict means he is ineligible to run in the presidential election in March.

Koroteyev said the patchy implementation of rulings made Russia's threats about not carrying out further judgments ring hollow.

"It's not a statement of the future," he said. "It’s a statement of fact about what is happening already on an impressive scale."