The Council of Europe's Russia Failure

The autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, currently under way in Strasbourg, has been hit by a scandal involving the Russian delegation: the speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, who had been invited to address the Assembly and had initially agreed, abruptly cancelled his trip, complaining that his “strategic proposals are unlikely to be heard by Parliamentary Assembly leaders and by Russophobe [sic] delegations.” (The speaker’s “strategic proposals” were aimed at “the serious problems with the development of parliamentarism in Europe.”) The Assembly’s president, French center-right legislator Jean-Claude Mignon, expressed “disappointment” at Naryshkin’s decision, reminding his Russian counterpart that “it takes two to hold a dialogue.”

It was precisely a “dialogue” that the Duma speaker sought to avoid. Sixty-five European legislators had signed up for questions to Naryshkin after his speech. One of the main agenda items at the current session of the Assembly is a resolution on Moscow’s compliance with its Council of Europe obligations. The document, adopted by a vote of 161 to 41, contains strong criticism of the Russian authorities over—among other things—the recent laws restricting the freedom of assembly and nongovernmental organizations, violent breakups of peaceful opposition rallies, the recriminalization of “slander,” and torture by law enforcement officials. A separate resolution calls for a Council of Europe investigation into the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow anticorruption lawyer who died after torture in prison.

What is most surprising, however, is not that Naryshkin is boycotting the Assembly, but that the Assembly is accepting members of the current Russian “parliament” as full delegates in the first place. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—the oldest pan-European parliamentary body, established in 1949—is supposed to bring together the representatives of the continent’s democratically elected parliaments. When Russia joined in 1996, this condition was clearly satisfied: Duma elections in 1993 and 1995 (and, later, in 1999) were judged by international monitors to be free, fair, and democratic. Legislative polls held after 2003, however, did not—according to the OSCE—conform to these standards. Indeed, the Parliamentary Assembly itself has concluded that the 2011 Duma elections “were marked by a convergence of the state and the governing party, limited political competition, and a lack of fairness.” Such an assessment hardly fulfils the Council’s “democratically elected” requirement.

Precedents for action exist. In 1997, the Assembly suspended the special guest status of the parliament of Belarus “because the way in which the new legislature had been formed deprived it of democratic legitimacy.” No Belarusian deputies have been allowed to the Assembly sessions since. Yet the recent appeal by Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, not to recognize Russian legislators as members of the Assembly, was simply ignored.

The pretense that the current Russian parliament is democratically elected is an affront not only to Russia’s own citizens, who have been protesting on the streets by the tens of thousands against election fraud, but also to the Assembly itself. Russia is a European nation that has a rightful place at the Council of Europe and its Assembly—but only when the Duma is once again elected in a free and democratic manner. Impostors should not be given a place at the table.


Photo Credit: Victorgrigas

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