At the recent meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, it was impossible not to notice how Austria took a much more constructive approach to engaging Russian parliamentarians than did Finland last summer.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attends a session of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, at Vienna's Hofburg palace, Austria, Jan. 14, 2016. Photo: AP

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (PA OSCE) met in Vienna late last week for its semi-annual session. For obvious reasons, Europe’s migrant crisis was at the forefront of the debate in the forum, which usually offers little other than a networking opportunity and rhetorical exercise for the MPs coming from the organization’s 57 countries.

One important side effect this time, however, was a chance to make a minor, but visible step in breaking the circle of sanctions, which has plagued the relations between Russia and the European Union over the past two years, ever since the Ukraine crisis generated a major political division on the continent. Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, who is under EU sanctions following the Russian Parliament’s vote to accept Crimea into the Russian Federation, led the Russian parliamentary delegation, which included several other Russian MPs under EU sanctions, to EU member Austria, where the OSCE is headquartered and the session took place.

It would have been a mundane episode of largely insignificant parliamentary diplomacy, if it weren’t for the scandal last July, when Finland, which hosted the previous session of the Parliamentary Assembly, denied visas to the blacklisted Russian deputies including Naryshkin. That session was part of a series of high-level events called to mark the 40th anniversary of the historic Helsinki Final Act and thus the foundation of the OSCE.

But when Finland declined to allow the restricted deputies on its territory, citing the EU sanctions, the Russian delegation refused to participate and lowered its presence to a junior diplomat of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki. It was a major setback for the organization, which includes EU and former Soviet states as well as the United States and Canada, and thus constitutes the only all-inclusive security arrangement in Europe. And it was an embarrassment for all parties involved.

This time around, Austria’s decision to let the high-level delegation to Vienna offers a glimpse into how different EU countries treat the sanctions issue. It also gave Russia a chance to emphasize its support of the OSCE in general, which plays a crucial role in the Ukraine settlement, and its parliamentary arm in particular.

As far as the parliamentary involvement is concerned, Russian officials maintain that they find here a much more cooperative partner than is the case with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has consistently criticized Russia in the field of human rights over the past decades, a problem that has been exacerbated by the Ukraine crisis. As a result, Russia refused to send its delegation to the latest PACE session.

Also read: "Russia-EU relations in 2016: Looking for a way out"

“At a certain moment Mr. Naryshkin has become the head of the Russian delegation, and it bears witness to the fact that Russia takes international parliamentary cooperation very seriously,” Nikolay Kovalev, Russian State Duma deputy and PA OSCE special representative on anti-terrorism, told Russia Direct.

“Against the backdrop of absolutely unconstructive position of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which practically refuses to conduct dialogue, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE is a much more sensitive instrument and it is natural that Russia uses it to build interaction (with the parliamentarians of Europe),” he added.

According to Kovalev, who described the Helsinki episode in July as a “disgrace,” the Austrian Foreign Ministry offered, upon Russian request, written assurances that the deputies on the sanctions list would be allowed to participate in the winter session of the OSCE parliamentary assembly.

“Without any delays, without any problems they gave written guarantees that all MPs who are under sanctions would be allowed to take part in the Parliamentary Assembly session. As a result, many deputies, who are under EU sanctions, came here. That speaks of a prudent approach of Austria, for which we are grateful,” Kovalev said.

The right to attend the sessions has become for Naryshkin a major part of the overall lobbying against the sanctions. The Russian delegation argues that no one can restrict a parliament deputy from travelling to meet his colleagues, because his or her mandate proceeds from the people.

“A deputy’s powers proceed from his mandate which is given to him or her by the voters,” – Naryshkin said at a press conference in Vienna. “I think that restrictions against PMs first of all violate the principles of parliamentary democracy and European values,” he added.

According to Naryshkin, the OSCE parliamentary assembly’s chairman, Ilkka Kanerva of Finland, has written a letter to the EU leadership requesting that no sanctions are imposed on deputies. “We appreciate the sincere position of Mr. Kanerva, who considers restrictions regarding PMs to be impermissible. I hope that the leadership of the European Union takes into account such position of the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said. 

According to Kovalev, Naryshkin had planned to introduce a resolution on this issue at the Helsinki session in July, but ended up unable to come. Now, a similar resolution is being drafted by the Swiss delegation, he said. According to the Russian PM, it won the support of deputies from Italy, France and Germany and is likely to be tabled at the assembly’s next session this summer in Tbilisi, Georgia.

“Unfortunately, Russia’s proposals do not find support, for political reasons. So, a Swiss proposal has a higher chance to be passed. And what matters for us is the final result,” Kovalev told Russia Direct.

Naryshkin made no secret of the fact that he planned to continue lobbying the overall lifting of the sanctions in his talks with European colleagues and knew well where to lay the responsibility for the existing crisis in Russia-EU relations.

“In our contacts with the European partners we see that they are getting tired of the confrontational course in the relationship with Russia, the course that is of course being dictated from another side of the Atlantic,” he said. “Everybody understands, to various degrees, that such policy leads Europe into a dead end,” the Russian Speaker added.