The confrontation between Russia and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) continues, although there are signs that the new leadership of PACE may be more open to rebuilding the damaged relationship with Russia.


Russia's State Duma speaker, Sergei Naryshkin gestures as he arrives at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation in Bucharest, November 27, 2015. Photo: AP

The winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) started this past week in Strasbourg, France. In the course of five working days, various resolutions were adapted and a new leader of the Assembly was elected. However, Russian parliamentarians again were not present at this session, and the question of their returning to Strasbourg remains unanswered for the moment.

The confrontation between Russia and PACE continues

The Russian delegation was deprived of their right to vote in PACE soon after Crimea voted to join Russia and military operations started in the Donbas. Russian parliamentarians also lost the right to participate in the governing bodies of the Assembly, as well as in some monitoring missions of PACE.

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During all of 2015, this ban was maintained. Heading into 2016, it seemed obvious that the center-right majority in the Parliamentary Assembly during this January session would most likely prolong the ban on the full participation of the Russian delegation.

The Federal Assembly of Russia took the lead in this matter, and just a few days before the opening of the European parliamentary forum in Strasbourg, the leaders of the two chambers of the Russian parliament, Sergey Naryshkin and Valentina Matviyenko, in a joint letter gave notice to the leadership of PACE that the Russians, under the current circumstances, themselves are refusing to attend the session.

“By refusing to travel to Strasbourg, we are not closing the door,” Matviyenko commented on the decision. “The Russian parliament is ready to resume work with PACE, if equal rights and opportunities for all national delegations, including our own, are observed.”

A similar view was expressed by Naryshkin.

“We will be closely monitoring the situation,” he said. “When the conditions for an open and equal dialogue arise, we will make a different decision.”

Judging from all this, in 2016 PACE will have to make do without the presence of Russian parliamentarians.

PACE’s new leadership and implications for Russia

The first session in 2016 has been quite productive for the Parliamentary Assembly. In the first place, at the start of the session, the Assembly elected a new chairperson.

To replace the representative of Luxembourg, the liberal Anne Brasseur, whose two-year term as chairperson had ended, PACE elected to this senior post Pedro Agramunt, a Spanish Senator representing the center-right European People’s Party (EPP).

The head of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko, hastened to declare that the new head of PACE does not have a prejudice against Russia, unlike his predecessor, who had worked hard to ensure sanctions were imposed against the Kremlin at the Assembly level.

However, it should be noted that even Agramunt, like most of his colleagues in the EPP, quite adamantly called for supporting the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine against “Russian encroachment.”

Exactly one year ago, during the winter session of 2015, speaking on behalf of the EPP, he spoke in favor of extending the restrictive sanctions against Russian parliamentarians.

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Be that as it may, if anyone today can be pleased with the election of Agramunt (except, of course, the Spanish delegation and the populist fraction), it is Azerbaijan.

The fact is that there has been much talk about the existence of friendly personal relations between the new head of PACE and representatives of the Azerbaijani leadership.

PACE’s agenda: From the refugee crisis to global terrorism 

It certainly seems coincidental (primarily because reports at the Parliamentary Assembly are prepared well in advance), but the first decisions under Agramunt’s leadership of the PACE turned out to be rather beneficial for Azerbaijan. The session approved a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from the territory of Azerbaijan, and accusing Yerevan of willfully depriving the residents in the border regions of Azerbaijan of water.

Nevertheless, the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe mainly focused on more general issues – such as the refugee migration crisis and threats of terrorism.

The texts approved by PACE members called for implementing stricter security in the Mediterranean, working together against the spread of organized criminal activity among refugees, and preventing the combatants from travelling from Europe to Iraq and Syria.

The importance of this subject was highlighted by the participation in discussions at Strasbourg of Harlem Désir, the State Secretary for European Affairs of France.

PACE members also turned their attention to human rights issues and national minorities in Kosovo, access to education by all children, and the implementation in Europe of measures to combat corruption in the judicial sphere.

Of course, PACE is only a consultative institution, whose decisions do not have much impact. Nevertheless, at the same time, given the current difficult relations between Russia and the West, such forums are extremely important to maintain communications.

And the fact that, for more than one and a half years, the Russian voice has been barely heard in Strasbourg, is not conducive to a new detente in the “Old World.”

Yes, there are parliamentarian groups within PACE (such as the European United Left and the Social Democrats) who, not being supporters of Russian foreign policy, at the same time believe that the inter-parliamentary dialogue should not be interrupted, and support the return of the Russians to Strasbourg sessions.

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However, these are a minority within PACE; and so, the question of the return of Russian parliamentarians to the Assembly remains on hold. And until then, the Russian language will be heard in PACE spoken only by former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who leads the right-wing liberal ‘mini-delegation’ that came to the January session of the Assembly, at the invitation of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. It is another matter that in Russia, Kasyanov’s People’s Freedom Party (RPS-PARNAS) has almost no representatives and lacks the support of the population.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.