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Russia's undiplomatic return to the Council of Europe

Frederick Florin, AFP |This file photo taken on January 26, 2011 shows a general view of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg, eastern France.

The Council of Europe voted to return Russia's voting rights on Wednesday, a decision that has created major diplomatic turmoil for an institution already facing a delicate financial situation.

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Five years after its suspension due to its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Russia was reintegrated on June 24 into the Council of Europe, Europe's oldest political body, which aims to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law across the continent.

The Plenary Assembly of the countil (PACE) voted on new operating rules to enable Russia’s rights to be restored.In 2014, Russia had its voting rights suspended, among other sanctions.

The return of Russia to the Council of Europe, which generated both surprise and discontent, can be read as a "double message", according to Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, researcher and director of the IFRI Russia/NIS Centre, speaking with FRANCE 24.

"On the one hand, it would be very damaging to deprive Russian citizens of an opportunity to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. This is particularly important for a country where we know that justice is not free and relies on the executive branch," she explained.

"On the other hand, the Council of Europe is giving everything away without any concessions from Russia in this matter. It sends a negative message to several other countries: the Baltic States, Poland and of course Ukraine."

Russia’s return was certainly not accepted by all members. Ukraine's representatives walked out in protest.

The Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pavlo Klimkin, also recalled his permanent representative to the Council. "The Council of Europe has lost our confidence, and it will be difficult to find it again," he said, underlining the Ukrainian feeling of "betrayal" by the European organisation.

The European contradiction

The fact that Russia and Ukraine, two countries that have frequently experienced tensions since 2014, will have to face each other in the same chamber obviously raises issues.

"(The two delegations) will be able to avoid each other in the corridors and then, if they need to, they will be able to talk to each other in the chamber. There is the public dispute, but that can be different to the real situation on the ground," Russia specialist Jean-Christophe Romer told FRANCE 24.

However, IFRI Russia's Kastouéva-Jean believes that "this ‘failure’ to defend Ukraine’s position within the Council of Europe" will not be without consequences for Ukraine, which "will take a harder political line against Russia".

Russia's return to PACE marks a turning point for Ukraine, which it perceives as a betrayal by the institution and a change in Russia’s relations with the European Union.

"Vladimir Putin has gambled on strategic patience" in terms of his relationships with European states, according to Kastouéva-Jean. “This decision sends the message, 'We take sanctions and, five years later, we forget about them and turn a new page'. It serves to reinforce Russia’s position."

In addition, four of the 18 members of the Russian delegation returning to PACE are still under sanctions -- from the European Union.

"This decision makes the Russians think that, just by insisting a little, the European Union and Europeans can be more flexible and even reverse their position," Kastouéva-Jean said. "This will give them justifiable optimism for at least a partial lifting of other European Union's sanctions in the future, without them having to cede anything in return."

Russia's return to the Council of Europe, supported by France and Germany, could also represent an attempt to gain geopolitical advantage by other European states. Jean-Christophe Romer suggests that this "may have something to do with the fact that Europe needs Russia in order to face the United States".

"In the face of the uncertainty generated by current American policies, perhaps the major European powers are saying to themselves that they need a Russian counterweight."

Council budget in danger

The suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe created a considerable budgetary challenge for the European institution, whose budget is almost €440 million for 2019. Russia is one of the five largest contributors - at €33 million per year. In response to its suspension, Russia ceased its payments to the council in June 2017.

This interruption in financial contributions cost the Council of Europe’s budget almost €90 million over the period 2017-2019. This has forced the council to propose severe budgetary cutbacks in 2020-21.

In a declaration made on June 25 by PACE, the assembly says it "regrets that a contingency plan has had to be drawn up to absorb the size of the debt left voluntarily by a member State" [Russia]. It is concerned about the human cost that this will represent: the loss of jobs for 250 people, or 10% of the Council of Europe's staff.

Russia's financial contribution "is one of the strongest factors", says Kastouéva-Jean. "This is where the Russians can say, "Money can fix everything (...) It gives Russia a very real argument about the possibility of buying European loyalty."

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