Council of Europe elects new chief amid row over Russia

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. [EPA-EFE/PATRICK SEEGER]

Europe’s leading democracy and human rights organisation elected a new leadership late on Wednesday (26 June), overshadowed by the walk-out of several delegations following the ratification of Russia’s return to the assembly.

With 159 votes from 268 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) meeting in Strasbourg, Croatian foreign minister Maria Pejcinovic Buric beat Belgian counterpart Didier Reynders to become the body’s new Secretary General.

“We need more dialogue among the member States and within the Council of Europe. We need to preserve multilateralism and this organisation is one of the pillars of European multilateralism,” Buric said after her election.

Elected for a five-year term, she succeeds former Norwegian prime minister Thorbjorn Jagland, on 1 October.

Her election, however, was overshadowed by the dismay of a large number of PACE members over Russia’s unconditional restoration of voting rights which were removed following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Several of the Russian delegates to the parliamentary assembly are currently under EU sanctions. This, however, didn’t sway the majority that reinstated the Russian delegation’s voting rights earlier the day by a 118 to 62 vote.

The Council of Europe, which is not connected to the EU, brings together 47 European states, makes recommendations on human rights and democracy and to date has developed more than 200 conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights, which are all legally-binding international treaties.

Human rights advocates were concerned that ordinary Russians could lose the right to appeal to the body’s key institution, the European Court of Human Rights, for protection from abuses in Russia’s legal system.

Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996 under Boris Yeltsin in what was then seen as a milestone for its integration with Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since 2017, the loss of voting rights led the country to boycott the payment of its €33 million share of the institution’s annual budget.

Moscow’s return to the pan-European human rights body marks the first relaxation of the international sanctions that were imposed on Moscow for seizing Crimea.

Echoing the triumphant tone coming from Moscow, Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, who was proposed as a candidate for the vice chairperson of the PACE despite still being under international sanctions, said the restoration was “a first significant step toward the countries of the Council of Europe recognizing Crimea as Russian.”

As a consequence, the delegations of Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine walked out of the assembly in protest and announced they were suspending their participation in the assembly session.

The delegations said they will return home to consult their respective parliaments and governments about joint actions in the sessions.

“This step sends a very wrong signal to the country that has resorted to armed aggression, poisoning of individuals, does not observe human rights of its citizens and does not promote but seeks to destabilise democracies throughout Europe,” they warned in a joint statement, which Ukrainian delegate Leonid Yemets published on Facebook,

“CoE is losing the trust of the people it stands to protect”, the statement said, which is why “the delegations declared the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions is unacceptable. And [there is] a threat from such a decision to the very existence of the PACE.”

“And we now ask our parliaments and governments to make a decision on our future participation in the PACE work,” it concluded.

Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky had said earlier on Tuesday (25 June) he was “disappointed” by the decision to restore Russia’s status in the assembly.

“It’s a pity that our European partners did not listen to us,” Zelensky said as he recalled having discussed the matter with Paris and Berlin during his visits last week.

Kyiv insists there should be no international concessions to Moscow until it hands back Crimea and ends support for separatists in Ukraine’s war-torn east.

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