In a sternly-worded and wide-ranging report, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) accused Russia of arbitrary intervention in its neighbors’ affairs and eroding democracy at home, prompting an angry response from top Russian officials.
“The overall state of democracy in Russia raises concern and progress in the fulfillment of the country’s obligations and commitments is slow,” the draft resolution said. “A matter of particular concern over the reporting period was the restrictive political climate, which was harmful for a meaningful political dialogue and the free expression of public opinion.”
The report calls for the release of three imprisoned members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot and advocates the repeal of recently-passed laws upping fines for public order offences at rallies and defamation, which critics claim are intended to stifle dissent.
Highlighting Russia’s international obligations since joining the Council of Europe in 1996, the report condemns Moscow’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova’s breakaway republic of Transdnestr.
This was the largest and most comprehensive review of Russian policy by the Council of Europe since 2005. It deals with developments over the past seven years, and covers a wide range of areas including domestic and international policy, civil society, rule of law, corruption, the economy and the media.
Even before Tuesday’s formal presentation of the report, top Russian officials had already lashed out at the draft text, claiming the council was more interested in reprimanding Russia for perceived shortcomings, than in real dialog.
State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who had been scheduled to open the council’s autumn session on October 1, boycotted the event, citing the organization’s “Russophobic” stance.
Alexei Pushkov, head of Russia’s PACE delegation and chair of the State Duma’s Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday said that Moscow would not satisfy some of Brussels’ resolutions. Not specifying which he had in mind, he added that the resolutions “will seriously complicate relations between the Russian Federation and the Council of Europe.”
He also expressed anger over the initiative to pass monitoring responsibilities from the parliamentary level to the PACE Council of Ministers, effectively imposing stricter oversight on Russian policy.
“It appears that Russia is the only country under monitoring that deserves special attention from the Committee of Ministers,” he said, adding that Russia has been made into an “outcast.” “This is discrimination against the Russian Federation and a shining example of double standards.”
The report was highly likely to anger Moscow, which has consistently been keen to position itself as an alternative pole of global influence. After President Vladimir Putin’s reelection this spring, the Kremlin upped its focus on strengthening its role across the post-Soviet space.
After examining the report on Tuesday, PACE delegates approved a resolution to continue monitoring Russia’s fulfillment of its PACE commitments. But they voted down the measure to make the monitoring stricter by referring it to the Committee of Ministers, PACE’s decision-making body.
Foreign policy analyst Arkady Moshes, of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told RIA Novosti on Tuesday that despite harsh words from the Russian side, this will not push the Kremlin toe-to-toe with Europe.
“If one or two EU member states’ parliaments pass the Magnitsky law, then that will be a very important indicator,” he said, referring to the campaign to impose visa bans on Russian officials thought to be implicated in the 2009 death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. “Unless that happens, the parliamentary assemblies are free to continue” criticizing Russia with little or no meaningful reaction, he said.
Resolutions like the latest issued by PACE will not become a game-changer in EU-Russian relations, Moshes added.
In the meantime, the PACE report also praised Moscow for “some very positive steps” in opening up its political landscape. Examples given include reinstating direct gubernatorial elections and easing the registration process for political parties. These moves are widely regarded as the Kremlin’s concessions, however halfhearted, to the opposition, following unprecedented public protests in Moscow against alleged falsification in December's parliamentary elections.
The report also expressed “satisfaction” with the establishment of the Investigative Committee, a high-profile law enforcement body developed as an ofshoot of the General Prosecutor's Office. It has come under fire recently for what critics call its politically-motivated crackdown on opposition figures, including anti-corruption whistle-blower Alexei Navalny, and for a controversial death-threat made by its head, Alexander Bastrykin, against a Russian journalist earlier this year.
“However,” the report continues, “the declared openness of the authorities for change is too often contradicted by acts.”
Moshes believes the mix of praise and reprimand in the report reflects the divergence in EU member states’ approaches to Russia.