Photo: Press service of Simonovsky District Court

Why Russia had to be expelled from the Council of Europe

Europe’s club of democracies needs to protect itself from countries blatantly violating its rules

The Council of Europe has to protect itself from the subversive influence of member states who openly disrespect the most fundamental principles of the Council of Europe, invade a fellow member state, committing massive war-crimes, while suppressing the human rights of its own citizens. The decision to expulse Russia, for which ESI has intensively advocated for, was the only viable option, setting the basis for a strengthened Council of Europe to emerge in the future.

ESI Newsletter: Expelling Oceania - The Council of Europe and Russian aggression (9 March 2022)

ESI Newsletter: Suspend Russia! The Council of Europe and the new cold war (23 February 2022)

The Council of Europe was created in 1949 as a club of democracies. The idea was to help them remain democracies, through the Convention of Human Rights, the court, peer reviews, discussions and other mechanisms. One of the spiritual fathers of the Convention, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, a French resistance fighter during the war and later minister of justice, explained:

“Democracies do not become Nazi countries in one day. Evil progresses cunningly, with a minority operating, as it were to remove the levers of control. One by one, freedoms are suppressed, in one sphere after another. It is necessary to intervene before it is too late. A conscience must exist somewhere which will sound the alarm in the minds of a nation menaced by this progressive corruption, to warn them of the peril.”

This system assumes that each member state wants to keep the peril away, by collaborating sincerely and effectively. When this willingness is lacking, it is wiser for the club to be ready to protect itself from the subversive influence of this member state than to continue with business as usual.

The Council of Europe has bent over backwards to accommodate Russia in recent years, arguing that its membership gives Russian citizens much-needed access to the court. But this access is of little value if its most important rulings can be ignored.

In February 2014, the Ukrainian government led by Viktor Yanukovich was ousted after months of peaceful protest culminated in snipers killing demonstrators in the centre of the Ukrainian capital. Within weeks Russia annexed Crimea and precipitated a conflict in the Eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass that soon claimed thousands of lives.

In April 2014, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) suspended the right to vote of members of the Russian parliamentary delegation for a limited period. It was a very mild response in the face of so brazen a violation of another member state’s territorial integrity. PACE might have gone further and revoked the Russian delegation’s credentials, effectively expelling it from the Assembly altogether. But PACE chose not to do so.

Then an international investigation accused Russia of responsibility for the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane that left from Amsterdam, killing more than 200 (mostly Dutch) passengers; a chemical-weapons attack, which killed a British citizen in Salisbury; and repeated cyber-attacks on other Council of Europe member states.

In the Council of Europe, however, Russia played hard-ball, assuming that the organisation’s main players – key member states like Germany and France, a majority of members of PACE and the Secretary General – were more interested in Russia’s continued membership (and funding) than it was itself.

Russia refrained from presenting the credentials of its delegation after 2015, excluding itself from PACE, and then posed conditions for its return. In October 2016, Leonid Slutsky, Chairman of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Duma, formulated Russian demands, insisting: “Russia will return [to PACE] only if certain decisions are changed.”

In summer 2017, Russia resorted to financial blackmail, refusing to pay its financial contribution to the organisation “until full and unconditional (!) restoration of the credentials of the delegation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in PACE.” In 2018 it started to dictate terms: it would only return to the Parliamentary Assembly, and pay its outstanding fees, if the Assembly changed its rules to ensure that these could never again be removed from them or any other delegation, ever. It threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

Concerned Europeans, including Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, and Andrius Kubilius, twice prime minister of Lithuania, sent a letter to the Council of Europe. They warned against PACE making a terrible mistake:

“We call upon the ruling elites of all CoE Member States not to allow the demise of the organization. History will judge harshly those who give in to blackmail from undemocratic societies where the rule of force is above the rule of law.”

ESI warned against giving in to Russian blackmail to change rules under pressure in many newsletters and presentations.

ESI Newsletter: Human rights with teeth (I) – Battle of Europe (8 December 2018)

ESI Newsletter: Red Lines, Rotten Apples and human rights in 2019 (19 November 2018)

ESI paper: The power of focus – Proposal for a European human rights entry ban commission (14 November 2018)

ESI Report: Negotiating with a pointed gun – Sanctions, appeasement and the role of Russia in the Council of Europe (8 October 2018)

For years, then Secretary General of the organisation, former Norwegian premier Thorbjørn Jagland, and leading member states, notably Germany and France, pushed hard for solutions that would satisfy Russia. Countless declarations were made extolling the importance of preserving the Council of Europe as a truly pan-European family. In May 2019, the Committee of Ministers declared diplomatically, but unambiguously that “they would welcome that delegations of all member states be able to take part in the next June part session of the Parliamentary Assembly.” The game was up. The Parliamentary Assembly, which had rejected a similar set of rule changes in October 2018, ushered them through on 24 June 2019. Russia had won.

The victory for Russia was significant and left the Council of Europe shorn of teeth and credibility at a time when its aims and values were more challenged than they had ever been before.

Russia’s behaviour only got worse. In April 2021 ESI published a newsletter taking up the case of Alexey Navalny. Since Russia became a member of the Council of Europe in 1996, no one has turned to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg more often as Navalny.

Alexey Navalny’s rise to becoming Vladimir Putin’s most feared critic began in 2011 when he set up a foundation to expose corruption, combining detailed investigations presented in snappy videos, with slogans that went viral. Since then he has been detained a dozen times for participation in protests, been convicted twice on bogus fraud charges in 2013 and 2014, barred from running in the 2018 presidential elections, and attacked three times, in 2018, 2019 and, almost fatally, in August 2020. Travelling back to Moscow from Siberia by plane he was poisoned with the military-grade chemical agent Novichok and fell into a coma. He owes his life to German doctors who treated him for months after he was evacuated to Berlin two days later.

On his return to Moscow on 17 January 2021, he was detained once again, for violating the terms of the suspended sentence he had received in the 2014 fraud case (declared arbitrary and unfair by the Strasbourg court) by not regularly reporting to the Russian police, including during the time he was in Germany. Two weeks later, a Russian court confirmed the violation and converted the suspended sentence from 2014 into a prison sentence of 2 years and 8 months.

ESI newsletter: Navalny's life – the choice in Strasbourg (20 April 2021)

In response to Navalny’s 20 applications since 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has so far – usually with a delay of a few years – delivered 7 judgements covering 11 of his applications, with all the rulings in Navalny’s favour. It has declared the two fraud convictions from 2013 and 2014 miscarriages of justice, and four of his detentions politically motivated. While Russia has paid the compensation awarded by the court, it has not quashed his sentences or stopped harassing him. Instead it has shown contempt for the court. When the court ordered Navalny’s immediate release as an interim measure on 16 February 2021 the Russian justice minister responded that this request would not be met because it was “baseless and unlawful”.

Rulings of the ECtHR are binding. The European Convention of Human Rights obliges member states of the Council of Europe “to abide by the final judgment of the Court in any case to which they are parties” (Article 46.1). Russia’s record in implementing ECtHR rulings is the second-worst among all member states, after Azerbaijan. It has implemented only 41 percent of all rulings (1,259 out of 3,056). If one looks at “priority cases” – cases that the Committee of Ministers considers particularly important – Russia is the worst culprit: 61 out of 82 have still not been implemented.

In our newsletter we argued:

“Alexey Navalny’s case is not just another serious violation. The Court’s order for his release is not just another judgment. It must be a red line for the respect of the Strasbourg Court. The Russian government must face a clear choice: release Navalny and respect the judgements of the Court or face suspension.

This is a dangerous moment for the Council of Europe. If the Russian state is allowed to ignore the Court, again, and to kill another critic of the government, it will have shown that the Council is a club of states for whom the respect for fundamental rights is wholly optional. This makes a mockery of any pretence that the European Court of Human Rights can protect Russian citizens. And it undermines the protection the Convention offers to everyone else in Europe.”

Article 3 of the Statute of the Council of Europe commits all members to “accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and collaborate sincerely and effectively in the realisation of the aim of the Council…” Article 8 stipulates that, “any member of the Council of Europe which has seriously violated Article 3 may be suspended from its rights of representation and requested by the Committee of Ministers to withdraw ...”

In February, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ESI issued another newsletter, calling for Russia’s immediate suspension:

“On Monday, 21 February 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared war on the principles enshrined in core treaties on which European stability is based: the Statute of the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights. Russia ratified these. If they are to remain credible then the member states of the Council of Europe must now react and suspend Russia for violating its most solemn commitments.”

On 25 February Russia was suspended. On 9 March, ESI pushed for expulsion:

“The Council of Europe must not harbour a dictatorship that is invading a neighbouring state, committing massive war-crimes, while suppressing the human rights of its own citizens to hide its aggressive war from its public. And yet, as this historic vote approaches some member states are reportedly still uncertain how to vote.

It would be a devastating signal to suggest to the current Russian leadership that the developments of the past two weeks leave European democracies uncertain about whether Russia has foregone its place in their club. This would certainly be understood as a hint that some in Europe are looking forward to a moment soon when current tensions might be patched up, as they always were in recent years.

This time the reaction must be different.”

On 15 March 2022, PACE unanimously adopted an Opinion which considered that Russia can no longer remain a member state. On the same day, the Russian government announced its withdrawal and its intention to denounce the European Convention of Human Rights. On 16 March 2022, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe decided that Russia ceases to be a member.

ESI Newsletter: Expelling Oceania - The Council of Europe and Russian aggression (9 March 2022)

ESI Newsletter: Suspend Russia! The Council of Europe and the new cold war (23 February 2022)

It was the only option for the Council of Europe to take. For most of the 20th century it had been clear who belonged into this oldest European Human Rights institution and who did not. Membership was open to democracies committed to the pursuit of peace, to political liberty and to the rule of law. This excluded Spain and Portugal when they were autocracies. No communist people’s democracy was a member of the Council of Europe. This also led to the departure from the organisation of Greece after a military junta took power in 1967.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia had become increasingly indistinguishable from George Orwell’s Oceania: a place of torture and repression, in permanent war with other powers to legitimise itself, ruled by a Party that employs a Thought Police to prosecute independent thinking, all in the name of its dictatorial leader.

Some feared that Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe would strip Russians of the protection of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

In fact, already before Russia’s expulsion its citizens challenging the regime were not getting any protection. It would be absurd to assume that under current conditions the abysmal implementation record of ECtHR judgements would be anything but worse. The continued detention of Alexey Navalny is clear evidence of this.

Expulsion of the Russian state must mean more, not less, focus on Russian human rights defenders. There have been dissidents in Russia before it joined the Council of Europe.

Some feared that Russia’s expulsion would mark a definitive rupture. This is wrong. The day Russia becomes a democracy again it should be welcomed back with open arms. This is what happened to Greece after the fall of its military junta.

Today, this is a distant vision. Russia had to be expelled for there to be a credible Council of Europe at all, to which a different Russia might one day return.