Council of Europe Set to Bring Russia Back
17 May, 2019

After two years on the sidelines, Russia is set to return to the Council of Europe.  This decision was made at a meeting in Helsinki on May 17, where Foreign ministers from the Council’s member states voted to adopt a declaration that would allow for Russia’s voting rights to be restored.  

Ministers voted overwhelmingly in support of the declaration, which proclaims that all member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly.” It also declares that member states must “pay their obligatory contributions to the ordinary budget” and welcomes delegations from all member states to take part in the elections of the Secretary-General and judges to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) during the Parliamentary Assembly’s part-session in June.

Although the declaration does not explicitly mention the Russian Federation, its main implication is the restoration of the country’s voting rights.

This does not itself solve the question on Russia’s participation in the Parliamentary Assembly, because PACE needs to make its own decisions, said Finland’s Foreign Minister, Timo Soini, at the press conference in Helsinki. “But this is a positive development in the common response process. It sends a clear political message about equal rights and obligations.

Now, restoring Russia’s voting rights will be up for consideration at the third part of the 2019 session in Strasbourg, from June 24–28.

After 23 years of membership, Russia had been facing a real possibility of being ejected from the Council of Europe (CoE) over unpaid membership dues. The country’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, then insisted that Russia would sooner leave on their own terms. “If they want to expel Russia from the Council of Europe, we will not give them such a pleasure. We will quit it voluntarily," he said in an interview with Euronews in October 2018.  

Russia’s voting rights were suspended after their illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in April 2014. The Organization condemned the annexation as a “clear contradiction of the Statute of the Council of Europe” but did not suspend the Russian delegation entirely in an effort to maintain dialogue.

As a result, Russia refused to participate in the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), claiming their delegates were being “persecuted” over Crimea. Then, in 2017, Russia froze membership payments to the human rights body. Two years later, they were facing suspension from the Council for not paying membership dues.

In January of this year, Russia’s parliamentary Duma voted to extend the pay freeze to the CoE and decided not to send a delegation to PACE. Then in April, PACE adopted a resolution keeping sanctions against Russia in place and maintaining that the country would not be allowed to return to the Organization until its obligations were fulfilled.

But all of this will change as the Committee of Ministers’ latest declaration sends a strong signal about bringing Russia back to the table. And even Russia’s Foreign Minister appears to have had a change of heart. “We are not seeking to exit the Council of Europe, as the rumors they’re trying to spread [say],”  Lavrov insisted in Helsinki. “We do not refuse any of our obligations, including financial ones.”

Killing the Minsk Agreements

“It is good news that we agreed that Russia should remain in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Especially because this preserves the right of millions of Russians to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights,” said Heiko Maas, Germany’s Foreign Minister, following the declaration.

The CoE’s Secretary-General, Thorbjørn Jagland, has also been a long time supporter of Russia remaining in the human rights body. In October 2018, Jagland warned that the country’s exit from the CoE would be a “huge setback” for human rights in Russia. He then called for a “compromise solution” in January 2019, to resolve the crisis within the Organization.

“The Council of Europe is the only place where Russia is connected to Europe in a binding judicial way,” Secretary-General Jagland said. “We should not underestimate the negative consequences, especially if we combine it with Brexit for the EU. We could have two developments that could really shake up Europe.”

READ MORE: Out of Sight, out of Mind: Could Russia Leave the Council of Europe for Good?​

According to Jagland, restoring Russia’s voting rights was needed, because taking them away had neither returned Crimea to Ukraine nor improved the country’s domestic human rights situation.  

But not everyone is glad to see Russia rejoin the Council – least of all Ukraine.

“Ukraine and five other states voted against this decision,” wrote Ukraine’s Permanent Representative to the CoE, Dmytro Kuleba, in a tweet. “This is controversial in content and shameful given the context of the decision.”  


Although Kuleba claimed there was “no consensus”  at the Committee of Ministers, CoE spokesman Daniel Holtgen said, “The countries opposing it are a small minority.”

After reports of a draft resolution providing for Russia’s return emerged on May 16, Kuleba announced that the country’s Foreign Minister – Pavlo Klimkin – would not be attending the meeting in Helsinki. Klimkin’s absence marked “the first time in years that Ukraine will not be represented at the ministerial level,” Kuleba said.

Instead, Deputy Foreign Minister, Serhiy Kyslytsya, represented Ukraine. “Although the sanctions expired, nobody can remove legal standards and obligations and the decisions on Russia’s need to comply with the demands of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly,” he said in Helsinki. 

Kyslytsya also called on the Deputies to sign a “complementary mechanism” according to the 1994 Declaration on compliance with commitments and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

READ MORE: A Russian Return in the Council of Europe?

Earlier speculation over whether or not Russia’s voting rights would be reinstated prompted Ukraine to issue an ultimatum on May 13, threatening to leave the Minsk Agreements.

“If you [European governments] go ahead [with lifting pressure from sanctions] as a few countries want, I will leave on that day and say that we no longer have ‘Minsk,’ and it wasn’t just Russia who killed it, you killed it too,” Foreign Minister Klimkin told European Pravda.

Ukraine has previously stated that if Russia re-gained voting rights it would leave the Council of Europe altogether – despite being a member since 1995.

A recent statement from Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the Organization was “in a crisis caused mainly by the destructive actions of the Russian Federation, its aggression against Ukraine and direct blackmailing the Council of Europe in order to pursue its anti-democratic foreign policy goals.”


Those who are ready to return [the Russian Federation] to PACE without any conditions are de-facto helping to kill the [Minsk] Agreements finally,” Klimkin wrote on Twitter, two days before the Helsinki meeting. “If Europe surrenders to blackmailing – what's left of European values?

In October 2018, dozens of European politicians, businessmen, MEPs, and intellectuals signed an open letter to “save the Council of Europe” – citing fears that changes to CoE policy allowing for Russia’s unconditional return to PACE would negatively impact the Organization, as well as the human rights situation in Europe.

READ MORE: MEPs, Politicians and Intellectuals Call to "Save the Council of Europe"​

That being said, the potential for a positive impact from so-called European values is the reason many would like to see Russia remain. Leaving the Organization would not only diminish Russia’s influence in Europe, but it would also increase the country’s isolation in favor of Moscow’s hardliners.

A Legal “Grey Zone”

Of the CoE’s 47 member states, Russia filed the largest number of cases to the ECtHR in 2018. Last year, 268 new petitions were added to bring the total up to 1,572 pending petitions from Russian citizens.

The ECtHR has reviewed 2,550 Russian cases since the entry into force of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on 5 May 1998. While Russia fails to implement about two-thirds of ECtHR judgments, the Federation is usually willing to pay smaller compensations. From 2014 to 2018 alone Russia paid €3793.6 million in just satisfaction.

Moscow has, however, been reluctant to implement legal changes to comply with ECtHR ruling. This has been exacerbated since 2015, when the country introduced new legislation allowing it to reject EctHR rulings if the Constitutional Court decides they contradict Russian law.

Nonetheless, rulings against the Russian authorities are still a useful tool for delegitimizing government actions. And so long as it’s a CoE member, Russia will have to maintain a death penalty ban.

Still, concerns remain, especially given claims from Russian Permanent Representative to the CoE, Ivan Soltanovsky, that the country may also be withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.

“We are looking at all variations of the development of events, including from the point of view of their foreign policy implications for both Russia and international relations with the European continent,” he told RIA Novosti.

According to the independent pollster Levada Center, the majority of Russians surveyed want to remain part of the Council of Europe. Of over one thousand respondents, 58 percent of viewed Russia’s membership in the CoE positively, while 66 percent said filing cases with the ECtHR is important for Russians.

Russia joined the CoE in 1996, just after the end of the first of two wars in Chechnya. The country then ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1998.

Prior to freezing payments, Russia contributed 33 million euros a year to the organization – around 7  percent of its €454 million operating budget. Russian delegates voted in favor of the 2018 budget despite having cut off membership payments. That year, the CoE faced  €20 million in budgetary cuts as a result of Russia withholding funds and Turkey changing its contribution. Switzerland tried to compensate by paying their contribution in one lump sum, but the CoE was still faced with an overall budget cut of six percent.

In the midst of uncertainty over Russia’s potential exit, the Council of Europe celebrated its seventieth anniversary on May 5.

READ MORE: The Sunday Show on Autocephaly for Ukrainian Church and Russia's Future in PACE​

/Written by Eilish Hart