Interview of Russia’s Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, published on September 14, 2017
Question: Is there hope for the restoration of the Russian delegation’s rights at PACE?
Ivan Soltanovsky: For over 20 years Russia, together with the UK, Germany, Italy, France and in recent years also Turkey, has been a member of the group of “principal contributors” to the budget of the Council of Europe which have shouldered the bulk of responsibility for the organisation’s future. In this connection, Russia spares no effort to overcome any obstacles to promoting the interests of the nations inhabiting the European continent. In view of the eroding fundamental values of the Council of Europe and some member states and delegates using this old European international organisation as a tool for promoting their self-serving interests and settling scores, we have declared our concern about the future of the Strasbourg organisation. We have also suspended the payment of the 2017 dues to the Council of Europe until the rights of the Russian Federal Assembly at PACE, which are stipulated by the Council of Europe’s Charter, are fully restored. We hope for a dialogue with constructively minded delegations and countries interested in preserving the genuinely pan-European character of the Council of Europe and seeking to find real ways to overcome the current crisis. Expecting Russia alone to take unilateral “positive” steps is a short-sighted and irrational policy.
Question: Quite a few emotional statements have been made recently by people who hold diametrically opposite views to the effect that Russia should not be represented in the Council of Europe.
Ivan Soltanovsky: A new political season has begun at the Council of Europe, which is a good time to outline our approach to this important European institution. It is especially important to do so now because an information war with respect to Russia is underway in the West and our policy in the Council of Europe often becomes the subject of questionable political speculation.
Russia’s criticism of the Council of Europe is substantiated: the sanctions that have been imposed on the Russian delegation at PACE contradict the organisation’s charter. The European Court of Human Rights has adopted a number of openly politicised decisions regarding Russia, the reports on Russia published by the council’s Commissioner for Human Rights are often biased, and the human rights priorities of the council’s agencies have raised questions. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to explain this negative attitude toward the Council of Europe. It could be connected with stereotypes and a lack of information about the essence of the council, the structure and mechanisms of how it operates, the Russian potential in this organisation, and sometimes the myths about Russia’s work in the council that have developed over the past 20 years.
Question: What myths are these?
Ivan Soltanovsky: I will try to explain the meaning of the Council of Europe for Russia. The work of the council is often reduced, mistakenly, to the Parliamentary Assembly, an agency with broad consultative functions. They are not the same thing. Apart from PACE, the council also has the Committee of Ministers and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. We have developed practical and effective cooperation with nearly all member states at these agencies.
The politicised and legally unsubstantiated decision to restrict the Russian delegation’s powers at PACE contradicts parliamentary principles and was made not by the Council of Europe or its member states, but by certain deputies who sat at PACE at the time. How can we blame the Council of Europe for a decision made by an aggressive minority at one of the council’s consultative agencies?
It should be noted in this context that one of the problems at PACE is that its sessions are usually attended by not more than one third of its 324 members. However, this Council of Europe agency, which is plagued by internal contradictions, has attracted excessive media attention, whereas the operation of the other council agencies proceeds quietly and is not covered as broadly as PACE. The exaggerated attention given to PACE’s importance is playing into the hands of those who are trying to isolate Russia not only in Strasbourg but also in European policy as a whole.
Question: When we were joining the Council of Europe, many people in Russia hoped that this step would be a symbolic act of integrating our country into the Common European Home.
Ivan Soltanovsky: That’s right. Many thought that our country would immediately stop being perceived as “the Upper Volta with missiles,” to quote former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and that Russian representatives, speaking from the European rostrum, would easily silence all Russia haters in the West. At that time, we believed in the possibility of unity within diversity, as is often proclaimed from the European rostrums. However, the prejudices held by very many members of the Western political elites proved stronger than the Iron Curtain, while over-persuading our opponents is a long, difficult and often unthankful task.
Simultaneously, the West European members of the Council of Europe expected that after Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe it would as if by magic fit into the Procrustean bed of Western political morality. As is only natural, this did not happen. Regrettably, the EU Expanding Europe concept has gained supporters in the West, which is about the European Union’s domination and central role on the European continent. Against its will, the Strasbourg organisation has found itself on the sidelines. This approach is radically different from its Greater Europe plan to endow all European nations with equal rights and obligations.
Question: But, as is clear from the latest events, the EU has proved unable to present a unifying agenda even to its own members, let alone Greater Europe.
Ivan Soltanovsky: In this connection, I do not see any real alternative to the Council of Europe in Europe. Against the background of an emerging chronic crisis of other European institutions, the current political situation in Europe is giving the Council of Europe a chance to become a true centre of attraction for the entire continent. But for this, it should give up politicking, display the political will and, giving the Council of Europe a real “shake,” set a course for cleansing the Strasbourg organisation of the backlog of double standards in all soft security areas.
It cannot be overlooked that the ambiguous reputation of the Council of Europe is largely related to the fact that it has not escaped the fate of being the mirror of our current differences with the West. Like in certain other international organisations, there are attempts to represent Russia as a “foreign body” in Europe that allegedly is set to blow up European unity, including the Council of Europe, from within. They want us to appear as a “beetle in an anthill,” as the Strugatsky brothers would say. However, our most vehement critics are the governments that are trampling all over the fundamental, basic principles as well as standards of democracy in their own countries. Their statements are primarily dictated by their historical grievances plus by their desire to be in the focus of international attention. We should hardly respond to this criticism in an emotional and impulsive way.
Question: It is sometimes said in Russia that the work of our country at the Council of Europe brings only negative results.
Ivan Soltanovsky: This is far from the truth. We have achieved the main goal of our joining the Council of Europe: we have benefited from the positive experience of other countries’ development in many areas and also presented our vision of European development as well as our experience of ethnic relations to the community of nations that are represented in the Council of Europe. Over a period of the 20 years of our work at the council, Russia has joined over 60 legally binding conventions plus protocols of this organisation. We have amended our laws on corruption, for example, we have criminalised trading in influence and corrupt payment, as well as created mechanisms for interaction among the Council of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. There is no alternative to cooperation between Russia and Western countries, because we are geographic neighbours with a centuries long shared history, even if some people refuse to remember this. We cannot be separated by fences, even though some eastern European countries are trying to do just that. I am sure that the existing problems between Russia and the West can only be overcome on the basis of system-wide solutions. All of us must continue doing our daily work to strengthen European unity, without taking offence and without any hysterics, but in the knowledge that our efforts will not succeed overnight. Who said that dialogue must always be a pleasant thing? However, we do need to talk so that we can explain our opinions and listen to our counterpart, and eventually we will see the results. We will learn to accept each other as we are, without trying to change the other party to suit your purpose. As I see it, this is one of the main current goals for Russia at the Council of Europe.
Question: It looks as if many countries in the Council of Europe refuse to listen to Russia or respect its position.
Ivan Soltanovsky: Nevertheless, the Council of Europe has no alternative as a platform for dialogue, even if dialogue does become heated. An outsider may fail to see this, but many countries in the Council of Europe do hear what Russia has to say and understand our position. But they seldom make their understanding public, because of the extremely negative background of relations between Russia and the “collective West.” I believe that our main task is to protect foreign policy achievements of the past from destruction, and Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe is one such achievement. If we let this happen, we will again lose an opportunity to develop acceptable, non-confrontational long-term relations between Russia and Europe based on mutually acceptable legal standards. At this point, the Council of Europe is one of the threads that keep the fabric of Russia-West relations from disintegration.