Council of Europe (CoE)
Permanent Representative of Russia to the Council of Europe Ivan Soltanovsky’s interview with Izvestia newspaper, published on May 8, 2020
Question: The 75th anniversary of Victory is one of this year’s key topics that has become the focus point for the Russian diplomacy over the past months. The Council of Europe was among the multilateral institutions that were brought to life by the idea of creating the “United States of Europe.” It was designed to promote a “closer union” of its members. Has the 75th anniversary offered an occasion for CE members to review the current state of the Organisation and change the way it works?
Ivan Soltanovsky: The Council of Europe was established in 1949, shortly after the end of WWII. Those who stood at its origins believed that creating a common legal space with strong human rights protection mechanisms would provide a path toward averting similar tragedies from occurring in the future. The Organisation had noble ideas at its core. If we look at what the Council achieved since then, and ask ourselves whether it attained unity among its member countries, my answer would be yes and no at the same time. In the Council of Europe’s vision, human beings and their rights and freedoms reign supreme. This is a valid idea, and we subscribed to it. The Council of Europe drafted dozens of useful conventions that we joined. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we see that countries have been committed to these values, as many CE members took painful measures in order to save lives, which resulted in major economic damage.
At the same time, we have seen attempts to highjack the human rights agenda for political purposes. We believe that using human rights as a pretext for casting discredit on countries (including ours) with an independent foreign policy is unacceptable. Of course, we also oppose those who focus exclusively on political human rights, even if they are also important. The global pandemic has aggravated many other challenges as well related to healthcare, social safety and education. We need to make these matters a priority for the Council of Europe.
At this point, the Organisation faces the following question: Will it become a venue for settling political scores or will it offer a positive agenda? I believe that this will test the Council of Europe’s capacity to reinvent itself on a sound basis.
Question: Do your colleagues from other permanent missions share this view?
Ivan Soltanovsky: We made this call at the first meeting of permanent representatives that was held via videoconference. As a result, despite some challenges, on April 22 we agreed on a declaration on fighting the pandemic. It is a framework document, but its significance is related to the fact that the Council of Europe supported the efforts being made by all its member states to fight this novel infection and, even more importantly, stated the need for member states to combine their efforts in fighting the coronavirus. While this may be self-evident for us, issuing this collective call on behalf of the Council of Europe is vitalconsidering the atomisation of Europe, while Russia is under pressure from sanctions, which is especially outrageous against the backdrop of the global pandemic threat that is far from being behind us.
Question: Does this mean that lifting sanctions against Russia is not on the agenda?
Ivan Soltanovsky: No, this is not something that is being discussed. Let me remind you that the Council of Europe did not impose any sanctions on Russia so far.
Question: Pyotr Tolstoi, who heads the Russian delegation to PACE, asked the Council of Europe to carry out a review of what its members had done during the pandemic. As far as I can see, this includes both measures to fight COVID, as well as what the countries will do once the epidemic subsides. Are there any discussions within the Council of Europe on the gradual lifting of quarantine restrictions and measures to promote economic recovery?
Ivan Soltanovsky: Mr Tolstoi made a very reasonable proposal. We need to share our best practices. This is the kind of a positive agenda I have been talking about. The economic factor is not a priority for the Council of Europe, since most of its conventions are related to human rights and legal matters. There is, however, the European Social Charter, a very important document without question. Quite a few of my colleagues want to place a bigger emphasis on social matters.
Question: PACE was scheduled to hold its summer session between June 22 and 26, but as far as I am aware there was a decision to postpone it.
Ivan Soltanovsky: The decision to postpone the session until better days, i.e., until the autumn, was adopted on April 30. However, everything will depend on how quickly the epidemiological situation improves. It is absolutely essential for us that all 47 national delegations attend the session.
Question: Is there a threat that someone will refuse to attend, for example as was the case with the Ukrainian delegation last autumn?
Ivan Soltanovsky: In the case of the Ukrainian delegation it was the choice of this country that found itself in a tight spot. They were campaigning against discrimination they were allegedly facing, while no one discriminated against them. This is simply a question of getting delegations to Strasbourg despite the closed borders and suspended air service.
Question: You said that the summer session was postponed. Does this mean that there will be two sessions in the autumn?
Ivan Soltanovsky: So far we are talking about two sessions: the summer session has been tentatively scheduled to take place in September, and there will also be an October session. But things are changing quickly over here. It remains to be seen whether national delegations agree to this.
Question: During PACE’s winter meetings we saw repercussions of the conflict that unfolded over the past years on Russia’s participation. It became clear at the time that the Russian delegation has recovered its rights for good. Will this fact, together with the pandemic, automatically remove this conflict from the agenda?
Ivan Soltanovsky: I very much hope so, but to be quite honest with you, I doubt it. Radicals from the Ukrainian, British and Baltic delegations can get publicity only by exploiting the topic of confirming the credentials of the Russian parliamentarians. Unfortunately, this did not go anywhere. So far I have not seen any signs that the most radical PACE members were ready to give up on this approach, even in the context of the pandemic. We have to be realistic about this.
Question: The pandemic broke out during Georgia’s Council presidency. The May meeting of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers had to be held in Strasbourg rather than in Tbilisi due to the complicated Russia-Georgia relations. Now it has been postponed until November altogether, and will take place in Athens under the Greek presidency. Does this mean that Georgia’s presidency failed?
Ivan Soltanovsky: It is true that there was a decision to hold the Committee of Ministers in Athens on November 4, but I would not go as far as to say that the Georgian presidency was a failure. The pandemic prevented Tbilisi from carrying out its programme. The decision to transfer the May meeting from Tbilisi to Strasbourg was caused by Georgia’s internal disputes rather than the state of our bilateral relations. This aspect played a key role.
Question: So the Russian factor did not give rise to these disputes?
Ivan Soltanovsky: It is up to the Georgian society and leadership to find a way to overcome the country’s internal differences. As a country that assumed the presidency of the Council of Europe, Georgia said from the outset that it intended to host the ministerial meeting in Tbilisi and was consistently pushing for having its own way. As we have seen, this brought about an intense political debate within the country with all kinds of speculation regarding the Russian factor. Of course, we had nothing to do with this, and will never become involved. In the end, the Georgian authorities withdrew their invitation.
Question: Will Georgia get a chance to make up for it by hosting events that were cancelled due to the pandemic without waiting for its next turn? Or will it have to wait for 20 years until it gets the rotating presidency once again?
Ivan Soltanovsky: The presidency will be handed over to Greece on May 15. Georgia is carrying out some of its initiatives, and will try to complete its presidency on a positive note. After that the rotational mechanisms come into play and they will have to wait for their turn.
Question: In early April, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric said that the Organisation was engaged in a dialogue with Russia on the amendments to the Constitution regarding the supremacy of national law over international norms. How are these consultations unfolding, and why do both sides need them?
Ivan Soltanovsky: Let me begin by specifying that this is not a question of prioritising national law to the detriment of international law. This refers to Article 15 of the Constitution whereby universally-recognised principles and norms of international law and international treaties and agreements of the Russian Federation are part of its legal system. If an international treaty or agreement of the Russian Federation establishes other rules than those envisaged by law, the rules of the international agreement are applied. There are no plans to amend this article. At the same time, we are seeing that international bodies are increasingly inclined to follow a broad interpretation of their mandate and to adopt politicised decisions. We want to defend ourselves from this kind of abuse.
Within the Council of Europe, the Commission for Democracy through Law, often referred to as the Venice Commission, is the main expert body in this dialogue. It is composed of one international law expert from each member country. So far, the Commission has been requested to prepare an opinion on the new wording for Article 79, and is not working on any other amendments to the Russian Constitution.
In March 2020, the Venice Commission representatives visited Moscow and met with the co-chairs of the working group tasked with drafting constitutional amendments. As far as we are aware, they were satisfied with this dialogue. The report was scheduled to be discussed at the Commission’s March session, but it was cancelled. So far, the June meeting is on the calendar, but it remains to be seen whether it will actually take place.
Question: Does this mean that if a decision taken in Russia is at odds with the recommendations issued by the Council of Europe, Russia’s internal position will take precedence over the Council’s point of view?
Ivan Soltanovsky: I would not put it this way. Of course, we will proceed from the premise that our national interests have priority. The fact that it will be the people of Russia who will decide on amending the Constitution in a national vote is a matter of principle for us. However, we are committed to using dialogue in order to make our position quite clear to Council of Europe bodies. These contacts regarding the Constitution are fundamentally important not only for us, but also for the Council of Europe that must respect the national law of its member countries, especially when it comes to constitutional norms.
Question: Russia had to postpone the May 9 Victory parade due to the pandemic. How did the Council of Europe intend to mark this day, and what will be done with the lockdown in place?
Ivan Soltanovsky: The coronavirus has certainly changed the way this day will be marked in Strasbourg. During the spring sessions of PACE and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities we wanted to have the Kaliningrad History and Arts Museum’s photo exhibitions Girls Go to War and Flying the Same Skies. In late April Strasbourg was to have been the venue of concert given by the Tavrichesky symphonic orchestra from the Leningrad Region who were to have performed Dmitry Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. We also have a tradition of holding the Immortal Regiment march here, and I always take part in it with a portrait of my grandfather, also Ivan Soltanovsky, who fought throughout the war and was in Prague at the time of Victory. For PACE’s June session we worked with the Museum of Contemporary History of the Russian Historical Society to prepare an exhibition on anti-Nazi resistance in Europe. We will definitely hold all these events later on, once the coronavirus is behind us.
Until then, I will join my colleagues, including Russia’s Consul General in Strasbourg Yury Solovyov and permanent representatives of the CIS countries, to visit the Southern Cemetery in Strasbourg to pay tribute to Red Army soldiers who died in captivity. We also launched a hashtag #CoEWeRemember and asked our colleagues to share their thoughts on the 75th anniversary of Victory and family memories about the war. Everyone is welcome to join this initiative.
Question: The topic of WWII is essential for Russian diplomacy and for the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation in particular. How important is it for your colleagues among German and French diplomats?
Ivan Soltanovsky: The vision of the WWII lessons varies from one country to another. Of course, our positions are very close with those of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, who all have their permanent representatives here in Strasbourg. Other permanent representatives also take part in our initiatives. There are quite a few people here whose relatives experienced the tragedy of WWII. Our efforts resonate with the Youth Centre of the Council of Europe that works with Russia’s National Council of Children’s and Young People’s Associations on holding workshops on preserving the historical memory. In addition to this, efforts are now underway to draft a partial agreement on teaching history in Europe, initiated by France and supported by 23 countries. We would like to create a platform not only for expert discussions, but also for enabling secondary school teachers to exchange best practices on teaching history.
Question: Russian MPs opened the Declaration on WWII for signing during PACE’s winter session. How many people signed this document and why does it matter?
Ivan Soltanovsky: As far as I know, 77 parliamentarians signed this declaration, and the signature list has not been finalised. It will be open for signing until the next session. In this document, we articulated a common approach to WWII based on the verdicts of the Nuremberg trials. This is the only way we can overcome pan-continental challenges. Otherwise, there is a risk that the East-West and North-South divides will remain in place in the future.