February 28th marked 15 years since Russia's incorporation into one of the oldest organizations of the Old World - the Council of Europe. During the Cold War, the membership in the Council of Europe was considered to be a privilege for the countries which bid farewell to totalitarianism completely and entirely. Nowadays, the organization unites practically all countries of the continent.
The cooperation between the Council of Europe and Russia started in 1989. In 1992, Russia submitted its bid for the membership in the organization. Former satellites of the Soviet Union (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania), as well as the Baltic States, joined the Council of Europe. Ukraine, Moldova and the Caucasian states followed their example. As for Russia, the talks to join the Council were suspended in 1995: PACE deputies were concerned about Russia's military activities in Chechnya.
The dialogue resumed only after Moscow launched negotiations about the political regulation of the conflict. In February of 1996, the Council of Europe let Russian in. At present moment, Russia is a member of 54 fundamental agreements of the organization. They touch upon the human rights, freedom of speech and mass media, and so on and so forth.
When they talk about the Council of Europe, many think of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Russia has its permanent delegation there chaired by Ambassador Konstantin Kosachev. Kosachev also serves deputy chairman of the assembly and second deputy chairman of the committee for political affairs.
However, the membership in the Council of Europe and particularly in the PACE has a different side. It is hard to think of another organization which would pass so many anti-Russian resolutions. The organization showered Russia with criticism for the war in Chechnya, for Khodorkovsky's case, for restricting freedom of speech, for recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It looked like PACE deputies were simply using Russia as a scapegoat. They would gladly criticize Russia on all occasions, but leave other countries' sins out of their attention. It took the organization quite a lot of time to recognize Georgia as an aggressor in the military conflict in 2008. The issues related to the Russian language in Ukraine, the position of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia and Estonia, the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia did not receive the proper assessment at PACE.
In addition to PACE, the membership in the Council of Europe entailed Russia's membership at the European Court for Human Rights. Russia has its own judge at the court. However, the number of cases, which residents from the Caucasus and opposition activists won against Russia, is very hard to count. The court hardly ever takes Russia's side.
It is also worthy of note that Russia agreed to introduce the moratorium on death penalty to be able to join the Council of Europe. Russia's annual payments to the organization amount of over 20 million euros - no other country pays more than that. Does Russia have to spend its budget money on the organization which continues to throw dirt at her?
Alexander Rahr, the leading German expert for Russia:
"Fifteen years ago, the membership in the Council of Europe meant a lot for then-administration. It was a step that Russia was making to join the European family. Russia liberated herself from the Soviet past, and it had to find its new face on the international arena. Since it was impossible for the country to join the European Union or NATO, there was the Council of Europe left. The council definitely receives profit from Russia's membership. Being the largest member, Russia pays the largest fees."
"What are the pros and cons of Russia's membership in the Council of Europe?"
"I'll start with the pros. The biggest advantage is Russia's opportunity to use the tribune of the organization to bring its points of view to all European countries. Let's remember the speech of late Patriarch Aleksi II at PACE. Many did not like the things that he said, but Russia has no other large tribune to express its thoughts to the West.
"There are disadvantages there too, of course. Russia constantly has to face criticism. Georgian, Baltic and Polish officials do their best to attack Russia. We can stand it, because the Council of Europe represents different viewpoints from practically all countries of the continent. One should not minimize PACE's work to attacks against Russia, though.
"What is the Council of Europe today?"
"It seems sometimes that it is just the house of talking, which makes no decisions whatsoever. The Council of Europe is good as a platform where one could exchange opinions. This is the only culturally civilized club, where all countries of the European civilization are present. Not all countries are members of NATO, not all countries hold the EU membership either. As for the Council of Europe, the only country that is missing there is Belarus."
"What is the Council of Europe for Germany and other leading countries of the continent?"
"In Germany, just like in other leading countries of the continent, one does not give much significance to the membership at the Council of Europe. This doesn't cancel the fact that the organization executes the function of European inquisition. It's spreading democracy in the Old World sense of the word. Modern Europe is completely different. The political life of Europe today is not about the fight between several strong powers. There is the strong European Union, which many see as something stabilizing, as something that guarantees no wars and no conflicts. Common interests exclude wars."
"Does it mean that Europe considers Russia as its member?"
"It does, mostly. PACE wouldn't criticize Russia that much otherwise. China, for example, does not get so much criticism, because the Europeans do not consider China a part of their civilization. At the end of the day, it was Russia's decision to join the Council of Europe. If so, Russia has to be patient."