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Russia's Values Aren't Europe's

The continuing bitter feud between Russia and the Council of Europe reflects a major problem about Russian engagement with the rest of Europe.

Most contacts that Russia has with other European nations are state-to-state, business-to-business or other bilateral relations ranging from culture to tourism. At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, hundreds of delegates come together.

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe was set up after World War II to oversee the European Convention on Human Rights. Its main agency is the European Court of Human Rights. But it also is supervised by a Parliamentary Assembly where experienced members of parliament and former ministers who care about democracy and human rights come together to debate and decide policy.

World leaders such as President Dmitry Medvedev or German Chancellor Angela Merkel play no role. This is raw parliamentary democracy with clashes within delegations as much as disagreements between representatives of different countries. Unlike the European Union, the 47-member Council of Europe includes Turkey and Serbia, Norway and Azerbaijan. There is a side spectrum of political views represented, from right-wingers to Communists, from liberals to ultranationalists.

Russia’s fundamental problem is that it wants to be a member of the Council of Europe, but it doesn’t want to abide by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights or conform to the norms and values of the European vision of what democracy and freedom entails. And what is puzzling to all other delegates is the extent to which all representatives of the State Duma and Federation Council always toe the official Kremlin line in the positions they take during Council of Europe sessions. Russia is the only member of the council whose delegates act and speak as if they were government spokesmen or diplomats.

With other member countries, different views are expressed among delegates and issues are debated fully. One vivid example: When the Council of Europe produced a hard-hitting report on extraordinary rendition, there were differences in the Polish, British and Romanian delegations over how their governments had cooperated with the United States in detaining al-Qaida suspects.

Russia has already had its credentials suspended over the refusal to cooperate with the Council of Europe over investigations into the deaths and disappearances of thousands of citizens in Chechnya. As of today, Russia has refused to accept 115 rulings from the European Court of Human Rights.

After the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, there was great concern among delegates that despite Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s provocations, Russia mobilized its military power to go well beyond the contested regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Today, Russian troops de facto occupy a fifth of Georgia. The Kremlin has refused to allow EU or Council of Europe missions to examine the problem on the ground. The recommendations of Council of Europe commissions have been rejected.

How should the Council of Europe respond to this conflict? Everyone wants better relations with Russia, but if Russia wants to join and be active in the Council of Europe, then a new approach is needed. If you are in a club, then you should live by its norms, values and rules.

Denis MacShane, formerly Britain’s longest-serving minister of state for Europe, is a member of Parliament from the Labour Party.

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