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24 October, 2012  ▪  Alla Lazareva

Comfort or Freedom?

The fall session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) proved that the real confrontation on the European continent is about values rather than geopolitics

Whatever the issue raised in the assembly hall of the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg – be it the situation in Russia, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the upcoming election in Ukraine or the definition of “political prisoner” – a single rule holds true: criticism and support of various initiatives and the votes that result are not determined by a politician’s position as left or right, radical or moderate, pro-Russian or pro-Western, but rather a dichotomy of personal comfort versus public interest.

This is not the first year in which members of the European Parliament have been proactive advocates for the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Perhaps these MPs have their own notion of the relationship between freedom and duty in politics that is atypical of their developed countries. One thing is clear, however: ever since a large number of countries that are not exactly democracies joined the Council of Europe, clear mutual influences have been established. Not only have democratic standards treaded a narrow path to the East, but non-transparent schemes have found their way westward as well.  

UNLIKELY ALLIES

Multi-vector strategies are nothing new on the Strasbourg chessboard. Once, when Leonid Kuchma was president of Ukraine, the pro-government part of the Ukrainian delegation often used their Azerbaijani and Russian peers to promote their projects rather than doing so themselves. The Russians had more foreign speakers at that point. They were not only supported by their authoritarian brothers, but also some Italian, British, Maltese and Dutch MPs – representatives of leftist, liberal, right-centrist and conservative parties.

“René van der Linden, a Dutch Christian Democrat, was a real disappointment as PACE President,” a former PACE administration employee says. “It was not about membership in this particular political group, but the surprising tolerance for the neglect of democratic standards. This is the sort of consent to the omnipotence of powerful, authoritarian politics that those countries have become accustomed to.”

British Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock is known as one of the supporters of the natural flow of things in Russia and its one-time colonies both at home and in Strasbourg. In a recent outburst, Hancock accused Andreas Gross, head of the PACE election observation mission to Ukraine, of calling for a revolution during an interview with The Ukrainian Week, which he never actually did.

“I read with dismay the press report that was attributed to him, as it paints a very different picture from the one portrayed in the official press statement that the delegation put together. The article said that Ukraine needs a new revolution,” Hancock said while speaking at the free debate in the session hall. “… is that really a fitting statement to be made by someone who is leading a delegation to examine the elections impartially? …I hope that Mr. Gross will clarify his position and say that his words were misinterpreted by the journalists.”

The first question that comes to mind is why a British liberal democrat would be so concerned about a Swiss socialist’s personal observations on Ukraine. However, things are not as simple as that. It was Mike Hancock who once hired Ekaterina Zatuliveter as his assistant. In late 2010, she was accused of spying for Russian intelligence and almost deported from the UK. As a result, Hancock was forced to resign from the defence committee. Andreas Gross, in addition to heading the PACE observation mission for the election in Ukraine, is a co-rapporteur on the situation in Russia. The report on Russia was the central event at the PACE fall session, and as a result of the firm positions of co-rapporteurs Andreas Gross and György Frunda, Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin was not present in Strasbourg.  

“The outrage against Gross may have had Russian as well as Ukrainian motivations” a member of the French delegation stated in a conversation with The Ukrainian Week. “Someone is apparently trying to exert pressure on Gross, who is a free and independent person. They are trying to make him less scrupulous.”

Why the interview published in The Ukrainian Week outraged the British so much is unknown. However, before the Assembly Bureau meeting, UK Conservative MP Roger Gale suggested that European MPs should go further and remove Gross as head of the election observation mission. This never happened, yet Gale managed to make some noise.

Neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian delegation was spotted putting forth any initiative on this issue. And why would they, provided that someone else could pull their chestnuts out of the fire for them?

POLITICAL DISCOMFORT

This sort of behaviour makes sense for diplomats from authoritarian states. They have too little space to manoeuvre. The reasons that MPs from developed countries would get involved are less obvious. “It’s often the factor of personal comfort,” says a CoE employee. “We’re not talking about direct bribery or corruption in every case. Byzantine diplomacy, popular in Russia, Turkey, the Balkans and the Caucasus, can play subtly on weaknesses and admirations that are necessary to influence certain people. Thus, one brick suddenly falls out of a wall that had seemed completely solid, then another and another…”  

When the report on Russia was discussed, a Polish MP tried to put Russia under tougher monitoring by the Committee of Ministers, not PACE, to stress that the situation within the country is constantly deteriorating. The initiative failed, as 121 out of 206 votes was not enough to pass the decision.

Among those who preferred not to bother the Kremlin bosses were long-time partners like the United Russia political group as well as several unexpected EPP members and Liberal Democrats. “I can’t say that they were all encouraged to do so financially,” said an EPP MP. “Some of them just don’t want trouble. They are reluctant to take on even a small personal share of the responsibility for the switch to a confrontational tone in the dialogue with Moscow.”

The biggest intrigue of the session turned out to be the vote on the definition of the term “political prisoner”. The definition, drafted by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights and amended over the last three years, was ratified with a margin of just one vote. Most Russian, pro-government Ukrainian, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Spanish MPs, supported by a few Scandinavian, Italian, Andorran, British and Belgian MPs were just one vote from perpetuating the current terminological confusion. The opposition turned out to be dramatic, yet the reform won its way in the end.

“From now on, there is an extra mechanism to determine political persecution,” said French EMP François Rochebloine. “In addition to appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, one can now submit appeals to the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights authorized to pass decisions on this issue and monitor the existence of political prisoners in a country.”

Deputies of national delegations are authorized to formulate such appeals. Soon, the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs will draft a procedure for implementing the resolution that defines the status of political prisoners. This will allow third parties to examine whether a person has been imprisoned by the government as a result of the violation of basic freedoms (i.e. freedom of speech, religion or peaceful assembly), received disproportionately tough punishment for the violation they committed, or was arrested as a result of the discriminatory implementation of the law or an openly unfair trial. The PACE resolution also provides for consultations with experts, the conducting of missions and research, and the preparation of reports. There is little doubt that the opponents of these innovations will mobilize to protect authoritarian regimes from discomfort.

Фото: British Liberal Democrat Mike Hancock is known for the scandal with his assistant Ekaterina Zatuliveter accused of spying for Russian intelligence and almost deported from the UK

Insulted by the interview of Andreas Gross, head of the Permanent Delegation of Ukraine to PACE Ivan Popesku refused to talk to The Ukrainian Week 


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