It would be wrong to assume that the Palace of Europe suffers from lobbyist schemes less than say, the Ukrainian or Armenian parliament does. Both East and West are equally prone to temptation. Elections of leaders at various levels are where state or private interests clash, while the texts of resolutions and reports hide personal and party ambitions. At the same time that innovations in international law are being drafted in a PACE meeting room, MEPs get text messages with requests from the Azerbaijani President to support a specific candidate for a specific top position in a PACE faction.
Although Ukrainian issues were not officially on the June session agenda, Ukraine was still mentioned several times: in a discussion on the corruption report, debates on freedom of assembly, and especially on the last session day when the report and Resolution on keeping political and criminal responsibility separate were approved.
It was no coincidence that voting on the report on “Keeping political and criminal responsibility separate” by Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch Christian MEP, was scheduled for Friday. “They were counting on most MPs to have left,” a Council of Europe apparatus employee says off-record. “This is a sensitive issue and the opponents’ lobbyists are very active.” When asked why the advocates of transparent rules in politics are not equally proactive, the employee comments: “Democrats, just like autocrats, are interested in continuing to hold office. Their constituencies don’t give them “a plus” for their work at the Council of Europe. Activity in Strasbourg does not mean reelection in their constituency.”
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Oil money, the cowardice of the western political class and the ambitions of power-hungry leaders from the east stand in the way of european solidary
Hence the asymmetry. Voters will not necessarily notice success in Strasbourg but a serious loss often ruins political careers. Christoph Strasser, a German Socialist MEP, was down in the dumps after his report on the monitoring of the political prisoner situation in Azerbaijan failed. The international organization had spent three years on determining the term “political prisoner”. When the report was unexpectedly voted down in January, Strasbourg old-timers said: “Now go find someone brave enough to take on Ukraine, who will risk his career to battle against your Yanukovych!”
But Pieter Omtzigt had no choice. His work on the report started almost two years ago, and its format was determined back then: he was supposed to research the situation in Ukraine and Iceland, where the former premier was also under investigation although he remained free.
Obviously, Christoph Strasser’s bitter experience was one of the reasons that made the author of the report that was fairly critical of the Ukrainian government remove any mention of Ukraine, as well as Iceland which, by the way, did not request anything, from the PACE Resolution on keeping political and criminal responsibility separate. “There was obviously a threat that the report would be shot down just as the report on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners was”, a representative of PACE’s legal service commented. “In January, the consequences were not long in coming, with a new wave of arrests in Baku. Aliyev celebrated victory over democratic standards.”
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Thus, Pieter Omtzigt was cautious. “Opponents insisted that the resolution should be a legislative document,” he explained in an interview with The Ukrainian Week. “As a rapporteur, I agreed because the decision of the European Court of Human Rights regarding Yulia Tymoshenko stated clearly that she was imprisoned for political reasons. The most important thing, in my opinion, is that the resolution retains the demand for countries, whose legislation allows the practice of the abuse of imprisonment disguised as a struggle against the abuse of office, to change this legislation. Another achievement, in my opinion, is that the report was approved without amendments. It contains a very harsh criticism of the Ukrainian judiciary. Since representatives of the ruling party in Ukraine voted for it, I conclude that my criticism is considered justified. The report also determines Mrs. Tymoshenko as a political prisoner under the norm approved by PACE in October last year. This moment is very important for Ukraine, which hopes to sign the Association Agreement with the EU soon. According to the Copenhagen Accord, countries in close partnership with the EU and hoping to become candidates in the future cannot have political prisoners. The resolution contains legal mechanisms that may help solve the problem of both Tymoshenko, and Lutsenko. The pardon for ex-Interior Minister does not stand for the complete reinstatement of his rights as a citizen. He was not deemed to be not guilty.”
In fact, the Party of Regions MPs who unanimously supported Pieter Omtzigt’s report that classifies Tymoshenko as a political prisoner, left for Kyiv with a sense of happy victory. According to the Head of the Ukrainian delegation, Ivan Popescu, “the report is a subjective document that reflects the author’s stance”, while it is the resolution that carries actual legal weight. Popescu doesn’t mention its demand to amend the “abuse of office” part of the legislation. Why upset himself? Meanwhile, Omtzigt stresses that “If the report’s recommendations are not taken into account, the case could end up under the consideration of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which will implement a monitoring procedure. This will mean that the country is not complying with the commitments undertaken when it joined the Council of Europe, and that its political practices do not meet European standards. My powers as a rapporteur are in effect for a year after the report is approved. I will watch the situation in Ukraine very closely all this time to see if the legislation is amended.”
Ukrainian opposition members vary in their opinions on the Strasbourg voting. “I’m somewhat disappointed by the fact that Omtzigt did not fight for the initial version of the resolution that mentioned Ukraine,” UDAR’s MP Iryna Herashchenko commented for The Ukrainian Week. “In the current situation, this is the best possible result,” said Batkivshchyna’s Serhiy Sobolev, Deputy Head of the Ukrainian delegation.
“Thank God they approved it, we feared the worse,” said Batkivshchyna’s Lesia Orobets. “There are forces in the Assembly that are able to collect votes, one way or another, to reject the resolution and send the report for revision. But there was no one in the room who would rise and say that he/she supports medieval tools of revenge against political opponents. The resolution is a normative document that states clearly: every time the government changes, there cannot be politically motivated persecution against opponents. There must be political responsibility for political decisions. We have elections and impeachment for this. Anything else is an attempt to take revenge. It’s a good thing that the resolution was adopted as a normative document. Every week there are new reports about political persecution – in Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. Today, opposition politicians from all countries can use the resolution to exert pressure on their governments and force them to abide by the law.”
Omtzigt’s concerns are confirmed by the election of the new head of the EPP faction in PACE that saw pressure from the so-called “oil group”, i.e. Russian, Azerbaijani, Turkish and other politicians who are concerned with their own interests in power rather than human rights.
Baku representatives actively promoted the new head, Spanish MEP Pedro Agramunt. He is the CoE’s rapporteur on Azerbaijan. His strange friendship with the country, where the opposition has become history, appears more than controversial. The EPP had long been the CoE’s locomotive of sorts in the struggle with authoritarian regimes. The new head of the faction is likely to make this task more challenging.
“Many Western politicians have values for domestic use, but lack the conviction to protect declared principles outside their country,” notes the CoE apparatus employee, who has worked there for almost 20 years. European solidarity is still more of a dream than a reality. Big oil money, the cowardice of the Western political class and the unrestrained ambition of power-hungry leaders from the East stand in its way.