On 24 June, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) reinstalled Russia’s voting rights in the institution charged with upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The rights were suspended after Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in April 2014 and occupation of the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine. In response to the PACE restrictions, Moscow introduced its own sanctions and stopped paying its annual €33 million membership dues in 2017.
This recent PACE resolution was supported by 118 members with 62 voting against Russia’s return and 10 abstaining from voting. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced his disappointment. Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s prime minister, called it an act of revenge. Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian MP went further, calling it a betrayal. As the Ukrainian delegation to the PACE walked out in protest, Ukrainian officials were not alone broadcasting their frustration. Several editorial boards around the world criticised the decision pointing out that the Council of Europe exists to defend human rights — not appease dictators.
PACE is a complex 47-nation organization dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. It is working today against the backdrop of global declines in political rights and civil liberties. According to Freedom House, a total of 68 countries suffered such declines during 2018. Challenges to American democracy, in particular, are threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide. In Europe, since 2010 Hungary is experiencing attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.
In Serbia, there is a major deterioration as President Aleksandar Vučić’s accumulation of executive powers is in conflict with his constitutional role. According to Freedom House, in terms of their freedom scores, several European countries such as Croatia, Greece and Latvia are lagging behind ranked on the same level as Belize and Mongolia, which have never been rated high.
The Ukrainian crisis certainly stands on its own for its severity and implications. It has interrupted everyday lives for millions of people and caused major financial losses, destruction of property, security breaches, personal injuries and losses of life. This crisis is complex and of unknown duration, and it is unfolding in real time. While the circumstances have not changed much since 2014, some people involved, their roles and responsibilities have. Communication lines are also changing — both in terms of the information audiences need to receive and how they need to receive it.
In Ukraine, there is now the new president – Zelensky. He and his new team are leading in polls for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 21 July. The country’s PACE delegation will most certainly be replaced and so will be the cabinet and the foreign minister. According to the recent polls, a majority of Ukrainians favour direct talks with Russia, while most of the people polled are also supporting the autonomy for Donbass. This means Zelensky and his team will need to open new communication lines.
There are six stages recognised within every crisis: warning, risk assessment, response, management, resolution, and recovery. While the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is far from over, the European institutions and European national leaders sent strong warnings to Russia to stay out of Ukraine. The West has been managing the Ukrainian crisis relatively well through the synchronised economic and personal sanctions on Russia, its assets, as well as selected companies and individuals.
Any hope that the olive branch will encourage Russia to behave significantly better is probably unsubstantiated, as the country is most likely to continue its drive for quasi-mystical chauvinism while hoping to address its own insecurities. But the warnings have been sent and the international response to Russia has been unprecedentedly strong.
It is time for European and new Ukrainian leaders to move to a new stage and look for a resolution to the crisis. Reopening the forum at the PACE for re-engaging with the Russians should be treated with caution, but the opportunity should be used to confront the Russians politically. This will present an enormous challenge, as to protect its illiberal regime Russia is using distortion campaigns aimed at undermining international bodies. It is estimated that Russia is spending more than €500 million per year to deride western democracies, making it harder for Western politicians and ordinary citizens to separate facts from falsehood.
Russia’s disinformation machine is engineered for the social media age and is designed to bewilder people. So much so that some describe it as the “weaponisation of information.” The technique is now indeed an integral part of Russia’s military warfare arsenal. Russia will now display its full power at the PACE. This must have been anticipated and now the Russian machine is to be confronted with the stronger resolve and higher power from the European camp.
Europe is a liberal continent. There is an internal contradiction within liberalism as to whether our tolerance for others should include tolerating illiberal regimes, such as Russia. I believe it is a duty of every liberal now to protect our values by sticking to them while resisting any form of illiberalism. Our approach to others should neither include life-long bans nor anticipate passive tolerance of illiberal people and regimes. We should not shy away from confronting them – passionately, on every turf and on our terms.
The PACE decision marks the first time Europe has abandoned a major sanction against Russia since 2014. Some argue that this may have been done prematurely as the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine remains complex. Several Russian delegates to the PACE are currently under EU sanctions. Russia will use this logical inconsistency as grounds for lifting them. This process should be used as an opportunity to debate, negotiate and focus on Russia’s role in the ongoing conflict. Russia should be forced to work with Ukraine on a fair resolution of the crisis. To the extent Russia will use its disinformation machine – it needs to be broken by fair and objective journalism. If Russian politicians play tricks at the PACE, they should be challenged by responsible and honest European and Ukrainian leaders.
In this respect, walking out in protest and suspending its membership by Ukraine is ill-advised and wrong. Modern European politics are all about constant debate and search for compromises. Just as Ukrainian soldiers are not afraid to confront Russian firepower in Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian politicians and those from other European nations should not be afraid to confront Russian propaganda.
Ukraine shouldn’t feel victimised. The country should embrace modern liberalism. It should be encouraged to modernise its economy and politics. Its politicians should look sharp and not angry; they should be encouraged to grow pragmatic and develop an art of compromising. They also should lead by example in their personal lives. Ultimately, Ukraine must embrace a bold, liberal, economic and political agenda. The new leadership should be encouraged to speak the truth about the economic reforms and peace to be negotiated with Russia.
Speaking boldly and honestly about hardships and challenges, as well as how to achieve a better future, shall increase the odds of political and economic success; provided the peace and reforms are designed to bring opportunities for the current population and the next generation. Europe should continue supporting Ukraine and the PACE should provide the forum for that honest conversation. As powerful and well-oiled as the Russian machine may look – it cannot compete with the collective will of democratic Europe.