Vladimir Putin's Russia has been willing to go to extraordinary lengths to undermine the Western sanctions targeting its economy, from interfering in an American presidential election to boosting the Italian far right on Twitter.
When it comes to the sanctions imposed by the Council of Europe (CoE), though, Russia seems to have hit upon a far simpler solution – and it just might succeed.
While most Western attention focuses on natural gas exports as the vehicle for Russian blackmail of Europe and its primary lever of pressure on sanctions, pro-Russian right-wing governments in Italy, Greece, and Hungary have previously suggested they would already be willing to lift sanctions at the EU level.
These countries have held off challenging EU sanctions for now, but they could still demonstrate goodwill towards the Kremlin – at lower political cost – within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Bulwark in defence of Europe's human rights
While the CoE is often mistakenly confused with European Union (EU) institutions, it has its own long and important history that dates back to its founding in 1949.
While it doesn't have binding powers, the CoE plays a key role in promoting human rights and democracy and helps its 47 member states comply with these principles.
The organisation is behind the European Convention on Human Rights – which recently marked its 65th anniversary – and the European Court of Human Rights, which rules on breaches of the convention.
PACE, in turn, has the power to demand action of the collective member state governments, investigate human rights abuses, monitor elections, and issue sanctions against offending states.
All of this costs money.
The CoE – like every international body – depends on member states for funding. But this can cause serious institutional headaches, particularly when the countries the CoE criticises are the same ones filling its coffers.
Russia takes revenge – in roubles
Russia joined the CoE in 1996 and has been regularly denounced by the organisation for human rights abuses.
It suffered a range of sanctions after its invasion of Eastern Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea, including the suspension of Russian deputies' voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE (PACE).
Moscow has hit back with its wallet, initially suspending two-thirds of its regular contribution to the organisation (a loss of €20m annually) and then halting payments altogether.
Money talks, and fears are growing within the organisation that PACE could buckle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, far-right and radical-left deputies are the most inclined to re-admit Russia to the assembly without any concessions, though a range of 'appeaser' states effectively take the same line.
Even CoE leaders like secretary-general Thorbjorn Jagland – who rushed to congratulate Putin on his re-election in March 2018 – advocate an approach that would effectively lift sanctions without Russian concessions on Ukraine or human rights at home.
Deeper issues at play
Even when fully funded, the CoE struggles to moderate member state behaviour despite being Europe's most prominent human rights organisation.
It has limited enforcement capabilities, including on elections. Authoritarian states – and even non-authoritarian states – regularly ignore its recommendations, remarks and criticisms.
Still, the CoE's work underpins the advocacy and whistleblower work of human rights organisations. These revelations of financial precariousness could leave it entirely toothless, especially if money issues render it unable to conduct independent investigations.
Some, including secretary-general Jagland, argue suspending Russia from the CoE could deprive the country's citizens of access to the European Court of Human Rights.
This creates a true dilemma, given the ECHR's ability to delegitimise Moscow's blatant human rights violations. However, it is already impossible to actually enforce those rights in the Russian Federation.
Any concession to the Kremlin would amount to a strategic defeat for human rights defenders. Russian propaganda would undoubtedly present it as a victory over an institution that opposes Moscow's illiberal purposes.
The CoE situation offers a tangible example of how Russia exploits its leverage over European institutions to undermine accountability for its violations of international law.
Although symbolic, any CoE climbdown would damage the credibility of the organisation and the very democratic principles it stands for.
As Florian Irminger recently wrote, "at the Council of Europe, just like at the United Nations with [US] president [Donald] Trump's administration, we see that governments are willing to defund the structures with which they disagree. In other words, they institute a relativism in such mechanisms and threaten their ability to continue working independently and serve the purpose they were set up for: holding governments accountable to their own commitments".
Crisis of financing, or of values?
Holding governments accountable has proven to be incredibly challenging for the CoE.
The organisation has recently suffered from cash-for-votes corruption allegations and a lack of respect for its code of conduct by multiple members.
The investigation into these allegations has exposed how PACE can be used by illiberal states like Azerbaijan as a means of influence. In the Russian case, forcing the CoE to accept Moscow's terms could presage other blows to European unity on the sanctions regime.
If the CoE is the first test, what can its other members do to blunt Russia's financial blade?
Firstly, other member states could increase their contributions to fill the void.
Secondly, the organisation should hold firm to its own statutes in dealing with any member state that doesn't pay its contributions.
Finally, CoE leaders should look to limit any cuts to missions less vital than human rights scrutiny and democratic resilience.
Budgetary considerations aside, an institution dedicated to the defence of human rights and the rule of law is ultimately only as valuable as the values it upholds.
Nicolas Tenzer is the chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (Cerap), editor of the journal Le Banquet, author of three official reports to the government, including two on international strategy, and of 21 books
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