Caviar. Photo: flickr/Marco Verch Professional Photographer

Caviar Diplomacy, the Council of Europe, and Navalny

Countries blatantly violating its rules should be expelled

On 5 May 2019 the Council of Europe had its 70th birthday. Its health is rapidly deteriorating. In June its Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) gave up most of its powers to independently impose sanctions on member states, giving in to blackmail and threats from Russia. This is unacceptable for an institution whose main purpose is to uphold human rights, democratic standards and the rule of law. Members that violate and undermine its basic principles should have no place in the Council of Europe.

ESI newsletter: Navalny's life – the choice in Strasbourg (20 April 2021)

​​​​​​​ESI newsletter: The strangest love affair – autocrats and parliamentarians, from Berlin to Strasbourg (2 April 2021)

John Dalhuisen: What is the Council of Europe for? (June 2019)

ESI report: The European Swamp – Prosecutors, corruption and the Council of Europe (2016)

Journal of Democracy, Gerald Knaus: Europe and Azerbaijan: The End of Shame (2015)

ESI report: Caviar Diplomacy - How Azerbaijan silenced the Council of Europe (2012)

In 2014, over the annexation of Crimea, PACE suspended for one year the Russian delegation's rights to vote and to hold senior posts. When PACE prolonged the measure for three months in 2015 over Russia's activities in Eastern Ukraine, Russia's delegation broke off all contacts with PACE. In 2016 Russia announced that it would return to PACE only if the assembly gave up its power to deny voting and representation rights to any delegation, ever again. In 2017, it stopped paying its membership contribution. In 2018, it declared that it would leave the organisation for good if its demands were not met.

The Council of Europe's Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland and some member states, in particular Germany and France, convinced other members to give in to Russia's blackmail and to push PACE to follow suit which it did end of June 2018. Now a Russian delegation is back in PACE. The victory for Russia is significant; the damage to the Council of Europe considerable.

Russia is not the only such case. An official inquiry established in 2018 that Azerbaijan had been buying votes and influence in the Parliamentary Assembly, described in detail by ESI since 2012. The 2018 inquiry prompted criminal investigations against individuals and modest reforms to a number of procedures, but no consequences at all for Azerbaijan. If offending states are able to conclude that their offending does not matter, it is because other states have correctly concluded the same.

The Council of Europe and key memberstates are overseeing a massive erosion of the very principles in the Council of Europe that the institution is supposed to uphold in Europe. Corruption, cheating and bullying is bad enough when occurring in institutions whose main purpose is something else (from organising football championships to gaining money or running a country); in an institution whose main purpose is to uphold the rule of law and human rights it risks becoming lethal.

The enemies of democracy and human rights have come far in decapitating the Council of Europe. European democracies have never needed a strong human rights institution more than now. This requires that they understand that members that violate its basic principles have no place in the Council of Europe. They should be let go or, if necessary, expelled. Otherwise the institution will be eaten from within.

Presentation by Gerald Knaus on corruption in the Council of Europe (September 2017). Video: Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation
Gerald Knaus: The end of shame? Azerbaijan, the Council of Europe and the capture of Europe (November 2014). Video: Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Gerald Knaus on how the government of Azerbaijan has captured the Council of Europe (May 2014). Video: Norwegian Helsinki Committee