Ukraine walks out of Europe rights body as Russia returns

This file photo taken on Jan. 26, 2011 shows a general view of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg, eastern France. — AFP

STRASBOURG, France — Lawmakers at the Council of Europe agreed on Tuesday to allow Russian representatives back after a five-year absence, a move welcomed by the Kremlin but denounced by Ukraine whose delegates walked out.

Russian delegates had been stripped of their voting rights in the pan-European rights body in 2014 as retaliation for Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

Russia's absence from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) — whose members are MPs drawn from parliaments of Council of Europe member states — had raised questions about its future membership of the rights body.

The decision by lawmakers — taken in a vote in the early hours of the morning — effectively represents the first crack in the international sanctions that were imposed on Moscow after the Crimean annexation.

One hundred and eighteen members of the Strasbourg-based PACE agreed that Russia could present a delegation, with 62 against.

"This is a very positive event," Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

"PACE cannot fully operate without Russia's participation," Peskov added, praising the "victory of common sense" in Strasbourg.

But the decision was received with disgust by Ukraine, which insists there should be no international concessions to Moscow until it hands back Crimea and ends support for separatists in Ukraine's east.

The move paves the way for Russia to participate in the election of a new secretary general of the Council of Europe on Wednesday to replace Norway's Thorbjorn Jagland.

The Council of Europe, which is separate from the European Union, has no binding powers but brings together 47 European states to make recommendations on rights and democracy.

Its key institution is the European Court of Human Rights to which citizens in member states can appeal if they feel their rights have been infringed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was "disappointed", recalling how he had discussed the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his visits to Paris and Berlin last week.

"It's a pity that our European partners did not listen to us," Zelensky said.

The Ukrainian delegates walked out of the assembly. Delegation chief Volodymyr Ariev said Ukraine decided "to suspend its participation in the work of PACE except issues related to stripping the Russian delegation of its rights."

He wrote on Facebook that the delegation asked the Ukrainian parliament to "urgently" consider the country's membership of the assembly.

Russia had responded to the loss of voting rights by boycotting the assembly and has since 2017 refused to pay its 33-million-euro ($37-million) share of the annual budget of the Council of Europe.

It had even threatened to quit the body altogether if it was not allowed to take part in Wednesday's election, a move that would have prevented Russian citizens from being able to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Amelie de Montchalin, France's secretary of state for European affairs, said "it would be dangerous... to deprive millions of citizens of access to bodies that protect their rights".

Russia had joined the Council of Europe in 1996 under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin in what was seen at the time as a milestone for its integration with Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Russia would pay its debt as soon as the country's rights at PACE were restored in full.

Despite Ukraine's objections, many Russian rights activists argue it would be better for everyone — including Ukraine — to have Russia in the Council of Europe.

"If Russia leaves, the Council of Europe would lose the limited levers of influence it currently has," Yuri Dzhibladze, a prominent rights campaigner, said.

"Over the past five years the sanctions on the Russian delegation at PACE have not had any effect on human rights violations, the rise of authoritarianism, and the Russian authorities' aggressive actions on the international arena."

Two candidates are in the running to replace Jagland: Belgium's Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders and Croatia's Foreign and European Affairs Minister Marija Pejcinovic Buric. — AFP