The latest session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) featured a fresh spat of disputes between Moscow and Strasburg. This is of course nothing new. There have been numerous such conflicts since Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. Tensions have, at times, stretched to breaking point. For example during the second Chechen war, when the Russian delegation was almost denied the right to speak, and Russia was warned that its membership might be suspended. There were also critical moments when Moscow threatened to walk out and withdraw its financial contribution (one of the largest of all the member countries).
This has become the norm, and the individuals and organizations involved have learned the fine art of striking a balance between public quarreling and behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at political compromise. But something has now changed. In the past, Russia tried to prove that it has every right to be part of Europe’s main pro-democracy organization, but now it seems to have lost all interest.
This has nothing to do with State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin’s refusal to attend the PACE meeting or the negative reaction to the council report on Russia’s compliance with its obligations. Both events fit the established pattern perfectly. What was unusual was the statement made by the Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov about PACE’s official recommendations: “We do not regard such formulas and recommendations as appropriate, and will definitely not be complying with them.”
A “definite” refusal to “comply with” PACE recommendations is a completely new approach: a calm and even contemptuous reaction. In the past, in rejecting PACE criticism, Russia would still confirm its desire to find acceptable formulas and diplomatic solutions jointly with the Council of Europe. But this time, Moscow indicated that it no longer intends to make the effort. Why? The answer lies in a combination of several processes.
The Council of Europe is no longer in a position to tell Russia what to do. Offending a donor is not “the done thing” in the midst of a global crisis. In 2011, Russia contributed over 34 million euros to PACE, or 12% of the European organization’s total budget. Of course, this is a drop in the ocean compared to what FC Zenit paid to lure Brazilian footballer Hulk from the Portuguese club Porto. But it is still a large sum for the European organization, especially at a time when its Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland is talking about the need for tightening belts and improved efficiency in view of the shortage of funds.
Russia is aware of this, and as one of the few countries with funds available, now feels more confident in its relations with the Council of Europe. It is not surprising therefore, that the only practical measure proposed in the council’s report – downgrading Russia to the category of lower-confidence countries monitored by the council’s decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers – was rejected.
There is another, more general, reason in addition to this materialistic consideration. Russia has emerged from the period of post-Soviet destruction, and is searching for a new identity. It is likely to try different, extreme, scenarios, but above all it has begun by reviving traditional values. Whereas Europe sees a guarantee of its stability in replacing traditional dogmas with developing cultural and moral flexibility, Russia has opted for “morals and spirituality” reinforced with a show of respect for the Church, which looks like an alternative model of development.
The Council of Europe has always demanded that Russia respect traditional values, and has, in the past, criticized it for pragmatism bordering on cynicism. It focused on imperfections in Russia’s transitional political system, which seemed to be approaching the standard European notion of democracy. And this is precisely what Russia wanted. But now it looks like the two sides have swapped roles, with Strasbourg leaning on politics, and Moscow talking about traditional values which differ from those the Council of Europe usually advocates. Moreover, tolerance in Europe has grown to absurd proportions, as evidenced by the German town of Wittenberg’s decision to nominate Russian punk group Pussy Riot for the Fearless Word prize in honor of Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation in the city in 1517. The nomination outraged even the more liberal and progressive-minded German Evangelical Church. This kind of substitution and erosion of values fits in with the prevailing mood across the globe, where principles and division lines are becoming blurred.
And perhaps most importantly, Russia is still learning to deal with the heritage of the 1990s, when it was constantly put on the defensive. Therefore, talking down to the Council of Europe and banning the US Agency for International Development (USAID), both heavily associated with Russia’s weakest period, amount to belated revenge. One more example is the stated intention to curtail the 1992 Nunn-Lugar program to help the former Soviet Union reduce its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The program was very important during the period of collapse, but today Russia regards its terms as unequal.
Russia is no longer a developing country that needs to be pointed in the right direction, the Russian authorities say, and this is indeed the case. But the term “developing” can be applied both to countries with a relatively low level of industrial and technological capability and economic productivity, and to those that are working to become more mature and advanced. Having proudly rejected the first definition as it has long since become developed and sovereign in that sense, Russia should be careful to keep within the limits of the second.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.
*Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the United States, Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.