Voting rights? Ft. Anne Brasseur, President, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
The suspension of Russia's voting rights at PACE for a second time has prompted Moscow to consider withdrawing from the Council of Europe. And with the Ukraine crisis escalating and the body count rising, neither side can afford to sever cooperation. What has been gained by the marginalization of a major stakeholder in the Ukraine conflict, and what avenues for moving forward has PACE left Russia after removing its voice? Oksana is joined by Anne Brasseur, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to debate these issues.
Oksana Boyko:Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. As the Ukrainian conflict rapidly slides from bad to worse, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe just moved to deny Moscow its voting rights, leadingthe Russian delegation to walk out. Who will benefit from that and what does it mean for the prospects of peace in Ukraine? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by the president ofPACE, Anne Brasseur. President Brasseur, thank you very much for your time.
Anne Brasseur: Well, thank you very much, spasibo.
OB:As you know, nobody expected a full reconciliation between Moscow and the PACE. And yet, on the eve of Wednesday's vote, there was a hope for some sort of a compromise that would allow the two sides to keep the lines of communication open, and that perhaps would facilitate further peace talks on the Ukrainian conflict. Why didn't it happen?
AB: Well, after our April decision to suspend the voting rights, then the Duma decided not to continue to work with us. And I took the initiative to make contacts with President Naryshkin, and so we had numerous telephone conversations, but also we met three times. Because I think it's so important to keep the channels of dialogue open. But now, as no progress was made, in fact the Assembly yesterday just confirmed what was decided in April, that means condemning the annexation of the Crimea. And we decided then to suspend the voting rights unless progress was made, and that the annexation was reversed, which didn't happen. So, in fact, what the Assembly decided yesterday was a follow-up of the first decision which has been taken in April.
OB:President Brasseur, you have to be a very big optimist to believe that Russia could give Crimea back. But even if we put that issue aside, I think for the Russian MPs, being present at the PACE sessions, and hearing all the criticism, hearing all the accusations would have been a much more challenging and frankly much more unpleasant experience than discussing the Ukrainian conflict, let's say in the Duma or on Russian TV. In striking Russia's voting rights again, didn't PACE just miss yet another opportunity to keep Russia engaged and to keep it exposed to a different point of view?
AB: I think a lot of efforts have been put in keeping the channels of dialogue open. And then, the majority decided yesterday to maintain, in fact, the sanctions which were already decided in April. And for my part, I really tried also to continue dialogue, and I think the decision of the Russian delegation not to, well to leave immediately, was not the right decision. As I said it in my opening speech last Monday, when I got re-elected as President, we all committed to the principles of the Council of Europe. And if we fail, we have to be criticise. We criticise, but we also have to accept to take criticism, and that is for all of us.
OB:I totally agree with you, and I think there was no objection on the Russian part against being criticised. In fact, you just mentioned that the majority of the PACE is strongly anti-Russian at this point. So whether Russia had or didn't have any voting rights didn't really matter for that reason, but it certainly was seen as an insult for the Russian delegation. So my question to you is whether to some extent the hawks at the PACE gave the hawks in Russia what they really wanted to get for quite a long time? Because you know that the Russian political elite is not uniform. There are some people who are in favour of cutting ties with the PACE. There are some people who are in favour of maintaining the dialogue. And it seems that hawks have prevailed, both in Moscow and in the PACE?
AB: You can't say that there is an overall anti-Russian tendency in the Parliamentary Assembly. It is, as I said, about principles. And it's not about Russia, or not about PACE. It's about the security of the people living now in Eastern Ukraine who are suffering. The 5,000 people who died, we must find solutions. And there, Russia is part of the solution, but they say that they are not part of the problem. Like that, we cannot progress. And once again, the Council of Europe has principles, and there, some principles are not respected. So we have to criticise. And by no way there was any attempt to humiliate or to attack people. And there was no attacks, no aggressive tone, despite the very difficult atmosphere in which these discussions took place.
OB:Well, I mean, my point is that you will continue having those discussions but the party that is at the very centre of those discussions will not be listening to those discussions. One should ask whether it really makes a point to continue having that one-sided monologue? I mean, it's not even a dialogue. And that leads me to my next question. You just mentioned this situation in Eastern Ukraine that indeed has deteriorated. And you pointed out earlier that the initial sanctions were introduced after the events in Crimea, when Russia also decided to put its communication and its negotiations with the PACE on hold. You are a very strong supporter of a dialogue. Do you think that the lack of that dialogue between Russia and the PACE over the past couple of months has actually precipitated this crisis? Because regardless of how bad it seemed in April 2014, it is much, much worse now. What's the point of keeping with this same strategy, with the same sanctions, when they're not producing positive results?
AB: But you can't say, if you just witness that escalation of violence which is appalling, if you look at all of those victims, then to say, well the sanctions didn't work so we'll lift the sanctions – that cannot be the way. So everybody has to take his responsibility. And our responsibility as parliamentarians, national parliamentarians, and parliamentarians being delegates at the Council of Europe is to have an eye on the Convention on Human Rights. And there, there were violations, and that is not acceptable. And so we must find solutions together, because violence cannot be the answer. And I really tried, and it was my initiative and I repeat it, to take contact with Mr Naryshkin. And I don't give up, I don't, because we can't give up. We are not just there and saying, well, then, we just abandon. I continue to believe that we must find a solution, a political solution, on parliamentary dialogue, otherwise we can't progress.
OB:President Brasseur, I think, again, Mr Naryshkin and even Mr Putin would totally agree with you on the substance. I think they would strongly disagree with you on the conduct or the context of the discussions that the PACE seems to have been endorsing, with Russia just sitting there in the corner, not being able to vote. That's the main issue here. Not being shielded from criticism – this is not what Russia is asking for. But Russia is actually asking for the ability to voice its position on the issue, and to use its voice, and its voice is clearly in the minority in the PACE at the moment, as any other member of the PACE. So, to some extent, it seems that this fascination with sanctions is at some point counter-productive and contrary to the very purpose of the Council of Europe? You are said to promote democracy – what is so democratic about limiting somebody's right to vote?
AB: Suspending the voting rights doesn't mean to annul the credentials. Because each year, at the beginning of the January session, there are the credentials of all the national delegations which have to be ratified, unless the credentials of one country are going to be challenged. They had been challenged in relation with Russia. And then we had a procedure, and the Parliamentary Assembly came to the conclusion not to annul the credentials of the Russian delegation, but to keep them in. But to suspend their voting right. And suspending the voting right doesn't mean that you can't take part in the committees and discuss, and we want to continue to have discussions with them. So that is the point, but I regret really the decision that they took immediately. And of course, I regret other decisions, for instance the case of Ms Savchenko, who, well, Mr Pushkov, he said if we have our voting rights, then you, members of the Parliamentary Assembly can be allowed to see Mrs Savchenko. But I think, that is blackmailing. It is about our principles, and not taking somebody who is in prison and who is under parliamentary immunity...
OB: (interruption) President Brasseur, I'm sorry for jumping in here. But again, you're talking about blackmailing, but if you're not on speaking terms with your neighbours, you cannot expect that neighbour to be very forthcoming when you ask that neighbour something that is very questionable in legal terms. I mean, the Savchenko case. But President Brasseur, I reall hope to discuss the Savchenko case in detail in the second half of the program. But for the moment, we have to take a short break. When we come back – the debates about who bears the blame for the Ukrainian crisis have been raging for more than a year. Isn't it finally high time to start discussing solutions? That's coming up in a moment on Worlds Apart.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the crisis in Ukraine with the Presidnet of PACE, Anne Brasseur. President Brasseur, before we go into the Savchenko case, which we mentioned before the break, I would like to ask you something else. It is no secret that the country that has the biggest sway in Europe's politics and security isn't located in Europe. I'm talking about the United States here. And I don't think anybody at this point would argue that it has a very significant influence on what happens in Ukraine. We can debate whether that influence is good or bad, but the influence is certainly there. Doesn't that make all the discussions at PACE, with or without Russia, more or less irrelevant? What's the point of discussing this crisis if a major decision maker is not present?
AB: I never had contacts concerning the Ukrainian crisis with the US. They are not part of the Council of Europe. And so, here it is two member states of the Council of Europe where there is a tremendous conflict. So, it's up to us to find solutions, and that has nothing to do with a third part.
OB:Well, I agree with you actually on that point. But again, as we all know, Americans have an enormous influence on what is happening in Ukraine. And it's evidenced by how often American officials visit Kiev. So my question again – does the PACE discussion have any meaning, any relevance, when everything will be decided beyond PACE?
AB: The advantage of the Council of Europe is that it is not based on geopolitics or economics or security. Even the security is excluded from our mandate. So, the founders of the Council of Europe, they decided to build an organisation based on the rule of law, democracy and human rights. And that's our task. And that's why I say that the Council of Europe is more important than ever, because those values we are based on are very important. And all the countries which joined the Council of Europe on a voluntary basis, they subscribe to those principles. And we have to defend together that they are respected. And that has nothing to do with other parties outside the Council of Europe.
OB:Well, let's talk about those values, those principles that you just mentioned. One of Russia's grudges with the PACE is that the assembly is essentially turning a blind eye to what is happening in Eastern Ukraine – the use of heavy artillery by the Ukrainian government. Human Rights Watch just came out with another annual report in which they repeated the same allegations that the Ukrainian government is using – heavy artillery, Grad rockets, Uragan rockets against heavily populated civilian areas. And yet, just a couple of days ago, your office issued a statement bearing your own name, saying that the Council of Europe should help the Ukrainian authorities build strong, democratic institutions. Isn't that a bit soft-spoken, given the extent of bloodshed in Eastern Ukraine?
AB: Well, I want to be very clear on that. I went to Ukraine two weeks ago, and I also told the Ukrainian authorities that they must fulfil their commitment to the Minsk Protocol. Because it's not only one side which has to fulfil the commitment which was taken. And what I also said, and I repeated it while I met with Mr Naryshkin – we need to have all evidences on the table, and those who committed violence, and starting from what happened in Maidan, over Odessa, till now what happens – we need all the truth. Nobody is speaking any more of that plane where nearly 300 people died, with the crash of Malaysian Airlines. We need to have the truth, and that's why we have now a panel which is looking into how the investigations are made from the Ukrainian side, of what happened in Maidan, and then they are having amended to look what happened in Odessa. And I hope that we will continue, because we can't solve the problem if we don't know the truth. And all those who committed violence and who violated human rights – of course, they must be made responsible for it. And that's in the interest of everybody. But that's not enough, Ukraine also has to make internal reforms.
OB:Well, President Brasseur, you just mentioned that you want the investigation into the Odessa massacre, and into the Malaysian Airlines plane crash to go on. But the main apple of contention here is that the Ukrainian party is not very forthcoming in providing some of the evidence, for example flight controller records – have you actually requested your Ukrainian delegation to provide those evidence that everybody is requesting?
AB: In my meetings I had a fortnight ago in Ukraine, there I was very outspoken and I said that they have the responsibility to help get all of the evidence, because it's in their own interest.
OB:Have they provided those evidence?
AB: Well, I was not, I'm not a prosecutor, I'm not making the inquiry. So that is not my mission. But I was also together with Mr Poroshenko, and he said that they are doing everything to have all the evidence on the table. Because he knows very well, and he shares my approach, that you only can make progress if all the evidences are on the table, and if the right conclusions are going to be taken.
OB:Well, that's a fascinating statement. Because I mean, President Poroshenko has been saying that all along, but Ukraine as of now didn't provide those evidence. Those evidence are not on the table. But let's move on from this very heated subject, I don't think that we will get anywhere. I would like to ask you about the representation of peopl e in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. It is no secret that many of them have been spending the last six months in their basements. Many of them are not represented, they didn't have a chance to vote for their representatives in the Ukrainian Rada. Their views, their stories are not represented in the Ukrainian media, and I have to say, in the Western media as well. And I wonder if you believe that those people should have a say in the talks on the future of Ukraine, and how could their participation be achieved?
AB: Well, this is really more than regrettable, that we are in the country which in fact, where a part of the population can not vote, and couldn't participate in those elections. And that's wy we have to find solution which allows to get back all the rights to those people. Because they are citizens of the Ukraine territory. But for doing that, we need peace, because people who live under the conditions they have to live in, and they don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. That is terrible, so the responsibility is enormous on both sides. The violence has to be stopped, and then we have to find political solutions. But also, a decentralisation has to be made, and therefore constitutional reform in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians agree on that.
OB:That's a great idea. I also have one proposal for you for how we can ensure that the stories of the people in Eastern Ukraine are heard, at least. I'm talking about voting here, bevause obviously it's going to take some time. But for the time being, as the President of PACE, you have pretty broad powers, I believe. What about inviting some of the people – I'm talking about the rebels here, I'm talking about civilians, some of the people from Eastern Ukraine – to the PACE, and let them speak about this conflict, and let them share with the PACE members how life has been like for them? Because, certainly those people, they cannot go to the Ukrainian Rada. I don't know if you follow the Ukrainian politics, but the scope of political views represented in the Rada is very, very limited. Those people don't have a voice there, even as invited guests. So why don't you take a lead and invite some of those people to the PACE, and let them share their stories, regardless of whether it is critical of Russia, or Ukraine, or the PACE for that matter?
AB: We have a report on the monitoring on Ukraine, and our rapporteurs, I hope that they can go there and talk to them as our Commissioner Human Rights also does. And if the rapporteurs think it is useful to organise a sort-of hearing with those people,why not? But that is the initiative of the rapporteurs on the monitoring for Crimea. And then we have also, we have now the report on the humanitarian crisis where we really have to look at. Because what is really terrible, that is the suffering of the people, for the moment, because they are innocent, and we have to protect innocent people.
OB:Absolutely, President Brasseur, you just mentioned thousands and thousands of innocent people that have been suffering in Eastern Ukraine. Some of them lost their loved ones, some of them lost their livelihoods. Others don't have access to medicines, food, whatever. And yet, for all those thousands of nameless people, nameless victims of the Ukrainian conflict – for some reason, PACE only specifically raised concerns about one person whose name we already mentioned. And I'm talking here about Nadiya Savchenko, the newly elected MP. You personally called for her release. Is Savchenko's case really so much more pressing than the case of thousands and thousands of Ukrainians who suffered, I would suggest, to a much greater extent in this war than she has?
AB: It is not only about Mrs Savchenko. It is about all the hostages, all the political prisoners [who] were in the Minsk Protocol. It is clearly laid down that there has to be a full exchange of them, and the release of them. And I asked for that. So I not only ask to release Mrs Savchenko. But Mrs Savchenko now is an elected member of the Verkhovna Rada, and has been delegated by the Verkhovna Rada to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. And now, she is a member, and as a member of our Assembly, she is covered by the European parliamentary immunity. And that has to be respected [through] the international treaties which provide that, and that has to be implemented by all parties. And that's why I insist so much, because here it is also a matter of principle. Of course, that doesn't mean that I don't forget all those thousands of people who are suffering. But I think the case of Mrs Savchenko shows how terrible it is that an elected member is not allowed to have access to the Parliamentary Assembly where she is a member of.