The CoE action was taken on January 25, despite massive lobbying by Human Rights organizations to keep the symbolically important sanctions on Russia. The suspension, which was imposed nine months ago as a response to Moscow's brutal conduct of military operations in Chechnya, may have meant little in practical terms. But being the first country in the council's history to see its voting rights suspended did hurt Moscow's prestige. More importantly, the reluctance of other Western organizations to respond to the well-documented and systematic violations of human rights by other international bodies or individual states made the Council's suspension all the more significant.
There have been no observable efforts by Moscow to find a political solution to the Chechen conflict. Russia has blatantly disregarded its obligations to curb human rights violations, and to punish violators. As a result, conditions for civilians in Chechnya remains appalling. Arbitrary detention, systematic torture, 'disappearances', and the killing of civilians by Russian forces, continue unabated. As Human Rights Watch noted in a recent memorandum, 'violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have not lessened; they have become routine.' Only days prior to the Council ruling, the Kremlin showed signs of switching to a strategy of occupation. Control of the war effort was transferred from the army to the security forces, and all major Chechen villages are now to have permanent garrisons of Russian troops - neither move indicating an improvement for the treatment of civilians.
The main reason provided by the CoE for its decision is a "beginning of a change in the attitude of our Russian parliamentary colleagues." In particular, the Council acted on a call from liberal Russian parliamentarians claiming a 'gesture' from the Council would make their work for democracy and human rights easier. In addition, Lord Russel-Johnston, president of the council's parliamentary assembly (PACE), argues that had the voting rights not been restored, moderate voices in Russia would have been silenced.
Such arguments are flawed, and betray either a total misconception of the working of the Russian political system, or a dangerous policy of accommodation toward the Kremlin, or both. If the council expressed its readiness to listen to Russian parliamentarians, why did it refuse to hear
Russia's perhaps foremost human rights defender, himself a parliament member, and member of PACE, Sergey Kovalev? Despite his presence in Strasbourg at the time of the decision, the council "did not have time" to hear his address.
If Russian democracy has come to such a juncture that the enforcement of a pre-existing suspension would lead to the silencing of moderate views, then the logical question should not be whether Russia's voting rights should be restored - but whether it should at all remain a member of the Council of Europe.
But beyond this, it is the general thrust of the Council's argument that is most disturbing. It reflects a view that Russia -- and by inference, the state of Central Asia and the Caucasus -- should be coddled as they are encouraged to become democratic and respectful of human rights. This prevailing opinion is nothing new. It is a view that has been widely held in the West since the Soviet Union's dissolution. In the early 1990s, President Yeltsin warned that unless the West assisted his government's programs unconditionally, Russia would succumb to nationalist or communist forces. A few years later, Yeltsin was himself pursuing most of the policies advocated by the so-called extremists. Today, while Russia's army drops vacuum bombs on Russian citizens in Chechnya, and security forces crack down on dissenting media, President Putin tours European capitals, detailing Russia's progresses in democratization and human rights.
Time and again, the policies of appeasement and accommodation have invariably failed. Far from convincing authoritarian leaders to change their policies, accommodation sends a signal of weakness and malleability, which only strengthens the conviction of the leader that he can continue to manipulate his opponents, while conducting repressive policies with impunity.
Kovalev captured the disappointment felt by the human rights community when he said recently: "don't they [CoE leaders] understand that if they ease the pressure on Russia, it will only encourage the kind of excesses that are being committed?"
The April 2000 decision to suspend Russia's voting rights was a milestone, a bold move that put principles over politics, demonstrating an understanding that only though clear signals of disapproval can policy be influenced. With its recent retraction, Europe appears to have forsaken an important responsibility: to uphold the existence of non-negotiable norms on what constitutes a state's acceptable behavior.
Dr. Svante E. Cornell is a visiting
fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at The Johns
Hopkins University (SAIS). He lectures at Uppsala University,