Helsinki – Council of Europe ministers meeting in Helsinki on Friday issued a joint declaration appeasing Russia amid a long-running conflict which was swiftly denounced by Ukraine as an "embarrassment".
The Helsinki meeting, at which the rotating presidency was handed from Finland to France, attempted to resolve a major crisis with Moscow after its representatives to the body’s Parliamentary Assembly were stripped of their voting rights because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Russia responded by boycotting the Assembly, and has since 2017 refused to pay its 33-million-euro ($37-million) share of the annual budget of the human rights watchdog.
In their joint declaration, ministers recalled that "one of the fundamental obligations" of the 47 member states was "to pay their obligatory contributions to the ordinary budget."
They also agreed that "all member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis in the Committee of Ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly."
According to the Council’s rules, a member state that fails to pay its share risks being excluded after two years — in Russia’s case, as of June.
The Council of Europe must now find a way for Russia to participate in the election in June of the Council’s new secretary general, one of Moscow’s key demands.
Moscow has threatened to quit the body if it does not take part in the election.
Ministers stressed Friday they hoped that "delegations of all member states (will) be able to take part" in the June session.
The cautious declaration, clearly designed to mollify Russia, was welcomed by Moscow but sparked anger in Kiev.
It "opens the door to the settlement of the current crisis in our organisation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
"The ball is in the Parliamentary Assembly’s court now."
– ‘A surrender’ –
"This is not diplomacy, this is a surrender," Ukraine’s representative to the Council of Europe, Dmytro Kuleba, told AFP.
"We want Russia to stay in the Council of Europe but we want Russia to comply with its obligations and commitments in all decisions taken in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine."
Finland had also hoped to transfer the presidency to France with an agreement in hand on a new internal procedure for dealing with this type of conflict.
Ministers agreed on "the need for coordinated action" for such a procedure, "which could be initiated by either the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers or the Secretary General, and in which all three of them would participate."
Russia meanwhile insisted Friday it wanted to remain a member of the Council.
"We are not seeking to leave the Council of Europe," Lavrov said, adding "the Council of Europe needs Russia."
"We are convinced that Europe should understand — without Russia it would hardly be possible to secure genuine European security."
Amelie de Montchalin, France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, said their primary concern had been the well-being of the council and European citizens, when asked if the council had opened the door for Russia’s return to the fold without any concessions from Moscow.
"We’re not thinking in terms of an exchange of concessions. We’re thinking first of all in the interests of the Council of Europe. The Council must continue to protect all citizens of the European continent," she told AFP.
Founded in the aftermath of World War II to defend human rights, the Council of Europe is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
Its crowning glory is the European Court of Human Rights.
On June 25, the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly will elect a new secretary general to replace Norway’s Thorbjorn Jagland.
Two candidates are in the running: Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders and Croatia’s Foreign and European Affairs Minister Marija Pejcinovic Buric.
Lavrov warned Friday of "far-reaching consequences" if Russia does not get to take part in the June election.