Mikhail Margelov, a politician close to the Kremlin and prominent in the United Russia party of power, is set to take over the presidency of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), the leading democracy and human-rights watchdog in Europe.
An inside arrangement shepherded by the outgoing PACE chairman, Rene van der Linden, has reserved PACE’s chair for Margelov for a three-year term starting in January 2008. The arrangement also rests on support from British Tories in the Strasbourg-based PACE, whether ignored or condoned by the Conservative Party leadership in Britain.
The opening of PACE’s autumn session this month has thrust this arrangement from backstage into the open. The Russian delegation’s behavior early in this session reflects confidence that a Margelov presidency is irreversible. By the same token, the numerous opponents of a Margelov presidency at PACE seem scattered and demoralized. Such conclusions on either side are probably premature, however.
The arrangement for a Kremlin-connected figure to supervise democracy in Europe is unprecedented in any institution anywhere. At PACE, it has emerged partly from the political designs of some individuals, partly from sheer bureaucratic momentum, and partly from Russian heavy-handed tactics, abetted passively by some West Europeans in the Strasbourg assembly.
Although Margelov’s party, United Russia, embodies the Kremlin’s “managed democracy,” Margelov managed to become chairman of PACE’s European Democrats’ Group (EDG), a conservative caucus built by British Tories at PACE. The EDG’s immediate past chairman, David Atkinson, helped arrange for Margelov to take over that post in 2005 on Atkinson’s retirement. Moreover, ambitious to increase EDG’s numerical weight relative to other caucuses in PACE, the Tories and a few others invited the Russian delegation to join EDG en masse. The well-disciplined United Russia duly allocated 27 members, out of the 36 Russian members, to join EDG, thus becoming overnight the dominant force in this 91-member Conservative group. Tories, of whom there are only 11 in EDG, retain the posts of honorary chair, first-vice-chair, and political officer [whip] thanks to United Russia.
Under PACE’s rules, the political caucuses rotate in holding PACE’s presidency at three-year intervals. Van der Linden held the presidency in 2005-2007 on behalf of the European People’s Party (an alliance mainly of Christian-Democrat parties). It is now EDG’s turn, and with Margelov in control there, he is next in line for the PACE presidency on procedural grounds. Although Margelov and his United Russia are wide open to challenge on basic democracy criteria, van der Linden provided crucial help to arrange a smooth succession for Margelov as PACE president.
Meanwhile, Russia is massively breaching the commitments it undertook to the Council of Europe in 1996 as conditions to Russia’s membership. PACE’s monitoring mechanism has become chronically complacent on that account, and PACE’s credibility eroded as a result. Its credibility could now suffer damage beyond repair if PACE installs Russia, Europe’s prime offender to PACE’s values, in this institution’s presidency.
The credibility issue would quickly come to the fore if Margelov and Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia’s delegation to PACE, misuse this institution for propaganda against the Baltic states, Georgia, and the United States. The Russian delegation’s conduct seems to reflect this intention since the opening of PACE’s autumn session in the first week of October.
Thus, Kosachev has called for:
a) reintroducing PACE monitoring of Estonia and Latvia over “human rights violations”;
b) discussing on PACE’s floor “political persecutions” in Georgia, based on former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili’s imputations of criminal acts to President Mikheil Saakashvili (which Okruashvili failed to substantiate and then retracted entirely on October 8 — see Rustavi-2 TV, Civil Georgia, October 8, 9);
c) raising at PACE the issue of use of military force by the United States “and its allies”; and
d) condemning the planned U.S. anti-missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Kosachev is also a member of the Conservative EDG at PACE. Margelov and Kosachev are acting in concert in their twin capacities as chairmen of the Russian Duma and Federation Council committees on international affairs.
Alone among the Council of Europe’s 46 member countries, Russia has not ratified Protocol 14 to the European Human Rights Convention, thereby delaying by years the processing of Russian cases at the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR). Margelov and Kosachev claim that they personally favor Russian ratification, but since the Duma rejects it, they propose modifying the Protocol to facilitate Duma ratification. By this logic, the 45 countries that did ratify the document would have to cancel their ratification and redraft a weaker document in line with Russia’s goals at ECHR.
Margelov has confirmed matter-of-factly to Russian media that Russia’s presidential administration and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have authorized his candidacy to PACE’s presidency (Moskovsky novosti, September 14). Margelov’s admission reflects the absence of separation of powers in Russia. His full equanimity about this should disqualify his candidacy to PACE’s presidency. It would unthinkable for a legislator from a democratic country to request executive branch approval for seeking election to a parliamentary or inter-parliamentary post. However, Margelov’s backers at PACE seem prepared to compromise the organization’s standards for the Kremlin-authorized candidate.
(Interfax, September 24 – October 9; Itar-Tass, October 1; Parlamentskaya gazeta, October 2)