On January 21 the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) protected its reputation by eschewing the election of Mikhail Margelov as PACE president. Apparently, many members realized that PACE could have discredited itself irreparably by electing a Kremlin-affiliated figure as president of Europe’s leading democracy-promoting body. PACE elected the Catalan-Spanish Socialist, Lluís Maria de Puig, instead of Margelov, as president. Also on January 21, Russia and its allies narrowly missed their goal to disinvite Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili from PACE’s upcoming debate on Georgia.
Margelov, an Arabic-studies graduate from Moscow State University (known at the time as a KGB training ground) was an instructor at the KGB Academy during the 1980s, according to his official Russian biography (Vedomosti, January 16). Margelov was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s liaison with international media during Russia’s 2000 presidential campaign and has served since 2001 as the Russian Federation Council’s international affairs committee chairman. According to Margelov himself, Russia’s presidential administration and Ministry of Foreign Affairs had authorized his candidacy for president of PACE (Moskovskye novosti, September 14, 2007).
Moscow came very close to success through skillful manipulation of procedural rules by the Russian delegation and winning over some key conservative figures among PACE leaders. With minimal notice in Europe, the Strasbourg forum had become the scene of a Kremlin experiment with recruitment of political allies at the core of the European Right. PACE’s outgoing president Rene van der Linden, a conservative Christian-Democrat (European People’s Party – EPP) and the British Tory contingent in the European Democrats’ Group (EDG, an alliance of conservative parties somewhat to the right of EPP) were Margelov’s leading backers.
In a deal with PACE’s Tories, the delegation of the party of power, United Russia, had joined the EDG en masse, despite the inherent incompatibility; and, thanks to Tory leader David Wilshire, the numerically dominant United Russia installed Margelov as EDG leader. Under PACE’s procedures, the five major political groupings take turns designating PACE’s president for a three-year term, thus practically guaranteeing the election’s result in advance. EDG’s turn came in January 2008 and they designated the “conservative” Margelov well ahead of the deadline, with vocal Tory support in Strasbourg and tacit acceptance by the Tory leadership in London (Denis MacShane, “Putin’s Tories,” The Spectator, January 10). Van der Linden, who developed a close relationship with Russia during 2007, was instrumental in arranging this succession scenario and marshaling the EPP behind Margelov’s presidential bid. Very few at PACE or elsewhere came out against this seemingly done deal.
However, Russia’s deeply flawed parliamentary elections in December changed the terms of debate at PACE. Many felt that they could no longer proceed automatically to install a proponent of the Kremlin’s “managed democracy” as PACE president in the immediate wake of that electoral travesty. On January 10, leaders of PACE’s five political groupings met informally and agreed to modify the rotation procedure for electing the president. Under the new arrangement, the Socialists would on January 21 nominate their candidate for PACE president; EDG’s – that is, Margelov’s – turn would be postponed to the next rotation, and the president’s tenure would be abridged from three years to a one-year, once-renewable term.
Thus, Moscow had to accept a two-year postponement without a fight. However, it demanded and received promises that PACE would disinvite the reelected President Saakashvili from PACE’s January 24 debate on Georgia; that Putin would be invited to PACE in the spring; and that the debate on Russia’s recent parliamentary elections would be postponed to the summer – that is, to the brink of political oblivion. Putin finalized this informal agreement with the visiting Van der Linden on January 17 in Moscow (see EDM, January 21). Margelov duly desisted from running for president of PACE and de Puig was elected to that post without opposition on the session’s opening day, January 21. A defiant Wilshire is quoted as declaring that he could not congratulate de Puig because he had prepared the congratulatory text in Russian (Kommersant, January 22).
However, the next part of the bargain fell through, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Van der Linden’s and Margelov’s allies had for several weeks blocked the sending of the invitation to Saakashvili. Finally on January 21 the PACE Bureau (which consists of PACE’s vice presidents and the chairmen of committees and political groups) decided to invite Saakashvili, with 11 votes in favor and 10 against. The incoming president de Puig (hitherto leader of the Socialist grouping) and Matyas Eorsi of Hungary, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE, the liberal parties’ grouping) led the argument in favor of inviting Saakashvili.
Russian delegation leaders Margelov and Konstantin Kosachev and Tory leader Wilshire spearheaded the objections. Van der Linden’s ally, EPP leader Luc van der Brande, lined up behind them, despite assurances he had given to Christian-Democrat luminaries in EPP that he would not support Moscow on this issue. Apart from the familiar arguments against Georgia, they claimed that inviting Saakashvili ahead of Georgia’s parliamentary elections would amount to interfering in those elections in favor of the governing party (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, January 21, 22).
That argument looked contrived inasmuch as almost four months separate the January 24 debate on Georgia from the parliamentary elections in that country. Ultimately, the reports on van der Linden’s January 17 bargain with Putin in the Kremlin to disinvite Saakashvili (see EDM, January 21) shifted the balance in PACE’s Bureau, frustrating Moscow’s goal at the last moment. And, as predicted some months ago (see EDM, October 11, 22, November 2, 2007), the then-prevailing sentiment at PACE about the irreversibility of the deal made for a Russian presidency proved ultimately unfounded.