On January 17 Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) President Rene van der Linden paid a farewell visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. With van der Linden’s term as PACE president expiring today (January 21), Putin invited him as a token of “appreciation for the fruitful common work.” According to the Moscow daily Kommersant, which interviewed van der Linden and relevant Russian officials following the meeting with Putin, an informal deal was struck. The Duma’s international affairs committee chairman and Russian delegation chief to PACE, Konstantin Kosachev, has also outlined this deal for the Russian media (Kommersant, Interfax, January 18).
The reported agreement is a fallback option for both sides, reflecting the sudden unraveling of Kremlin-connected politician Mikhail Margelov’s bid for the PACE presidency, which van der Linden and a few strategically placed British Tories had almost arranged during the final months of van der Linden’s term (see EDM, October 11, 22, 2007). Just ahead of the Assembly session’s January 21 opening, serious reservations among PACE members seem about to frustrate the Kremlin’s capture of the presidency of Europe’s main democracy-promoting organization.
Consequently, the Kremlin has agreed with van der Linden to postpone Margelov’s bid for the Assembly’s presidency by two years and go along with another PACE president — apparently from Spain — for that term. Van der Linden and his backers would reciprocate with two concessions.
First, they would cancel or otherwise block the planned invitation to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to address PACE in Strasbourg on January 24 as part of the debate on PACE’s report on democracy in Georgia. The debate and Saakashvili’s address had been included in the Assembly’s agenda for the January session. With only three days remaining until the scheduled date, van der Linden and his allies are withholding the necessary signatures to the already prepared invitation letter to the Georgian president. Moscow apparently wants the debate to go ahead without his presence, so as to enjoy maximum leeway to assail Georgia.
Second, under this informal agreement, PACE’s debate on Russia’s recently held, deeply flawed parliamentary elections would be postponed from PACE’s winter session to the summer session (skipping the spring session), thereby diluting the interest in and political topicality of that issue. Moreover, Putin would be invited to address PACE’s spring session for a ceremonial event, unencumbered by any real debate on the suppression of democracy in Russia. Van der Linden invited Putin to PACE on these specified terms during his Moscow visit. With only four days remaining in his PACE presidency, this move effectively abuses his authority and saddles his presumptive successor (other than Margelov) with the consequences of this manipulation of the agenda.
During his visit, van der Linden again pleaded with Putin for ratification of two protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights by Russia’s Duma. Protocol 6 abolishes the death penalty, while Protocol 14 enshrines the right of individuals to complain to the European Court of Human Rights over violations of their rights by government authorities. Many PACE members (and other European politicians) feel so strongly about these particular issues that they seem prepared to tolerate Russia’s breaches of the long list of obligations it undertook in 1996 in return for its admission to the Council of Europe (see EDM, October 22, 2007). Compared with that list, a putative Russian ratification of the two protocols would amount to a modicum step. Yet van der Linden has again returned empty-handed from Moscow on this and other issues of current interest to PACE, such as bringing to account those responsible for the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya and other Russian journalists. Nevertheless, van der Linden claimed in his interview, “Putin’s invitation demonstrated that Russia’s authorities share the same fundamental moral values as the Council of Europe” (Kommersant, January 18).
Significantly, van der Linden asked none other than Putin — and not for the first time — to ensure ratification of Protocols 6 and 14 by the Duma. Resorting to this avenue demonstrates the awareness of van der Linden and other supporters of Margelov’s candidacy for PACE’s presidency that the Kremlin controls the work of Russia’s legislature (and also its election, as the December vote reconfirmed). Nevertheless, Margelov’s supporters at PACE seem to be in denial of that fact when they treat Margelov as a normally elected politician, discounting his Kremlin connection even after he had confirmed for Russian media that the Kremlin had authorized his candidacy for PACE’s presidency. Meanwhile, Margelov claims personally to support ratification of the two protocols while Putin claims to be unable to influence the Duma to ratify.
The upcoming Georgia debate and the issue of sending the prepared invitation to Saakashvili was discussed on January 20 at the meeting of top PACE leaders on the eve of the session’s opening. Margelov took a strongly anti-Georgian position, which may be taken as an indication that he and Moscow have accepted the proposed two-year deferral of Margelov’s candidacy to the Assembly’s presidency, in return for dis-inviting Saakashvili from this session and inviting Putin for the spring session.
Moreover, it is common knowledge that PACE would be unable to invite Saakashvili for the April session, lest it be seen as supporting the governing party in Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the campaign for which will be in full swing in April and May. Thus, Moscow could turn both sessions into anti-Georgian events when PACE discusses the Georgia report in January and welcomes Putin in April, if the Putin-van der Linden informal agreement goes ahead on the terms reported. But van der Linden’s ability to deliver is evaporating as he completes his presidential term, and his presumptive successor, Luis Maria de Puig (Spanish Socialist), should be able to act independently of the outgoing president.