Vienna, March 3 – Moscow could lose its membership in the Council of Europe if it continues over the next six months to ignore the decisions of the European Human Rights Court. While such an outcome is unlikely given politics involved, the threat itself highlights just how often Moscow is refusing to live up to its commitment to abide by the court’s decision.
On Saturday, Anatoly Kovler, Russia’s judge on the European Court, told Russia’s Constitutional Court that if Moscow does not eliminate the existing backlog in the implementation of the European Court’s decisions, the Council of the Council of Europe could suspend Russia’s membership (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49ABC08BCA014.html).
According to Kovler, the Strasbourg court is especially upset by Moscow’s failure to fulfill its orders in a 1990s case involving compensation for a victim of the Chernobyl nuclear accident clean up and by the Russian government’s failure even to set up a mechanism for compensating such victims.
Apparently in response to this report, Aleksandr Konovalov, Russia’s justice minister, said that certain decisions of the European Court had raised doubts in his mind as to the “objectivity” of that body and the appropriateness of some of its decisions with regard to cases from the Russian Federation.
What Konovalov did not say is that in 2008 alone, Russian citizens brought 27,000 suits for the consideration by the Strasbourg Court, more than any other country and about 30 percent of the total from all Council of Europe members. Indeed, as any number of observers have pointed out, for Russians now, the European Court of Human Rights is the court of last resort.
Russia’s attitude toward and involvement with the Strasbourg Court and the Council of Europe has changed dramatically over time, Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin pointed out today. Throughout the 1990s, Moscow “sincerely” sought to join the Council of Europe and to fall under the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court, goals it achieved in 1996 and 1998 respectively.
But as the number of cases against Moscow rose and the number of decisions against Moscow increased and as Russian leaders and many ordinary Russianscame to resent what many of its members saw as unacceptable foreign tutelage of Russia, interest in the Council of Europe and support for the Strasbourg court have declined.
Consequently, the threat that Russia might lose its seat in the Council because of its attitude toward the court is not one that appears to bother many in the Russian government – at least in part because most Moscow officials are confident that regardless of what Russia does, the Europeans would never be willing to take such a dramatic step in defense of principle.
But many Russian human rights activists and especially Russian lawyers who have won judgments for their clients at the court fear that this latest evidence of a growing gap between European legal arrangements and those on offer in Moscow represents a serious threat not only to their clients but to the future of a law-based state in the Russian Federation.
Over the weekend, Grani.ru surveyed four such lawyers and has now posted their reactions to the threat Kovler had conveyed and to its meaning for them, their clients and the future state of legal rights in their country (grani.ru/Politics/Russia/m.148147.html).
Karinna Moskalenko said that she does not believe that Kovler wants Russia to be excluded from the Council of Europe. “In any case,” she continued, “I very much do not want to believe that,” preferring to think that Russia will in the end “carry out the decisions of the European Court and not resolve these problems by means of a departure from the Council.”
The stakes involved in this dispute are very high, she continued, noting that “not long ago we achieved an enormous victory” when Russian Judge Olga Kudeshkina won her case in Strasbourg against the regime. “I hope,” Moskalenko said, “that this case will become a first step in the struggle for the independence of our judges.”
Igor Trunov, in contrast, was more pessimistic. Russia, he said, “in practice does not carry out anything” the Strasbourg Court orders, not in the sense of providing monetary compensation – that has sometimes happened – but rather in taking steps to eliminate the absence of reliable protections of individual rights that the court’s decisions show.
Vadim Prokhorov agreed with that, saying Moscow has failed to understand what the Strasbourg court is about: It is less a court of the last instance than “a judicial organ which shows all the countries included in the Council of Europe what in their legal practice does not correspond to the European Convention on the Defense of Human Rights and Basic Freedoms.”
He expressed genuine concern that Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe would represent a serious blow to the rights of Russians and to the ability of “tens of thousands of our fellow citizens” to get justice. Without the European Court, such people have “no other way” to ensure that their rights will be respected.
And finally Elena Liptser, noting that exclusion from the Council of Europe would have an extremely negative impact on “the image” of the Russian Federation, urged that “it would be simpler to fulfill the decisions of the European Court than to wait until they exclude us from the Council of Europe.”
The real problem, however, is that there appear to be many people at the top of the Russian government who either do not care about that image or who are confident that they can manipulate it more easily through the use of various political technologies than they could govern if Moscow were forced to respect the rights of Russians.