Russia's government - with considerable support from domestic opinion - has recently taken a turn towards a new, authoritarian system of governance, with control over the establishment of political parties and the nomination of candidates, the regime exercising political dominance over the media and varying degrees of oppression against the opposition. This is a deeply disturbing development. The principles of democracy are not respected whatsoever, much less those of human rights. Consideration must be given to this issue, and one forum in which this should occur is the Council of Europe.
Russia has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1996. The Council was founded almost sixty years ago as a direct result of the atrocities that Europe and the rest of the world witnessed during the Second World War. One of the aims of the organisation was to unify a divided Europe; another was to draft a comprehensive Magna Charta of human rights, the fundamental freedoms, representative democracy and the rule of law - the European Convention on Human Rights. Respect for human rights is a prerequisite for membership of the Council of Europe. At a point when the number of member states has doubled over a short period of time, it is of particular importance to monitor, promote and strengthen protection of human rights in Europe. For this reason, in 2005, the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe determined that the emphasis of activities at the Council would be a concentrated focus on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
It is therefore important that Council of Europe member states address the non-democratic developments that are taking place in Russia. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party has presented a motion to the present Government in view of its submissiveness in this issue and demands that in its coming CoE Presidency, Sweden initiate a long-term, strategic effort in all the Council of Europe's institutions and programmes concerning Russia's social order and form of government. The aim should be - with the participation of Russia's representative to the Council of Europe - to produce an overall picture of how today's Russia fulfils the demands that membership of the Council places on a member state. An assessment of this kind should also lead to the presentation of proposals and positions in all bodies of the Council of Europe on how Russia can be induced to fulfil all the demands that membership of the Council of Europe entails and to which it has committed itself. The ultimate aim of this policy work should be to bring people in Russia towards an acceptance of democracy.
As always, it is impossible to predict how a non-democratic form of government may develop. In broad terms, policy work in the Council of Europe concerning Russia's form of government may be important in the long term, but may also be important in the short term if today's Russia experiences a shift in the balance of power among the governing elite in the political and economic power system.
But the work also involves assessing how the Council of Europe can maintain its legitimacy as a protector of human rights, democracy and the principles of the rule of law in Europe. At present, an incongruity of the greatest negative significance exits, when a member state of the Council of Europe, with worldwide political importance, demonstrably deviates from the Council's objectives both with regard to statutory provisions and the guidelines from the 2005 Summit (in which, incidentally, Russia also participated), and whose form of government is non-democratic.
It is important that member states take responsibility and reach agreement on a comprehensive policy as to how the Council of Europe should deal with the democratic backslide in Russia. The whole aim and current orientation of the Council is being undermined and discredited. Unless all member states take their responsibility in this pressing problem, the very purpose of the organisation is at risk.
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