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Old Values, Hard Cash: Behind Russia's Tough New Stance On Europe

Article illustrative image Partner logo Soldiers outside the Kremlin in Moscow

MOSCOW - Another session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and once again there is a standoff between Moscow and Strasbourg.

That’s not really news. Conflicts have been a regular feature since 1996, when Russia joined the Council of Europe, the 63-year-old organization that promotes human rights and justice.

The list of sticking points include: Russia's refusal to abolish the death penalty; the wars in the Caucasus; lack of press freedom; the Yukos affair; doubts about the fairness of elections; persecution of political opposition; relationships with neighboring countries; and the rights of minority groups.

Each subject has come up more than once. Sometimes, like during the second Chechen war, it nearly blew up, with the Council threatening not to allow Russia to speak (that actually happened once) or to kick it out of the Council altogether.

Moscow, meanwhile, has repeatedly threatened to leave the Council, taking with it its substantial monetary contributions, which is one of the largest of the member states. 

The current conflict is not really about the cancellation of plans by the Russian Speaker of the Duma to visit the Council, nor is it the negative reaction to a recently published report on Russia’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the council. Neither was a surprise.

Instead, what is unusual is the force with which the Russian government has responded. Presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, about the PACE recommendations: “We will not follow the recommendations under any circumstances.” 

That is a very different tack. Up until now, Russia has deflected PACE recommendations, but always noting its desire to work with the Council of Europe to find diplomatic language that makes everyone happy. Now Moscow is making it clear that it is no longer willing to make that effort. What happened? 

First of all, the Council of Europe’s situation is not the same as it used to be. In the wake of the European Crisis, the donors’ resources were spread thin, and Russia had to contribute 12% of the whole organization’s budget in 2011 (more than 34 million euros). That’s nothing compared to what Russia’s spending on the Olympics, for example, but it’s a lot for the Council of Europe, which has had to tighten its belt due to budget deficits. 

A new confidence

As one of the few countries with extra cash, Russia is emboldened in its dealing with the Council. It’s not a coincidence that the only concrete measure in the recent report on Russia, which was for Russia’s confidence rating to be lowered, was not adopted. 

But in addition to this strictly financial analysis, there is a more general trend contributing to the change of attitude. Russia survived the fall of the Soviet Union and started searching for a new identity. It has tended towards traditionalism. Europe, which sees stability in turning away from traditional dogma, is instead watching Russia careening towards increased piety and homophobia

The Council of Europe has always insisted that Russia adhere to certain values, and has often reproached Moscow for failing to do so. At the center of the conflict is the Russian political system - neither modern nor transitional, but still apparently heading towards a more European style of democracy.

Of course, Russia never insisted that that was where it was going. But now the roles have seemed to have been reversed: Strasbourg is talking about politics, Moscow is talking about values -- although not the ones that the Council of Europe usually promotes, but traditional values.

To Russians, European tolerance seems to extend to the absurd. When the city of Wittenburg nominated Pussy Riot for the Martin Luther prize, even the very modern German Evangelical Church was left scratching its head. 

Still, even more significant is Russia's inability to mentally get over the consequences of the 1990s. There is still a strong memory of the constant need to be on the defensive, and of weakness. Brushing aside the Council of Europe and expelling USAID, both of which Russia associated with a period of weakness, is like an overdue revenge. It’s the same reason that Russia wants to discontinue Nunn-Lugar, a program where the U.S. paid to help Russia dispose of unwanted missiles safely. The program was highly valued during Russia’s crisis years, but now it is seen as unfair. 

The Russian government now says that Russia is no longer a developing country that needs to be guided along the right path. And they are right. But there are two ways to understand the word “developing.” One is political, and it refers to countries that are poor. But the common use of the word is for something that is developing, which means it is changing and moving forward. It’s one thing to proudly shed the first meaning of the word, because the country has grown economically.

But it is equally as important not to lose sight of the second meaning, and for Russia to continue to move forward. 

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About this article source Website: http://www.kommersant.com/about.asp

Kommersant ("The Businessman") was founded in 1989 as the first business newspaper in the Russia. Originally a weekly, Kommersant is now a daily newspaper with strong political and business coverage. It has been owned since 2006 by Alisher Usmanov, the director of a subsidiary of Gazprom.

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