Council of Europe foreign ministers agreed on Friday to restore Russia's right to participate in its Parliamentary Assembly "on an equal basis" with other member nations, a move towards resolving the international organization's conflict over Moscow's annexation of Crimea five years ago.
Europe's leading human rights organization approved by majority vote a joint declaration that attempts to appease Russia. The decision came during a ministerial-level celebration of the council's 70-year history of dialogue and cooperation, and is a precursor to restoring Russia's vote in the council next month.
The move also coincided with the council's rotating presidency being handed from Finland to France, which along with Germany pushed particularly hard for Russia to be welcomed back into council.
More than 30 foreign ministers declared at a meeting of the 47-nation council in Helsinki, Finland that "all member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis in the Committee of ministers and in the Parliamentary Assembly, the two statutory organs of the Council of Europe."
But the council also emphasized in a statement that there was a "need for coordinated action, in order to strengthen the organization’s ability to react more effectively in situations where a member state violates its statutory obligations or does not respect the standards, fundamental principles and values upheld by the Council of Europe."
The Strasbourg, France-based council had suspended Russia’s voting rights in its Parliamentary Assembly soon after Russia seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014. Ukraine, the United States and many other nations had declared the annexation illegal.
The United Nations General Assembly also adopted a resolution in 2014 backing Ukraine's territorial integrity, after Russia blocked the world body's powerful Security Council from approving a similar measure. The 15-nation Security Council has five permanent, veto-wielding members: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Two years ago, Russia stopped paying its Council of Europe membership dues in protest. That caused budget problems, as Russia contributes 33 million euros a year, or 7% of the council's budget. It also put Russia on course to lose its membership next month, as the rules call for after two years of non-payment. That also would have denied Russia access to Europe's top human rights court.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the declaration, telling the council's ministerial meeting that Russia planned to remain as a member and pay its dues. Next month, the organization's Parliamentary Assembly will be asked to approve a measure that permits Russia to resume voting.
"We hope this decision will be implemented by all. The wait will not be long," Lavrov said in a foreign ministry statement. "All members of the council should have equal rights both during voting, submitting their initiatives and any other areas envisaged by the procedures governing" the council.
In February, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin decried the international community's response to the annexation and urged it "to acknowledge the inherent dangers of a weak response to Russian aggression."
In a Washington Post op-ed article, he wrote, "Today, Crimea is a human rights black hole. The occupation regime is harshly persecuting the indigenous Crimean Tatar population, which enjoyed considerable freedom under Ukrainian rule. Now dissidents are routinely abducted and tried in kangaroo courts. Russia has imposed a ban on all international monitors and aid agencies."
Similarly, Ukraine denounced the foreign ministers' majority decision on behalf of the council, which also operates a permanent judicial body, the European Court of Human Rights. Established in 1959, the court works to guarantee Europeans' rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
“This is not diplomacy, this is a surrender,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s representative to the council, told Agence France-Presse. "We want Russia to stay in the Council of Europe, but we want Russia to comply with its obligations and commitments in all decisions taken in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine."
Ukraine boycotted the council meeting when the foreign ministers voted to restore Russia as a member. Britain, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania also reportedly opposed the move. Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, however, said in a statement before the council meeting that there was no advantage in keeping Russia from rejoining as a voting member.
"We want to ensure that the Council of Europe can continue to function effectively in future. There is an urgent need for change. Russia, our largest member, has not paid its contributions for almost two years now," said Maas.
"It has been years since its delegation last attended the Parliamentary Assembly," he said. "This state of affairs is not in our interests. Russia belongs on the Council of Europe — with all the rights and responsibilities that implies."