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'A clear signal'

Interview: Sabrina Pabst / mllApril 10, 2014

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has withdrawn Russia's voting rights. Its vice president, Axel Fischer, says this sends a clear signal to Russia but doesn't close all the doors.

Bundestagsabgeordneter Axel E. Fischer CDU
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: What were the issues in the debate in the Council of Europe which led to the vote on excluding Russia or taking other sanctions over the Ukraine crisis?

Axel Fischer: For one, there was a discussion over how strongly one condemned Russia's behavior. The Russians emphasized the issue of self-determination and brought repeated examples of where this issue had played an important role in other countries. There was a robust debate over the issue of Ukrainian territorial integrity.

In the end, there were only three options: either we do nothing, or we withdraw Russia's vote for the next session until January, or we withdraw Russia's accreditation to the Parliamentary Assembly. There were some who wanted to do nothing. And there were some who wanted to withdraw the accreditation. But the large majority was in favor of withdrawing the right to vote, and that is what was agreed. The vote in favor was 145, there were 21 against and 21 abstained.

Council of Europe suspends Russia

How satisfied are you with the decision?

With this resolution we have condemned Russia's actions unambiguously. It was important for us that we send a clear signal to Russia, while not entirely closing the door. The Council of Europe is, after all, the only body in which Russian parliamentarians can discuss things with parliamentarians from other European countries. We wanted to show with this resolution that we are prepared to continue discussions, but also that we have tougher measures available for the future.

If we had thrown the Russians right out, we could not have taken a tougher line in the future than we have done now. Now we have a clear position until January. If there's no successful outcome, we can still withdraw accreditation. But if the Ukraine crisis becomes less tense by January, we can always bring them back into the Council of Europe.

What effect does the withdrawal of the right to vote have in practice?

The Russian delegation will not be able to take part in votes for judges in the European Court of Human Rights or for the secretary general, both of which are coming up. The Russians also can't hold offices in the Council of Europe, such as committee chairs. One thing which seems sensible to me is that they can't send election observers to other countries.

Ahead of the vote, the Russian delegation had already announced that it was leaving the Parliamentary Assembly for its own reasons. Has it made good on its threat?

Some members of the Russian delegation did indeed cross themselves off the list of speakers and didn't attend the discussion. They could have joined the debate, but they didn't even enter the room. After a long debate without Russian participation, and without their participation in the vote - since the statutes do not allow them to vote where they are directly involved - we decided that the Russians should lose their voting rights for the rest of the session.

Was there any discussion with the Russian delegation ahead of the vote?

On Wednesday (09.04.2014), there was a discussion about Ukraine in which the Russians were very actively involved and in which they made their position very clear. And in the committees - especially in the monitoring committee but in the others as well - we had the most intensive discussions to prepare this decision. The Russians were there too and proposed amendments, but they were not allowed to vote.

So did the annexation of Crimea violate international law or just the Ukrainian constitution?

There are different positions on that. There are some countries which say it is clearly against international law and others which say it's just against the constitution. Others ask if the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych was constitutional. There was a wide-ranging discussion. But we had the same problem with Kosovo: is it a matter of the self-determination of peoples or is it a matter of territorial integrity? The decisions which are made over such issues are also political decisions.

Axel Fischer is a German Christian Democrat, head of the German delegation in the Council of Europe and vice-president of its Parliamentary Assembly.