Following the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) recent decision to reinstate Russia's voting rights in the assembly, journalist Toomas Sildam writes about the importance of strategic patience to Estonia's foreign policy.
Estonian politicians are weighing whether and how to respond to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) recent decision to restore Russia's voting rights in this pan-European organization that is very involved in human rights.
Russia was stripped of its right to vote in PACE five years ago, following its annexation of Crimea and support of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) is right: the restoration of Russia's voting rights is particularly grotesque at a time when Moscow began fast-tracking the issuing of Russian Federation passports in Donbass, a region cut off from the rest of Ukraine. This is part of conscious anti-Ukrainian policy aimed at making the annexation irreversible.
And yet two thirds of PACE members were in favor of restoring Russia's right to vote. Upon which Erkki Bahovski, editor-in-chief of the monthly Diplomaatia, asked to what extent the Council of Europe could be considered a defender of European values, insofar as these values include respecting international law and not redrawing national borders by force. Russia has violated both of these points.
EKRE wants Riigikogu vote
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, the chairman of the Centre Party, is saying that the Council of Europe remains a significant organization representing the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. Because there are simply no other similar organizations. Ratas doesn't see that Estonia's potential leaving of the Council of Europe would be supported by his government.
Reinsalu, one of Isamaa's strategists, considers it possible that members of the Estonian delegation would avoid participating in the the restoration of Russia's voting rights in PACE. Even he was not quick to demand that Estonia leave the Council of Europe.
On the other hand, Mart Helme, chairman of junior coalition Coservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), did state such a demand. As it did not receive any further support within the Estonian government, however, EKRE's council announced on Sunday that it would put Estonia's continued membership of the Council of Europe, which the party claims has lost its moral authority, to a vote in the Riigikogu.
Latvian nationalists will be raising the same issue at the Saeima on July 8.
It's unlikely, however, that our Riigikogu would interrupt their summer recess to convene for an extraordinary sitting in order to discuss the Council of Europe. This discussion will more likely be put on hold until this autumn, granting people time to gather verbal ammo, should want to make this the primary topic of Estonia's internal politics for a moment. But it also gives time to reconsider.
To reconsider, for example, whether this seemingly robust move — flexing our muscles, leaving the Council of Europe, slamming the door behind us — is in fact robust or whether it is actually a weak move. Let's leave, invite others including Latvia and Lithuania, Poland, the U.K, Ukraine and Georgia to come with us and... what, leave the entire floor to our opponents?
Or look at it this way — if a vote takes place in the UN Security Council, on which Estonia just gained a hard-won non-permanent seat, and we are overrun or Russia invokes its veto right, will Estonia quit the UNSC in protest?
Or if we end up on the so-called losing side of some vote in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), will we quit the UN altogether?
We already know the answer to both questions, and the answer is simple: no.
Don't pin PACE drama on EU
But back to the Council of Europe, where Russia's vote was restored. Another dramatic vote was held in PACE as well. Namely, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs Leonid Slutsky wanted to be elected vice-president of PACE. Two rounds of voting saw him get the red light. A remarkable result.
Just as the Council of Europe in 2019 cannot be compared to the League of Nations circa the 1930s, it would be unfair to pin what's going on in the Council of Europe on the current EU, which is what EKRE leaders may want. This would mean that we should forget how, just some ten days ago, EU state leaders just extended sanctions against Russia in connection with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. And did so unanimously.
Previous interior minister and current MP Katri Raik (SDE) recently published an opinion piece on Delfi in which she encouraged Ratas' government to allocate €200,000 from reserves in activity support for the Vaba Lava Theatre Centre in Narva, as the local city government has withdrawn its own funding. Raik called on strategic patience on the government's part — to await changes taking place in Narva, which will take time, but surely come.
It is this exact kind of strategic patience that is sometimes needed in foreign policy and as we take steps shaping it as well.
Editor: Aili Vahtla