2 February 2023
by Ilya Shablinsky, doctor of jurisprudence and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Today’s Russian Federation, Putin’s government, is withdrawing from a host of international treaties and terminating various international obligations.
Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the Russian state, even in the history of the USSR. The Bolsheviks repudiated the debts of the Russian Empire, but they did seek international recognition and integration into the system of international treaties. Back then, human rights obligations did not come into it. But in 1975, the USSR under Brezhnev decided to sign the Helsinki Act and associated humanitarian provisions. While it is true that the Soviet leaders did not intend to adhere to them, they still wanted to be counted among the civilised countries. I believe that was their reasoning, more or less. China was regarded at that time as a potential adversary, and the Soviet top brass treated the DPRK with something like disdain mixed with hostility – they were no longer interested in that kind of ‘socialism’.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a genuine democratic revolution in Russia. The renewed Russian state sought to lay the foundations for new relationships, both with its own citizens and with the international community. The state felt the need to guarantee certain rights to its citizens. On the international level, they sought to create conditions that would minimise the risk of armed conflict. We must remember that Soviet troops had only just left Afghanistan.
At this point, let’s recall some of the treaties of this new era. For example, the 1992 Treaty of Open Skies. The idea behind it was that countries agreed to allow inspection flights over each other’s territory. Next, the most important document was the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia ratified in 1998. Citizens of the country were guaranteed the opportunity to bring their complaints to the European Court of Human Rights. The protocols precluding the death penalty, incidentally, were not ratified. However, the penalty is no longer imposed in Russia, having been replaced by life imprisonment.
Russia also joined the Council of Europe, thereafter concluding several dozen agreements.
These agreements were in force for around 30 years, providing quite favourable conditions for Russia to build partnerships with European states. During that time, Russian citizens enjoyed recourse to the European justice system. No one now really seems to dispute the fact that the first decade of the 21st century noticeably improved Russians’ well-being. And security was wholly due to and ensured by normal, if not friendly, relations with the most powerful democratic states.
However, it can now be said that by the end of the second decade, this situation no longer suited Russia’s present-day dictator. Why that is, is a separate matter. Without going into details, it should be noted that, in our opinion, there were no objective reasons for such a turnaround, in terms of economics or security. The dictator simply became more ambitious.
Talk about withdrawing from all the above-mentioned treaties began as early as 2015-2016. Those in charge in Russia got tired of being rebuked for various human rights violations and of paying fines imposed one after another by the ECtHR – particularly after Crimea. The fines were nothing, of course, but the obligation to heed an international authority rankled. Who are they anyway? In and of itself, the European guarantee of the rights of Russian citizens could safely be ignored. I mean, how many Russians over the years have managed to appeal to the European Court in Strasbourg? Tens of thousands? Whereas tens of millions didn’t even know such a court existed. Almost everyone was aware by then that torture went on in police custody and in prison, even though torture was officially forbidden, but they were willing to put up with it. And there was nothing that any convention or European body could do about it.
Yet, the decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe and from the jurisdiction of the ECHR kept being postponed. There just wasn’t time; there were important geopolitical matters to attend to.
First of all, the Russian Federation withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty. This became official with the signing of a law of denunciation by Putin in December 2021. There is probably no need to explain the reason for this. It was because they were preparing to start a war.
That war untied their hands regarding other urgent denunciations. Everything fell into place. On 25 February 2022, the Council of Europe suspended (initially, merely suspended) the Russian Federation’s membership because of that country’s invasion of Ukraine. On 15 March, however, Russia itself announced the beginning of the process of withdrawal from the organization, while on 16 March, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers took the decision to expel Russia there and then. For Putin, it goes without saying that all these institutions were already a drag. What sort of European rights convention could there be when it was no longer possible to call a war a war? Yes, all the most important rights were still covered by the Russian Constitution but no-one was bothered about that any more. And this is already familiar to us. Some rights were promulgated by Soviet constitutions too and Brezhnev once signed the Helsinki Act. So what?
30 December 2022 saw the publication of the Russian government’s proposal to start the process of withdrawal from a whole series of the Council of Europe’s international conventions. Yes, Russia has already been expelled but it remains party to around 40 international Council of Europe conventions. Which ones? A really wide range. On the recognition of higher education in the European Area, on the protection of the archaeological heritage and cinematographic co-production, on the protection of children against sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, on laundering the proceeds of crime and on financing terrorism, on counterfeit medical products, on mutual assistance in criminal matters and many more
What will departure from these conventions mean? It’s possible that the most conspicuous specific consequence will be the restoration of the death penalty: it will be back in the Criminal Code. And, in general, the isolation of the Russian state and society in the most important areas of economic and cultural relations. Russian universities will be isolated and, as before, their degrees won’t be recognised anywhere. The cooperation of experts in the healthcare sector will become extremely difficult. And by the way, this was very important during the pandemic. Staff of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office will not be able to rely on a convention-guaranteed response from their counterparts in the European countries. And so on. This will be irksome for the experts, admittedly. Will they at the same time remember the baleful and small-minded dictator? I think that, of course, a lot will.
What will this mean for the country as a whole, for citizens? The answer is clear: the creation of the conditions for the country to fall behind in many major spheres of economic and cultural life. But so what? Lagging behind is a customary state for Russian people. And a feature that citizens don’t always or immediately become aware of.
People won’t feel a thing. The majority most probably won’t even find out that relations with the world’s most developed countries have been severed. The country’s backwardness will be expressed in feelings only after a substantial period of time. This is approximately the feeling experienced by citizens of the GDR (does anyone remember that abbreviation?) who in 1990 suddenly found themselves citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany. Many of them knew about it, having conquered the famous wall several years before. The backwardness of their country was also sensed and recognised by the thousands of DPRK citizens who somehow escaped from this Jurassic Era socialist paradise and went to South Korea. And Russians too, who encountered the transition from a Soviet to a market economy as adults and remember the empty shelves, were perfectly well aware of how far the country had fallen behind.
True, today many seem ready to forget about it.
It’s worth noting separately that the Russian Federation is preparing to withdraw from the Criminal Law Convention on Corruption. Actually, this is precisely the most anticipated measure. It’s a perfect fit: around 10 days ago, the State Duma approved the first reading of a law that allows civil servants and parliamentary deputies not to publish information on their earnings.
Let’s take this opportunity to recall the main argument put forward by supporters of the dictator and the war for this rift with the international rule of law. They say that this is how they are defending the sovereignty of the state. This is hypocrisy and a lie at one and the same time. No one has ever robbed our state of its sovereignty. It’s just that for Putin sovereignty means something other than is usually understood in international law. For Putin it is an escape from all foreign and domestic restrictions on his personal power. His power must be absolute. Full stop.
Summing up: the Russian Federation’s departure from a whole set of international agreements will mean not just a degree of change to specific legal tenets but its departure from the civilised world. Yes, of course, it is primarily the initiative of a dictator. But this makes the position of his entourage who cater to this rift with the civilised world all the more humiliating and shameful.
Do I believe that my state, the Russian Federation, will at some point have to return – in suffering and shame – to this international order? Of course, I do. But in acknowledging this inevitable viewpoint of powers-that-be to come, we must accurately assess the actions of the powers-that be today.