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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Eager to Set Council's Agenda

Russia for the first time will assume the chairmanship of the Council of Europe on Friday amid criticism from the Strasbourg human rights watchdog.

Russia, a council member since 1996, will take over from Romania to chair the council's Committee of Ministers for six months. During that time, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, will hear at least three reports critical of Russia's record on civil liberties.

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, said one of Russia's goals for its upcoming tenure was to shift the council's focus to cultural and economic issues and away from human rights. Russia also would like to ease visa rules.

"We have an opportunity to return more balance to the Council of Europe," said Kosachyov, also vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly.

As chairman, Russia will draft the council's 2007 budget. The new budget, Kosachyov said, will steer council funding away from human rights activities.

According to its own statute, the council should spend more resources on cultural and economic issues, he said.

Russia will also draft an agreement between the council and the European Union dictating the terms of cooperation between the two bodies. The agreement will help the council and the EU avoid pursuing overlapping concerns, Kosachyov said.

"By preparing this memorandum, we, if you will, certainly will define the future European architecture," he said.

Russia will also seek to end the imposition of unfair double standards on Belarus and Russia, Mikhail Kamynin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday.

An example of a double standard, said Igor Shuvalov, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, is that the council gives Russia a much harder time for alleged human rights abuses than it does Latvia, Interfax reported. Russia has often complained that Latvia mistreats its Russian-speaking population.

Kamynin said Russia would call for PACE to stop monitoring Russia's democratic development on the grounds that Russia had already become a democracy. He further railed against the "subjective political motives" of many of Russia's harshest critics.

Kamynin added that the chairmanship would "reinforce Russia's authority not only in the Council of Europe but also in the world at large."

He also said Russia would host three forums while it held the chairmanship --on the role played by political parties in democracies, nongovernmental organizations and cooperation between cultures and religions.

Russia was to officially assume the post at a brief ceremony Friday at 1 p.m. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was slated to speak about Russia's priorities for the council before his Romanian counterpart was to hand over the official "key of office," as the council puts it.

Terry Davis, the council's secretary general, said the chairmanship offered Russia some new powers but not a lot.

"The way business is conducted depends very much on the chairman, and so there is an indirect benefit of being in the chair," he said by telephone from Strasbourg. "But there are rules, and the rules must be applied."

Davis added that the 2007 budget would not be approved until Russia's successor at the council's helm, San Marino, was in charge. Countries hold the rotating chairmanship according to the English alphabetical order of their names.

Russia has been heavily criticized by the council for the Chechen war, police malfeasance and a curtailing of media, social and religious freedoms; it has also come under attack for its treatment of minorities. Earlier this year, the council's European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance accused Russia of not doing enough to curb intolerance; Davis condemned attacks against gays and lesbians at Moscow nightclubs this month.

Christos Pourgourides, chairman of PACE's Subcommittee on Human Rights, is the leading force behind the upcoming reports on Russia's civil-liberties record. Pourgourides said the inquiries would focus on Russia's lack of cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights, failure to investigate missing persons' cases and disregard for fair trials in the cases of people accused of espionage. "The Council of Europe is primarily a human rights organization, and having in the seat of the presidency a country that unfortunately does not respect human rights, it does affect the reputation of the Council of Europe adversely," he said by telephone. "We are not in a war with Russia. What we are in is an effort to persuade the Russian authorities to respect human rights, which would be to the benefit of Russia and the Russian people and the general reputation of the Russian state."

PACE President Rene van der Linden struck a conciliatory note. Chairmanship will be an opportunity for Russia "to show its role and importance and responsibility on the international level," he said. PACE's Russian members occupy senior posts and respect the organization, he said.

Van der Linden called on PACE members to be patient with Russia.

"Of course we have criticism of Russia, but not only of Russia, but also other member states, even of the Netherlands," said Linden, who is Dutch. "But if we only criticize Russia without taking into account its special situation, ... that it takes more time, that we have to be more patient, if we don't realize a more prospective trustful partnership with Russia, then criticism will always have a negative impact."

Russia is one of the council's five largest donors, contributing 23.3 million euros ($29.9 million) in 2006, as did France, Germany, Italy and Britain. Together, the five countries contribute 60 percent of the council's revenue.

But Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested the council's criticism of Russia would not lead to Russia spending less money on the body. Russia should use the council to further its interests, he said. "The weapon of the Council of Europe," he said, "is that it draws attention from the European public and governments to this or that problem in need of resolution."