Czech ambassador: "Keeping Russia in Council of Europe would have meant losing credibility"
The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, has been facing major challenges recently. Last March, following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was excluded from its ranks, reducing the number of member states from 47 to 46. Czechoslovakia became a part of the Council of Europe in 1991, and after the dissolution of the country, the Czech Republic joined as a newly independent state in 1993. Petr Válek has been the Czech ambassador to the council since last year. In an interview with Alex Rosenzweig, Mr. Válek began by explaining what his day-to-day work is like.
“The day-to-day job of the ambassador of a member state to the Council of Europe concerns primarily the representation of a member state in the committee of ministers, which is the primary executive body of the organisation. The agenda of this body is quite wide – primarily it concerns the implementation of judgements by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but also other political issues. As you may be aware, recently the Council of Europe managed to exclude the Russian Federation from its ranks – that happened already in March.”
Let’s be clear, this institution has nothing to do with the Council of the European Union, which is now presided over by the Czech Republic. It’s a completely different organisation, which included Russia up until a few months ago. How did the exclusion of Russia change your work and the work of the institution?
“The exclusion of Russia was certainly a hard dilemma for the member states. On the one hand, it was clear that by excluding Russia the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights would no longer cover Russian citizens. On the other hand, it was clear that by keeping Russia in the Council of Europe, the organisation would probably lose its legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the citizens of Europe and its member states. It’s hard to imagine sitting at a table with a state that is waging a war of aggression against another member state. So to some extent, our work has changed. The Council of Europe is smaller. If you look at a map, it is no longer an organisation covering states all the way from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Nevertheless, when it comes to its core values, I would say that the organisation is stronger and that we no longer have discussions about basic principles."
Another big problem for the institution is that two other member states have been fighting in recent days – Armenia and Azerbaijan. I suppose it is one of the major issues right now?
"Yes, absolutely. This is obviously a long-standing conflict and it’s not the only one. If you look at the history of this organization there have been other inter-state conflicts among our members so this is not something new. But it certainly is important for us, and the organization has to live with it and create diplomatic pressure for all its member states to settle their disputes in a peaceful way."
After the fall of Communism, it was a major step for Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic to join the Council of Europe. There was an issue, among others, with the country of Lichtenstein – one of the other member states. The trial process is still going on – how are the relations between the two countries now?
"This is a very relevant question – are you rightly said, the negotiations with Lichtenstein were at the beginning of our re-entry into the Council of Europe. Nowadays, we have a so-called inter-state dispute before the Strasbourg court, and this is the first time the Czech Republic as a state was brought before this court by another state. I obviously cannot comment on the dispute before the court’s decision, but at the same time, since this historical dispute was put before the court, in some ways it has made our political relations with Lichtenstein perhaps a bit less problematic. Lichtenstein will be chairing the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe soon, and as for the mission of the Czech Republic here in Strasbourg, I can tell you that I have an excellent relationship with the Lichtenstein mission here."
Let’s remind ourselves what is at stake – a lot of money, a lot of property. So it’s not an easy issue between the two states.
"Yes, that’s true. On the one hand it can be seen as a property restitution issue, on the other hand, it could be even more about the – as I said, I will probably stop here and will not comment on this anymore."
One of the Council of Europe’s main events in the coming weeks, at least for public relations, is the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Are you involved in this?
"Personally, I’m not involved in the selection of the winner of the Václav Havel Prize. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic certainly is. The panel that chooses the winner meets in the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic provides funding for this prize. But the Czech Republic itself has no decision-making role in this. But personally I have to add that I always wait with great impatience to find out who the winner will be and the moment when the winner is announced in the parliamentary assembly here in Strasbourg is certainly a big moment for the Czech Republic as well."
Are there any other important dates for you in the coming months as the representative of the Czech Republic – or do you prefer to say Czechia?
"I think that both terms are possible and yes, the Czech Presidency in the Council of the EU is a big event. Here for the Council of Europe, after the Lisbon treaty, it’s mainly the EU delegation that does most of the work. Nevertheless the Czech Presidency also organizes a few events, I would like to mention at least three of them. We are doing a concert of Mr. Svěcený’s work, who is quite a well-known musician in the Czech Republic. We are also organizing a dialogue with the Secretary-General and EU member states. And finally, we are organizing an exhibition about the Holocaust. The name of the exhibition is ‘The Story of Hana’s Suitcase’ and it’s a story of a brother and sister, the Brady siblings, who made it through Auschwitz – Hana Brady died but Mr. Brady survived. It’s an incredible Holocaust story and we want to draw attention to another conference in Prague that is organized on the occasion of the adoption of the Terezín declaration."
There will be a major event for the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU at the beginning of October, in Prague – a summit of the heads of state and government. But it will be in a wider European context. Is the institution of the Council of Europe not afraid that this might overlap with its own mandate?
"That’s a very good question, and you’re right, this informal summit in October will be one of the highlights of the Czech Presidency, including this particular event. And there are perhaps certain fears in the Council of Europe secretariat that the mandate of this European political community might overlap with the mandate of the Council of Europe, but I think that this will not be the case. First of all, as proposed by President Macron and by our Prime Minister Fiala, we are not about to establish an international organization. The framework will be quite informal. Secondly, the idea is to create a structure that would be complementary to what the Council of Europe is doing or to what the OSCE in Vienna is doing. So I do not fear that this project would somehow damage the standing and the position of the Council of Europe."