HELSINKI: The Council of Europe adopted a declaration Friday that allows Russia to start voting again at the continent's main human rights body following a spat related to its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Foreign ministers from the council's 47 member states voted overwhelmingly to support a declaration that says that all members should be "entitled to participate" in the council's two main organs "on an equal basis."
Russia will now have to accredit a delegation to the Council of Europe before it can start voting on motions.
The council, which is based in Strasbourg, France and is open to all European countries regardless of whether they are in the European Union or not, suspended Russia's voting rights after the annexation of Crimea, which Ukraine and most of the world viewed as illegal. Russia, a member since 1996, then stopped paying its membership fees in protest.
Senior Russian officials have threatened to pull out of the Council of Europe altogether. Such a move would mean that ordinary Russians would lose access to the European Court of Human Rights, which has become an important tool for those who have lost faith in Russian courts.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the declaration and reaffirmed Russia's commitments including paying the fees. Lavrov said Russia values "the positive contribution" that the Council of Europe has made to resolving humanitarian issues as well as improving Russia's justice system.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia is willing to cooperate with the Council of Europe only as long as it has "an equal say" in all of its decision-making mechanism.
Friday's declaration marks what could be the first major step by a European institution to roll back on restrictions and sanctions that were imposed on Russia following Crimea's annexation and its campaign to support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. It could also be viewed as a sign of a growing realization in Europe, in France and Germany in particular, that bringing Russia closer could be a better way to help resolve the Ukrainian crisis and other problems.
Ukraine's foreign minister unexpectedly cancelled his attendance of the meeting in Finland at the last minute, expecting the positive vote for Russia.
Ukraine's envoy to the Council on Europe Dmytro Kuleba said in a tweet that Ukraine and five other countries voted against the motion which he described as a result of "cynical diplomacy" to save a "long-term partner."
Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini told reporters after the meeting that the final say in restoring Russia's voting rights lies in the hands of Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly that was the one to bar Russia from voting. He said that allowing Russia to vote does not mean that European nations would want to abandon sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea.
"It's clear that (Russia's) behavior has to change," Soini said.
He also said that Russia is required to pay all of its outstanding debt, including membership fees, to the Council of Europe by the end of June.
France — which will take over the rotating presidency at the council on Friday — and Germany have been vocal about the need to bring Russia back in the fold for the benefit of millions of ordinary Russians.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who is meeting Lavrov later in the day, said before the meeting that "it is not in our interests" to keep Russia out.
"Russia belongs in the Council of Europe — with all of the rights and responsibilities that go with it," Maas said, adding that he hopes to be able to take a "decisive step forward" at the ministerial meeting.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the Council of Europe president earlier this month that "the Council of Europe needs Russia like Russia and the Russians need the Council of Europe, which means that their rights as a member state are respected but also that Russia fulfills its obligations towards the institution."
Russia's exit from the Council of Europe would mean that Russians wouldn't be able to turn to the European Court of Human Rights as the last point of appeal for criminal proceedings in Russia. The ECHR over the years has become an important tool of legal redress for Russians who are often unable to find justice in Russia's notoriously corrupt and government-dependent court system.
More than 20 percent of all cases heard at the ECHR last year came from Russian nationals, according to the court's annual report.