17 Jul New Expulsions of Russian Diplomats [Corrected]
[Ricardo Arredondo is Professor of Public International Law at the University of Buenos Aires.]
[Ed. note: the final paragraph of the post has been revised from the original version.]
At a time when the repercussions of the expulsions of diplomats generated by the poisoning of a former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and her daughter Yulia have not yet been hushed, the Greek government has decided to expel two Russian diplomats and prevent the return of two others, whom they accuse of interfering in its internal affairs and committing illegal acts against Greek national security.
The government of Alexis Tsipras, who differed from other members of the European Union and NATO by refusing to expel Russian diplomats as a result of the Skripal case, made it clear that these expulsions are not related to bilateral relations between the two countries but rather to specific actions: attempts by Russian officials to expand Russian influence in Greece, mainly within the Greek Orthodox Church, in addition to the attempt to obtain and circulate information and to bribe Greek officials, all of which have failed. It has also been pointed out that Russia would have been involved in protests against the agreement reached between Greece and Macedonia regarding the name of the former Yugoslav Republic.
This conduct is expressly prohibited generally by international law (e.g. UNGA Res. 36/103. Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Internal Affairs of States) and specifically by the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR, article 41.1) and on Consular Relations (VCCR, article 55.1). These rules are derived from the principle of sovereignty. Encouraging the instability of a government, interfering in its internal politics, criticizing the government, contributing to the deterioration of the relations between the receiving State and third States, inter alia, are activities that imply interference in the internal affairs of the receiving State, a conduct from which a foreign diplomat should abstain. This not only generates tensions between the sending and receiving States but also may lead to the person involved in such acts being declared non grata and expelled from the country. This is precisely what happened in this case.
Greece made use of the rule established in Article 9 VCDR affirming, through the government spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, that the Greek Government cannot tolerate conduct that violates international law and that does not show respect to the Greek State. They consider that there has been such a conduct and for that precise reason all the necessary measures will be taken.
The declaration of persona non grata has been used countless times in response to personal conduct of diplomats, ranging from merchandise smuggling, drug trafficking, sexual abuse to traffic violations. Therefore, Greece has warned that any response in retaliation by Moscow will only contribute to deteriorate their bilateral relations, since no Greek diplomat or consul in Russia has acted outside the strict parameters of its mission.
Despite this, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already announced that it will respond symmetrically to the decision of the Greek authorities, which is a common practice in similar cases. Russia affirms that the US is behind the incident and has summoned the Greek representative to Moscow to protest Athens’ expulsions.
The declaration of persona non grata is generally related to the personal conduct of diplomats, although this is not always the case. Given the lack of a system of secondary norms in the Vienna Conventions, host States sometimes use symbolic gestures to express their disapproval of sending States behavior such as recalling their representatives, issuing a protest, or summoning the head of mission, inter alia. However, as Alison Macdonald QC observed when the Skripal case came out, targeting foreign representatives who are not accused of being involved in an incident, taken as a reprisal between States, is “little more than a symbolic gesture” and simply contributes to worsening diplomatic and consular relations between those States.