Strasbourg, 13 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe (CoE) was formed in 1949 by West European countries to monitor human rights and adherence to democratic standards of its member governments.
It administers the European Court of Human Rights, and states among its aims the promotion of a broad European identity based on shared cultural values.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave new impetus to that aim and to the organization. Since then it has added 21 new members from former communist countries to its membership, which now stands at 45. The CoE is a distinct organization from the European Union, although no country has been admitted to the EU without first becoming a CoE member.
"It's a serious problem, because one political prisoner in a council-member country is one political prisoner too many."
Countries aspiring to EU membership know they have to match up to CoE democratic criteria to stand a chance of becoming full members of the EU. The scheduled new members -- former Soviet bloc countries Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as Cyprus and Malta -- are all CoE members.
Members include one South Caucasus state -- Azerbaijan, which was given membership, in part, to help take steps toward resolving its conflict with Armenia after the two fought a war for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Council of Europe is based in the picturesque French city of Strasbourg. Political control resides within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which consists of members of parliament from all 45 member countries and which meets every three months. The other main political component is the Committee of Ministers, which consists of the member countries' foreign ministers.
The policies forged by the political bodies are implemented and turned into practical plans by the 1,800-member secretariat, which has been headed since 1999 by Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer. Schwimmer, who was a member of the Austrian parliament from 1971 until 1999, is proud of the CoE's role in helping former communist countries through what he refers to as a "school for democracy."
He says the CoE has helped the former communist countries to democratize their institutions and develop political and legal reforms. It has given practical assistance with know-how and advice, for instance, on drawing up the new postcommunist constitutions.
Schwimmer says many politicians in the postcommunist delegations to the PACE sessions have experienced a form of open debate and discussion that many are unused to at home and which has helped them grasp valuable lessons about democracy.
He says they have been able to join political blocs that represent mainstream Western European political movements and cut across national boundaries. That has made them look at things differently and, in many cases, has changed the way their own parliaments operate -- for the better. "Here, the Council of Europe, through its political atmosphere and this school, I would say, for European politicians -- how to find consensus, how to come together -- makes a difference behind the scenes," he told RFE/RL.
He is proud that the CoE brought in all the former communist countries -- with the exception of Belarus -- to what he calls "the family of European democracies."
Critics of the CoE have said that some of the new members were admitted too soon and others should have been suspended or expelled for breaching the standards they pledged to. Russia is cited for reported atrocities against Chechens in the war in the breakaway republic. Ukraine has been censured for authoritarian rule, repressing press freedom, and election rigging. Azerbaijan, by its own admission, has political prisoners.
The critics say that allowing some member countries to flout the rules brings the entire CoE into disrepute. But Schwimmer says that allowances must be made for countries in transition. "We have to take into account, and we should not neglect, that these people have lost decades of their history," he said. "These people could not develop in a normal way, they were imprisoned by totalitarian communism. So it's not a coincidence that some conflicts appear there that were conflicts in Western Europe 70 or 80 years ago."
He said encouragement, rather than sanctions, was needed for countries who had imperfect records. "The main criterion is: 'Is the country on the right track and ready to continue?'"
Schwimmer puts forward Azerbaijan as an example where a patient approach has paid off and CoE persuasion has been instrumental in the release of most of the 712 political prisoners Azerbaijan held two years ago. Azerbaijan still holds 53 political prisoners, which saddens Schwimmer, but he hopes they too will be released. "It's a serious problem, because one political prisoner in a council-member country is one political prisoner too many," he said. "But we have shown that we can make a difference even under not-so-easy circumstances, even in a country which had no democratic tradition before."
Schwimmer told RFE/RL what he believes is the CoE's most important achievement since he became secretary-general: "I think the accession of Serbia and Montenegro [to the CoE] was the most important, because when I took office, Serbia and Montenegro, the former Yugoslavia, was still under the [Slobodan] Milosevic dictatorship and the whole country a hostage of his ultranationalist extremist policy."
Like a teacher talking about bright former pupils, Schwimmer expresses pride in those delegates who have played key roles in leading Serbia and Montenegro toward democracy passed through the Council of Europe. "We have confidence in them and they have confidence in us," he said.
Georgia's new president, who came to power in a landslide election victory after promising to combat rampant corruption in his country is also, according to Schwimmer, "one of us." He added: "The elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has experience as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. So he went through this school."
Schwimmer believes the CoE has played an important role in helping democratize the eight former communist countries now among the 10 new entrants to the European Union this spring. He says he is not discouraged by the fact that democracy is taking longer to take root in other former communist countries.
"I see progress and we cannot expect tomorrow that Georgia or Azerbaijan or Ukraine will be a democracy with 800 years of parliamentary tradition like England or even France with a little bit more than 200 years of traditions of human rights and civil rights and freedom. But what we can achieve is progress and accelerating progress. This is the main objective for the moment," Schwimmer concluded.