Prague, July 22 (RFE/RL) -- The three Trans-Caucasian countries, long a source of instability and conflict, have made it clear: They want to be part of the "civilized world of Europe."
A top-level delegation of the Council of Europe, during a six-day trip last week to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, heard heartfelt pleas for the three countries to be admitted to the continent's oldest democracy-promoting human rights body.
The delegation was led by Secretary General Daniel Tarschys and Estonian Foreign Minister Siim Kallas, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the council's Committee of Ministers.
During meetings in Baku, Tbilisi and Erevan, Kallas said the Council wants to support the three countries in their transition from the Soviet Communist system to what he called "the civilized world."
Overshadowing all the talks were the conflicts in the region--Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tarschys told his hosts that these conflicts have to be resolved peacefully before the Council can consider admitting the three countries.
THE APPEAL OF MEMBERSHIP IN THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949 as an exclusive club of West European democracies, has rapidly expanded eastward since the collapse of communism. It has taken in 15 countries from Central and Eastern Europe in recent years.
Although some observers have criticized it as a toothless and rather meaningless institution, it is clear that ex-communist countries value membership in the council as a "seal of approval" that they have reached a Western level of democracy and respectability.
Many also hope that acceptance in the council will be a first step towards other institutions that offer more tangible benefits--such as the European Union and NATO. The three Caucasian countries have applied for full membership in the Council of Europe.
The applications for membership come very soon after the three countries were accepted as special guests at the council's parliamentary assembly. This may not have been--as the chairman of the Georgian parliament, Zurab Zhvania, put it--"one of the major events" for the public in these countries. But it was clearly an important step for the leaders.
Mikheil Saakashvili, chairman of the legal affairs committee of the Georgian parliament, said the most important prerequisite for recovery of the devastated Georgian economy is a firm base of democracy. And he told the Council of Europe guests: "No one can help us more than you."
Azerbaijani President Gaidar Aliyev said at a state dinner that to Azeris the Council of Europe is "something sacred." All the officials in Azerbaijan and Georgia made it obvious that they place a very high value on future acceptance into the Counci.
Only Armenian officials seemed more restrained. The prime minister, Hrant Bagratian, referred to the delegation as the European Parliament--an arm of the European Union and quite distinct from the Council of Europe. However, Secretary General Tarschys said that Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian--during a meeting closed to journalists--seemed quite enthusiastic about his country's application for membership.
WHAT OFFICIALS HOPE MEMBERSHIP WILL DO FOR THEIR COUNTRIES
During the six days in the region, the expectations of government officials--and especially of local journalists--seemed so high that some Council of Europe officials worried that the prospective members are destined to be disappointed.
Azerbaijan wants support for regaining control of its Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is held by rebel ethnic Armenians. Armenia wants support for independence --or at least wide-ranging autonomy--of Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgian journalists wanted the Council's approval for any future use of force by the Georgian government to regain control of breakaway Abkhazia.
Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili asked the Council of Europe to--in his words--"spread its soul" over the Trans-Caucasian region. In Erevan, prominent opposition leader Paruyr Hayrikyan warned that the country was slipping back towards totalitarianism, and called for help in making the country's upcoming local elections fully democratic.
While conflicts in the region are moving toward resolution, Kallas said, the council will "try to do the best to smooth this transition period." He said the council wants to help the countries, in his words, "construct mechanisms that can resist the return of communism."
One Council of Europe official said the Council is striving to act as a counterweight to the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. This official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said the Council wants to offer Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia a Western orientation without domination--in contrast to Russian domination.
The three countries in the Caucasus face much work to bring their judicial systems and electoral rules up to the Council's standards of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.
But officials in all three countries pledged to begin the necessary work quickly and earnestly. As Khanlar Gadzhiev, chairman of Azerbaijan's Supreme Court, put it: "We are prepared to do everything within our power to become a full member of the Council of Europe."
Sudaba Gassanova, Azerbaijan's acting minister of justice, acknowledged the hard work ahead.
"We know we cannot reach real democracy by words," she said. "We know we have to implement the ideals of real democracy in everyday life."