Prague, Jan. 23 (RFE/RL) - Only 48 hours before a critical vote is due to take place in the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, Russia's entry into the organization is still quite uncertain. Council officials told RFE/RL today that many West European states have been lobbying in favor of Russian admission, and the number of members likely to vote "yes" had grown sufficiently in the past two days. But the officials warn that the affirmative trend could change quickly. And parliamentary maneuvering by those opposing Russian entry conceivably could delay a vote for months.
If it does take place on Thursday as scheduled, the vote will probably not occur before early evening. The balloting would follow at least a full day's debate on the issue by the assembly. It could even follow a day-and-a-half of debate if, as now seems likely, the assembly decides to begin its discussion tomorrow afternoon. In either case, this would be an unprecedently long time for the assembly, which usually limits itself to five hours on membership applications. That underlines the importance of the event both for the assembly and for its parent body, the 38-member Council of Europe.
An affirmative vote by the assembly, composed of elected national parliamentarians from all council member states, is the biggest hurdle Russia faces in its effort to become the 15th nation from eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to join the council since the collapse of Communism in 1989. (The 14 others are: Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.) If the assembly votes yes on Thursday, representatives of member states are likely to endorse the vote immediately, setting formal admission ceremonies for the end of next month or early March.
But an affirmative vote on membership questions requires, by assembly rules, a two-thirds majority of those voting as well as one-third of all qualified members (about 250 of the 263 designated assembly members). Both criteria, council officials emphasize, make it far from impossible for opponents either to prevent a vote for lack of the necessary quorum or - by convincing many wavering members to abstain - insure defeat through an insufficient majority.
Yesterday in Strasbourg the head of the Russian guest delegation to the assembly, Vladimir Lukin, predicted that Russian membership would be approved Thursday by "a small majority. But Lukin, who also is chairs the State Duma's International Affairs Committee, noted that many assembly members had been "shocked by the extreme lack of professionalism and neglect of human life" shown by Russian forces during last week's hostage-release operation against Chechen separatists in the Dagestan village of Pervomayskaya. That shock, Lukin suggested, made defeat on Thursday possible. And "if Russia is rejected, it is unlikely to try again," he said, recalling that the assembly had repeatedly postponed its consideration of Moscow's application since it was submitted almost four years ago (May 1992.)
Russian behavior toward Chechen separatists has been one major reason for the long delay. Early last year, after Moscow began its military intervention in Chechnya, the parliamentary assembly suspended consideration of Russia's application in protest. It resumed consideration four months ago, saying that Russia had provided assurances it would pay more attention to respecting human rights in Chechnya and elsewhere. But for many members, those assurances seem again to have been overlooked in Dagestan.
Another important reason for the drawn-out Russian membership process has been doubts by the assembly, and the Council of Europe, about Russia meeting the organization's democratic and human-rights criteria. Council experts have visited Russia on several occasions during the past two years. They have invariably returned to report a lack of "rule of law" in the country, numerous systemic violations of human rights and the lack of legislation to insure democratic processes.
Even the assembly's influential Political Affairs Committee, which decided to recommend admission at a meeting four weeks ago, speaks at length of Russia's democratic inadequacies in its current report to the full body. And the assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, in its written opinion on Moscow's bid, says bluntly that "the Russian Federation does not yet fulfill the conditions from membership." Its report suggests that not substantive but only "political arguments might speak in favor" of immediate Russian entry into the Council.
Of course, as Russian guest delegates have often remarked, the same kind of democratic deficiencies have been found in some of the eastern states recently granted entry into the council - notably, Albania, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the three Baltic states. They were all admitted nevertheless, on condition that they pledge to meet council standards after they were made members. Russian guest parliamentarians are asking why Moscow shouldn't receive the same treatment.
A variation of this "political argument is heard in the reasoning of West European member states - notably Germany and France - pressing for rapid Western entry into the council. They say that, when it comes to developing democratic and human-rights processes, the Council would have more leverage over a Russia inside rather than outside the organization.
West European officials point out that Russia as a council member-state would have to adhere - among other important Council documents - to the European Human-Rights Convention. That would allow its citizens to appeal alleged violations over the head of their government to the European Human-Rights court in Strasbourg, and make it incumbent upon Moscow to enforce the court's ruling. Russian human-rights activist Sergei Kovalyev, one of President Boris Yeltsin's most internationally influential critics, has himself made the same argument both in Russia and Strasbourg.
It was left to Yeltsin today to make what some Council officials call the most "curious' argument yet heard for swift Russian admission. In a written statement released by his office, Yeltsin warned that a negative vote by the assembly would give support to those in his country who advocate "inhumane and terrorist methods" to resolve the Chechnya crisis. More generally, said Yeltsin - and "more reasonably," said the council officials - rejection of Russia's application would "be interpreted as a refusal to support those who are fighting to strengthen democratic principles and institutions in Russia."
The stage is set for high drama in Strasbourg during the vote Thursday evening, a vote to be preceded by one of the most unusual and most highly-charged debates in the history of the parliamentary assembly. Will the assembly admit Russia to the "gateway organization" for eastern countries seeking integration with the West? Will Russia thus be able to finally begin its "return to Europe," for which so many of its officials have pleaded? For Russia and the West, as well as for former Soviet-bloc states now in the Council, the stakes are universally high. But for the all parties concerned, the outcome is still unpredictable.