Strasbourg, Jan 26 (RFE/RL) - Supporters and opponents agree on at least on one thing: Yesterday's approval by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly of Russia's application for membership in the 38-nation organization probably represented the single most important day in the council's half-century of existence.
"Historic," several of them called the day. "Historic," they said, because the assembly's action was a long leap forward toward transforming the Strasbourg-based organization, established in Western Europe at the outset of the Cold War to promote democracy and human rights, into a truly pan-European entity, the only one so far on the continent. And since its first summit meeting two-and-a-half years ago in Vienna, the Council of Europe has been formally invested by member states with a "pan-European vocation"
Approval of Russia's application by the parliamentary assembly - almost four years after it was submitted - in effect insured Mocow's joining the Council within the next several weeks. Around Feb. 5, member-state representives are due to formally invite Russia to join the council. Late next month or in early March, a formal admission ceremony will take place at council headquarters, attended by Russia's and other member states' foreign ministers. There, Russia will become the 15th East European state or former Soviet republic to join the council since the 1989 collapse of communism.
Until the moment of the vote last evening, doubts about admitting Russia to the council persisted even among supporters of entry. As articulated in the unprecedented eight-hour debate that preceded the vote, those doubts were three-fold: First, a feeling that Moscow's "brutal" and "inhumane" tactics in dealing with separatist Chechens might disqualify it from immediate membership. Second, concern that Russia - found to be largely without "rule of laws" by the council's own experts - was far from meeting the organization's democratic and human-rights stands. And third, fear that admitting a nation whose population - more than 150-million - was close to half that of the combined population of the council's 38 members would radically alter the geographic balance of the organization, tilting it to the East.
Several supporters, and almost all opponents, evoked Moscow's treatment of separatist Chechens. For many Baltic and Central European assembly members, this was the critical issue. Lithuanian member Vytautus Landsbergis, the first prime minister of his newly independent country, summmed up their feeling: "How many men will be killed in the days after this vote gives Russia unconditional access to the council of Europe?" he asked. "To say 'yes' is to approve tacitily the (Russian) intervention.... The future of Europe is at stake," Landsbergis concluded. The temple of human rights (i.e., the Council of Europe) is about to be profaned."
Landsbergis abstained from the vote, one of many Baltic and Central European members who made up most of the 15 abstentions and 35 'no' votes cast last night. Of the seven-member Czech delegation alone, five members either voted "no" or abstained. In their remarks, two of them compared Russian behavior in the Caucases to the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of their country by Warsaw Pact forces.
Several Russian guest parliamentarians who participated in the debate themselves spoke candidly of their country's still only imperfect democratic reforms.
The head of the Russian guest delegation, Vladimir Lukin, was most blunt: "To admit Russia," Lukin acknowledged, "is to take her in as she is: rule of law is still far from being a reality and the path of future democratic reform is full of impediments." Still, Lukin concluded that admitting Russia would be a sign of solidarity with "a great nation that for the first time in its 1,000-year history, has guaranteed freedoms that Russians have never known before.... (And) if you refuse to accept Russia," he warned, "the Iron Curtain will fall again."
Those were arguments that many of the assembly members heard throughout the four days preceding the vote from both the Russian parliamentarians and diplomats from West European countries who lobbied strongly for assembly approval of Russian entry. Those arguments dominated yesterday's debate as well. Ernst Muehlemann of Switzerland, rapporteur of the assembly's Political Committee which recommended approval, said that rejecting Moscow would create "a real danger of Russian aggression increasing, thereby threatening the security of the country's neighbors and of Europe as whole." Muehlemann's counterpart on the Legal Affairs Committee, Germany's Rudolf Bindig, acknowledged that Russia was far from meeting council standards. But he urged approval because "the decision to be taken by the assembly was not a legal but a political one."
In the end, these arguments - largely negative rather than positive ones - carried the day for Russia's admission. The effective West European and Russian lobbying campaign brought out an impressive 164 affirmative votes, about three-quarters of all ballots cast and easily surpassing the two-thirds minimum needed to carry membership votes. "We met our rendez-vous with history today," Bindig exulted later to the press. Now, said Britain's David Atkinson, "the Russian people are with us in civilized Europe."