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Russia to Officially Join Council of Europe

Prague, Feb. 27 (rfe/rl) - Russia is set officially to join the Council of Europe on Wednesday, despite widespread criticism of Moscow's human rights record.

Russia's Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov will endorse the Council's statute at a midday ceremony at the organization's headquarters in Strasbourg. Primakov will sign the Council's European Convention for Human Rights, as well as a charter on local self-government and conventions for the prevention of torture and for the protection of national minorities. The Council's Secretary-General, Daniel Tarchys and Denmark's Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen, whose country currently chairs the council, will also attend the ceremony.

Russia's flag will then be raised in front of the organization's headquarters, alongside the flags of its 38 current member states. Russia will thus become the 15th state 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.)

Created in 1949, the Council was originally designed to spearhead the drive toward European integration, but it has largely worked in the shadow of the European Union (EU). Today, the Council focuses on promoting democracy and human rights in member countries and beyond, through the work of its two main bodies, the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly.

The Council is widely considered the "gateway" organization for eastern countries seeking greater integration with the West. It is the first international body - set up by western nations during the Cold War - to accept Russia as a member.

But, Russia's bid to join was not without controversy. Moscow first applied in May 1992, but the Council suspended consideration of its application at the beginning of last year to protest the Kremlin's policies in the Chechnya conflict. The Council resumed consideration about five months ago, on the grounds that Russia had shown a commitment to finding a political solution to the conflict, and pledged to investigate human rights violations in Chechnya.

However, criticism of Russia's possible entry persisted, as did the war in Chechnya. Despite the opposition, the Council's parliamentary assembly last month approved a resolution to accept Russia as its member, with 164 votes in favor, 35 against, and 15 abstentions. Many of those who voted against or abstained singled out Russia's actions in the north Caucasus as the main reason for their opposition.

The Assembly's resolution did, however, acknowledge Russia's shortcomings in honoring human rights and instituting the rule of law. It also contained a strongly worded condemnation of Russia's assault on the Chechnya town of Gudermes late last year, and its handling of the hostage crisis in Pervomaiskoye last month. In addition, the resolution committed Russia to implement a host of human rights conventions, and to reform policies that contradict international legal norms.

After approving Russia's entry, the Council's parliamentary assembly established an ad hoc committee on Chechnya to monitor the situation, and help bring about a settlement of the conflict. Nevetheless, Russian human rights activists criticized the Council's approval of Russia's membership. Most notable among them was Sergei Kovalyov, who resigned from his post as head of President Boris Yeltsin's human rights commission just before the Assembly's vote. He said the Council should insist that Russia begin peace talks with Chechen separatists, and end military operations in the Caucasus as a condition for membership.

For their part, Russian officials have argued that other countries from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were admitted to the Council despite spotty records in the realm of human rights and rule of law, notably Albania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

Many western countries pushed hard for Russian membership in the run up the the assembly's vote. They argued that bringing Moscow into the Council would increase leverage over the kremlin on issues of human rights and democracy. Once Russia signs the Council's human rights conventions, they said, ordinary citizens will be able to bypass russia's government and take alleged human rights violations to the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.

However, the council has few powers to force states to honor their commitments. It can, in theory, suspend membership if states violate the Council's conventions, but this has happened only once in the history of the organization, when Greece was forced out of after an army coup in the late 1960's.

In Russia itself, observers suggest membership is likely to give a boost to President Yeltsin's campaign for re-election in June, despite complaints from some corners about the high cost of membership. This year, Russia will pay more than seven-million dollars in membership fees. But next year, that figure will more than triple to an estimated 25-million dollars, bringing Russia in line with other large members, such as Germany and France.

Russia's lower and upper houses of parliament overwhelmingly approved membership in the Council last week, clearing the way for tomorrow's ceremony. First Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told State Duma deputies that membership in the Council was an acknowledgement of the extent of democratic change in Russia, and would be a "key element in building a united Europe."