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Council of Europe Clears Way For Croatia To Join

Strasbourg, France; April 24 (RFE/RL) - The Council of Europe today voted to admit Croatia as the 40th member of the pro-democracy body. The vote came despite reservations about the state of democracy and respect for human rights in the Balkan country.

The actual vote by European Parliamentarians, meeting this morning in Strasbourg, was not announced.

Croatia now becomes the 16th former communist country of Central and Eastern Europe to take its place in the council. The body is increasingly seen as a gateway to other western organizations, such as the European Union.

Croatia waited longer than any other country - more than three and a half years - because of its involvement in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During more than two-and-a-half hours of debate, European Parliamentarians - including those who favored admitting Croatia - criticized shortcomings in Croatian democracy. They criticized especially limitations on press freedom and treatment of the country's Serb minority.

They especially criticized President Franjo Tudjman for four times rejecting the opposition nominee for mayor of the capital, Zagreb, including a fresh rejection last week, practically on the eve of this vote.

Tudjman came in for criticism as an authoritiarian leader who was accused of repeatedly violating the basic principles of democracy.

Despite such concerns, even Croatia's opposition parties advocated membership in the Council of Europe as the best guarantee for the future development of democracy and respect for human rights.

The most outspoken opposition to Croatia's membership came from a Russian delegate, Sergei Glotov, whose country was itself only admitted to the body in February. He said; "obviously Croatia does not meet the standards of our organization."