Prague, July 23 (RFE/RL) -- How big is Europe? It's a question that's become increasingly relevant as European institutions which once were purely Western have expanded eastwards over the last few years.
Now the Council of Europe is thinking of stretching the definition of Europe again by taking in the three Trans-Caucasian countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The Council of Europe, set up in 1949 to promote democracy and respect for human rights, was for its first 40 years an exclusive club of Western European countries.
Then in 1989, communism began to collapse and many newly democratic Central and Eastern European countries began clamoring for membership. The council has admitted 15 of them. It has six more in the "waiting room" with special guest status at the parliamentary assembly, the first step on the long road to full membership.
Secretary General Daniel Tarschys says the Council has had many long debates about where Europe ends--with extensive reference to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The results have been contradictory. Turkey, for example, was an early member, even though 97 percent of the country lies in Asia. Tarschys says Kazakhstan is geographically also European, but will not be considered for membership.
The Council has made it clear it will not take as broad a definition of Europe as the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) did when it expanded in 1992 to take in all the former Soviet republics, including Central Asia right up to China's border.
Since the OSCE also counts the United States and Canada as members, it is said to stretch from Vancouver or Vladivostok, or from the Bering Strait all the way around to the Bering Strait. Tarschys says the OSCE might more reasonably be described as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Northern Hemispherse
While the Council of Europe will not be as all-encompassing as the OSCE, Tarschys also says that "you shouldn't be too much of a geographical purist." What counts, he says, is the attitude of countries and their strong commitment to the European values the council promotes--pluralistic democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.
This was exactly what Azerbaijani, Georgian and Armenian leaders stressed in their talks last week with a visiting Council of Europe delegation led by Tarschys and Estonian Foreign Minister Siim Kallas, whose country holds the rotating chairmanship of the council's committee of ministers.
While top officials in all three countries acknowledged that they have a long way to go before they can qualify for full membership, they underlined their committment to bring their laws, judicial systems and practices into line with Council of Europe practices. And they did their best to make assets of their geographical positions. Armenia promoted itself as a bridge to the Middle East. Azerbaijan said it offered the best of Asia as well as Europe.
In Tbilisi, Lana Gogoberidze, a prominent filmmaker who is chairman of the parliamentary faction of President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens party, told the Council of Europe guests that Georgia has had aspirations towards Europe for centuries.
"By all our aspirations, our culture, our history, our mentality, we are a European country," she said.
Tarschys agreed with this point of view, telling his hosts in all three countries that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are integral parts of Europe and deserve a place in the European family of nations. And Kallas, at the end of the trip, told RFE/RL that "we could see here that they really have the commitment to be Western-type democracies."
Aside from the geographical considerations, some critics question the wisdom of broadening membership in the Council so quickly.
"If we keep on taking in new members like this, we are going to capsize the boat," said one member of the Council delegation.
The acceptance of Russia at the end of February was especially controversial because of its continuing war in Chechnya. But Tarschys argues that expansion has not been too fast and has not meant a lowering of standards or a sacrifice of principles.
"It is by reaching out to the new democracies as members and integrating them into the many structures of the Council of Europe that the organization can best serve its fundamental objectives," he said.
As Kallas repeatedly said, in something of a mantra in his talks in the Caucasus, "inclusion is better than isolation."
Still, there are fears that accepting the three Trans-Caucasian republics could mean importing instability into an old European institution. For this reason both Tarschys and Kallas made it clear on their visits that the three countries cannot even hope for full membership until the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been settled peacefully.