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Caucasus: Council Of Europe's Assembly President Begins Trip

Prague, 30 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Leni Fischer, the president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, today begins a 10-day trip to the three Caucasian nations. Her first stop is Azerbaijan, where she will spend three days before moving on to similar stays in Georgia and Armenia.

In each county, the German parliamentarian is due to meet with the top leadership, parliamentarians, judicial and religious officials, and representatives of minorities. She will also address the three national parliaments.

Council officials tell our correspondent that Fisher's main message to leaders of the three Caucasian nations will be: End your internal and external conflicts, or you will not attain full membership in the Council of Europe. That is essentially the same message conveyed to the three countries last year in a similar trip to the area by Council Secretary General Daniel Tarschys. But Fischer's efforts at persuasion will be backed by a resolution passed last week by the influential Parliamentary Assembly during its Spring session in Strasbourg.

The resolution said flatly that the three countries' applications for membership in the Council cannot be considered until long-standing separatist conflicts in the Abkhazia region of Georgia and in Nagorno-Karabakh are resolved peacefully. Armed conflict in Abkhazia began almost seven years ago and, despite the presence of a CIS peace-keeping force in the region for the past three years, there has been no political settlement between the separatists and Georgia. Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan whose status has been disputed by the two countries for the past nine years. A 1994 truce ended a war that cost 15,000 lives, but despite talks between the two countries there has been no final peace settlement.

The Assembly's resolution urged the three nations involved to settle their disputes on the basis of the inviolability of present borders, give broad autonomy both to Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, and expedite the return of an estimated 1.5 million refugees to both regions. It also proposed that the three nations consider the possibility of forming a supra-national community of Caucasian states and a joint parliamentary assembly.

Parliamentarians from the three nations have enjoyed Special Guest Status at the Council of Europe for the past year. They were granted that status after the Council's member states decided that, although geographically outside Europe, the three Caucasian nations belonged to the continent culturally. As guests, their parliamentarians are allowed to participate in Assembly debates and committee work without voting rights. Three months ago, the Assembly held a special seminar on Caucasian conflicts that allowed Caucasian parliamentarians for the first time to expound their views systematically in an official Council framework.

According to Council officials, Fischer is making what they call a "low-profile" trip to the area to get a personal feel for the complex issues involved in the Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh disputes. The officials say that, despite the wishes of the three countries' governments, there is now little chance of them being accepted as Council members before the organization's second summit meeting, scheduled for October in Strasbourg. They say the earliest possible date for admission would at the start of next year.

Council officials also say that prospects have dimmed for simultaneous admission of the three Caucasian nations. They consider Georgia the most likely to attain membership first, but emphasize that Tbilisi's accession depends almost entirely on a peaceful settlement of the Abkhazia conflict along the lines prescribed in the Assembly�s resolution. The same is true, they add, for Armenia and Azerbaijan's resolution of their quarrel over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The 40-nation Council of Europe now has 16 members from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Council was established almost a half-century ago to promote democratic values and human rights on the continent. Its Parliamentary Assembly, a purely consultative body, is composed of nationally elected officials who are considered to wield strong influence over their own governments.