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Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan Joining Council Of Europe

The Council of Europe is poised to welcome traditional foes Azerbaijan and Armenia simultaneously as members, giving both countries a symbolic tilt toward the West. It's been a long process and has a way yet to go -- and there are more complications than appear on the surface. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill provides a guide through the maze.

Prague, 28 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia and Azerbaijan seem at a glance to be unlikely twin candidates for membership in the pan-European human rights organization, the Council of Europe.

Armenia still has a death penalty on the books, albeit one that is no longer applied. And Armenia's government maintains open control over the broadcast media and exerts influence over the print media through laws on criminal defamation.

Azerbaijan, for its part, allows jail terms of up to six years for insulting the president. And according to the (Vienna-based) International Press Institute, it suppresses the news media brutally, by violent attack and intimidation.

And both countries are embroiled in a continuing dispute over the Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh. It remains a stubborn source of hostility between the two governments.

Yet the Council of Europe -- which describes itself as a champion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law -- is moving the two countries toward full membership.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the council, meeting today in Strasbourg, almost certainly will endorse the two candidates for membership. After that remains only the virtually automatic approval of executive body, the Committee of Ministers, scheduled to meet in November.

What goes on here?

Two rapporteurs -- Jacques Baumel of France for Azerbaijan and Demetrio Volcic of Italy for Armenia -- have examined the candidacies exhaustively. Last month, they issued twin reports on the same day recommending council membership. The applications have been pending since 1996. Both countries say they are eager for membership in the oldest pan-European organization. Each has pledged to do what the council requires to live up to the role.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, settled into an uneasy truce but still unresolved, loomed for a time as a barrier to membership for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but now it has emerged as a reason to grant the two countries' admission. As Armenia's rapporteur Volcic put it: "Armenian membership of the Council of Europe would reinforce the country's democratic reforms. It would also help to establish a climate of confidence in the region, thus contributing to the peaceful solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."

Rapporteur Baumel's report on Azerbaijan contains nearly identical wording.

The proposed admissions are not without controversy, however. Neither country can claim a clean record on human rights or freedom of the press.

A London-based anti-censorship organization called Article 19 has written to the council urging that Azerbaijan be admitted to membership only conditionally, if at all. Article 19 takes its name from the free information article of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The organization's executive director, Andrew Puddephatt, says the Azerbaijan report is weak and fails to address significant concerns. He said he hopes the council will issue a stronger statement.

"There are a number of recent cases where the government has taken direct action to impede the distribution of publications and close down broadcasters, and has failed to ensure that physical attack against journalists, both by officials and unidentified assailants are investigated."

Article 19 says the council should wait for the Azerbaijanis to change their laws and behavior before granting them full membership.

It may be partly to Armenia's credit that a similar criticism and caution comes from inside the country. Michael Danelian, chairman of Armenia's Helsinki Association, said this:

"It is premature for Armenia to become a member of the Council of Europe. Armenian membership should not be tied with Azeri membership. The recommendations of the Council of Europe experts should be done, not after accession, but before."

Both of the council's rapporteurs list a number of problems in Armenia and Azerbaijan and a large number of steps they say the two must take either immediately or soon.

But they also take the view in their reports that the council will exert more influence for reform with the two inside Europe's house, than it would with them on the outside looking in.