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East: Council Of Europe Admitting Armenia, Azerbaijan; Debating Russia, Ukraine

The Council of Europe today begins a week largely devoted to matters concerning former Eastern bloc countries. The Strasbourg-based organization is due to admit Armenia and Azerbaijan as full member-states on Thursday. At the same time, the council's Parliamentary Assembly will hold a week-long session that will debate the situation in Chechnya -- and decide whether to continue its suspension of Russian voting rights -- as well as media freedom in Russia and Ukraine.

Prague, 22 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The high point of the Council of Europe's Eastern-oriented week will come Thursday (January 25), when Armenia and Azerbaijan are formally admitted as members.

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian are both expected to attend the ceremony in Strasbourg marking their countries' accession as the organization's 42nd and 43rd members. They are due to give a joint press conference after the ceremony.

The two Caucasian nations are also the 18th and 19th former Soviet-bloc countries to be admitted by the council, a pan-European body that promotes democracy and human rights on the continent. A third nation in the region, Georgia, was granted full membership two years ago. All three have been associated with the organization since 1996, when their representatives were granted special guest status in the council's Parliamentary Assembly.

Today, the Parliamentary Assembly starts a week-long (Jan 22-26) winter session that will be largely devoted to matters concerning former Eastern bloc countries.

This afternoon the assembly's Culture and Education Committee held a hearing on the situation of the mass media in Russia. Among those testifying will be Radio Liberty's Chechnya correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who was arrested and jailed by the Russian military last year after reporting on the war in the republic. Yevgeny Kiselyov, the directory of Russia's private NTV television -- a part of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST press group -- will also attend.

The committee hearing is likely to focus on Media-MOST and, in particular, on NTV. Many individual assembly members have expressed concern over the Russian government's treatment of Media-MOST in recent months. Gusinsky was indicted for fraud in Russia and is currently in Spain awaiting a ruling on Moscow's request for extradition.

The hearing was due to watch a videotape of remarks on Russian media by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who is a member of NTV's advisory council. It may also hear directly -- either by video or telephone -- from Gusinsky himself.

NTV has been highly critical of Russia's conduct of the war in Chechnya.

On Thursday, the full Parliamentary Assembly is scheduled to debate the situation in Chechnya and decide whether to continue its suspension of Russia's voting rights in the chamber. The assembly lifted the voting rights last year because of perceived human-rights abuses by Moscow's soldiers in the breakaway republic

Last week, an assembly delegation led by British parliamentarian Lord Frank Judd spent three days in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia. The delegation was due to submit a report on its findings to the full assembly before Thursday's debate.

After visiting Chechnya's capital Grozny, the so-called "filtration" camp at Chernokozovo, and a refugee camp in Ingushetia, Judd told reporters he was concerned about reports of civilian disappearances, harassment, and extortion. He also said political stability in the war-torn republic can be restored only if Russian troops and officials behave responsibly and decently.

Judd was one of the main supporters of last year's suspension of Russia's voting rights in the assembly.

Also for Thursday, the assembly has scheduled a debate on the situation of the media in Ukraine. Last week (January 17), the Parliamentary Assembly's Monitoring Committee called on the council to arrange for an independent expert evaluation of audio recordings that allegedly implicate Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the disappearance last year of investigative journalist Heorhyi Gongadze.

A report by two committee members who recently visited Ukraine expresses deep concerned at what they describe as the repeated intimidation and murders of journalists in Ukraine. They say they consider the Gongadze case a test of press freedom and the functioning of parliamentary democracy in Ukraine, and call on authorities in Kyiv to conduct a speedy, full and transparent investigation into the journalist's disappearance.

Other assembly debates this week dealing with the East will take up the Balkan Stability Pact and recent developments in Yugoslavia (Wednesday). Also on the council's agenda are minority rights (Tuesday), migration in Central and Eastern Europe (Friday), and Latvia's honoring of commitments it made upon joining the council (Tuesday).

The assembly's executive bureau will also discuss granting special guest status to the Yugoslav parliament. A Yugoslav parliamentary delegation will take part in the discussion.

Speakers addressing the assembly during the week will include Latvian President Vaira Vikke-Freiberga and Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins will address the assembly as chairman-in-office of its Committee of Ministers, the council's chief executive organ.