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Caucasus: Armenia And Azerbaijan Join Council Of Europe

Armenia and Azerbaijan have became full members of the Council of Europe, the pan-European organization that monitors human rights and democracy on the continent. While welcoming the newcomers today, council parliamentarians made clear the two countries should continue efforts toward a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and commit themselves to further democratic change.

Strasbourg, 25 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe today inducted Armenia and Azerbaijan as its 42nd and 43rd members, bringing the number of former Soviet bloc states now in the pan-European organization to 19.

In Strasbourg this morning, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharyan hoisted the flags of their countries on the esplanade facing the massive concrete building that houses the council's Parliamentary Assembly.

Shortly before the ceremony, both presidents signed the European Convention on Human Rights in the council's main hall. The half-century-old document is the council's single most important convention, and signing it is a prerequisite for membership.

Both Kocharyan and Aliyev addressed the Parliamentary Assembly this morning.

In his remarks, Kocharyan pledged Armenia's commitment to the Council's ideals, while acknowledging that the country still has a long way to go in achieving full democracy. He said:

"With its full accession to the Council of Europe, Armenia is registering a considerable degree of progress in democracy-building. We realize that we are still in the middle of this road. Meanwhile, Armenia is committed to full and timely observance of its post-accession obligations."

Aliyev told the council's parliamentarians that building a democracy in his country was what he called a "work in progress:" He said:

"The process of implementing reforms and democratic changes is a work in progress. Reforms will be implemented, not because of the reforms in themselves and not because anybody wants us to implement them. This must be done in a well-thought-out way and must be understood and accepted by our society."

Tomorrow, the two leaders will meet with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris as part of international efforts to bring peace to the South Caucasus. Aliyev met alone with Chirac yesterday, but no details of their talks are available.

Armenia will have four seats in the council's Parliamentary Assembly, Azerbaijan six seats. Since 1996, both countries have had special guest status at the assembly, allowing them to participate in its work and debates without voting rights.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer welcomed the two newcomers. He said:

"It is very clear for us that [the admission of Armenia and Azerbaijan] takes an important step toward the fulfillment of the vision of the Council of Europe embracing the entire continent. But it is also a challenge because we know that there is a need for additional programs of cooperation to assist the countries in fulfilling obligations and commitments accepted when joining the Council of Europe."

Only four European countries -- Monaco, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belarus and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia -- have not yet joined the Council of Europe, which was set up in 1949 to promote human rights and democracy across the continent.

Both Yugoslavia and Bosnia have been granted special guest status in the Parliamentary Assembly. The assembly suspended guest status for Belarus in early 1997 in response to what it considered anti-democratic actions taken by its president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Armenia and Azerbaijan both applied for full membership in the council in 1996. But they got the green light for accession only two months ago.

The council's Committee of Ministers, its chief executive organ, last week (17 January) formally approved Azerbaijani as well as Armenian membership. The committee's decision was taken despite widespread criticism by international organizations -- especially, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE -- of controversial parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan in November.

Those elections ended with a landslide victory for President Aliev's Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) party. But the OSCE, which monitored the elections, found them to be far short of international democratic standards.

An electoral re-run held earlier this month in 11 Azerbaijani constituencies where ballot results had been declared void in November also failed to meet OSCE requirements for free and fair elections.

Parliamentary Assembly President Russell Johnston acknowledged Monday (22 January) that the council's decision to make Armenia and Azerbaijan members had, in his words, not been "easy to make." But he said the Committee of Ministers believes that "the positive process which has begun in both countries will have a better chance of success" with the two countries inside the Council of Europe.

Johnston pledged that the Council of Europe would follow carefully the domestic situation in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and see that the two countries make substantial progress in improving their democratic and human rights standards. He said:

"Previously there was agreement that monitoring [of new members] would not take place for a period of time. But in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will take place from the beginning [of their accession]."

Johnston did not specify the possible sanctions Armenia and Azerbaijan could face if they fail to meet democratic standards.

Russia last year was deprived of its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly because of perceived abuses committed on civilians by its military in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

After debating the current situation in Chechnya this afternoon (1500-1730), the assembly is likely to decide whether or not to reinstate Russia's voting rights.

Among the challenges faced by Armenia and Azerbaijan on their path toward further integration into the European community, assembly president Johnston mentioned their 13-year-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. Fighting in and near the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan killed thousands and turned nearly one million ethnic Azerbaijanis into refugees in the early 1990s.

Despite a ceasefire signed in 1994, little progress has been made toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The OSCE's so-called "Minsk Group" -- co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States -- has been trying to help Armenia, Azerbaijan and Karabakh authorities reach agreement.

When it approved membership for Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe last year, the Parliamentary Assembly urged the two countries to pursue efforts to settle the Karabakh conflict by peaceful means. The assembly also noted what it described as Armenia's commitment "to use its considerable influence" over ethnic Armenians in the enclave to foster a solution to the conflict.