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Harsh Rhetoric Emerges From PACE Summer Session

Armenian police at demonstration against election fraud in Yerevan in February
The Council of Europe this week puzzled many of its newer member states.

The international democracy watchdog, once looked to it as a democratic standard-bearer, has since disappointed many for what critics view as its weak rhetoric and toothless critiques.

But the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) struck an unusually harsh tone at its summer session in Strasbourg.

PACE reserved its most severe criticism for some of its newest members, particularly for Azerbaijan, whose human rights record has worsened sharply in recent years.

The assembly adopted a resolution spelling out urgent steps to be taken by Azerbaijani authorities ahead of the country's October presidential election.

Khadija Ismayilova, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in Baku, says PACE has reverted to the tough stance it held on Azerbaijan when the country joined the organization in 2001.

"At the beginning of Azerbaijan's relations with the Council of Europe, the organization was a bit more demanding toward Azerbaijani authorities -- they demanded 13 reforms," Ismayilova says.

"Later, the situation changed. Officials at the Council of Europe softened their stance, and Azerbaijani officials became more ignorant of what had been said in the Council of Europe," she adds. "But I think the issue is not about the Council of Europe's stance -- the situation became so critical that the Council of Europe had to respond."

In its resolution, PACE urged Baku to ensure impartial election commissions during the upcoming presidential vote, to provide equal media exposure for political parties, and to guarantee the opposition's right to hold public rallies.

The assembly said harassment and intimidation of opposition journalists and limits on freedom of assembly were "inadmissible in a Council of Europe member state."

PACE also called for the immediate release of opposition journalists Qanimat Zahid, Mirza Sakit Zahidov, and Eynulla Fatullayev, regarded in the West as political prisoners.

But Azerbaijani authorities seem unlikely to take note -- both the government and the ruling party have dismissed the resolution as biased.

Ismayilova says only extreme measures can pressure Baku into cleaning up its act. "It's pretty difficult, given that Azerbaijan has a huge oil wealth that is only going to increase in coming years," she says. "In the past, the Azerbaijani government needed international credit, international aid like technical assistance programs. Now that's no longer needed. The only mechanism that the Council of Europe can use to obligate the country to fulfill requirements is threatening the country to cease its membership in the organization. But so far, this message hasn't been sent."

Limited Action On Armenia

Another country that came under fire in Strasbourg this week was Armenia, where police clashed with opposition protesters following the victory of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the February presidential election.

The clashes, the worst civil violence in Armenia's post-Soviet history, left 10 people dead and prompted a state of emergency.

Speaking on June 25 at a news conference in Strasbourg, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis said the council was keeping a close eye on the probe into the casualties.

"Police in Yerevan are responsible for investigating those deaths and identifying the people who killed other people and charging them, bringing them before a court," Davis said. "I keep asking this question, I shall continue to ask it, and no number of inquiries, or investigations, or anything of the sort can absolve the police from their responsibility in a democratic society."

PACE members this week met for an urgent debate on Armenia after the organization's co-rapporteurs concluded Armenian authorities had made insufficient progress following the February events.

But they stopped short of stripping Armenia of its voting rights within the body, choosing to postpone the debate until January.

Harsh Words For Georgian Opposition

PACE also had harsh words for Georgia, whose President Mikheil Saakashvili lost some of his democratic credentials in November when he sent police to forcibly disperse thousands of opposition protesters and imposed a state of emergency.

The assembly members, however, concluded that the country's May 21 parliamentary elections -- which handed most seats to Saakashvili's party and its supporters -- were mostly in line with international standards.

David Kakabadze, the director of RFE/RL's Georgian Service, believes PACE's assessment was too lenient. "I think the report was a bit too rosy. Even though there were some critical remarks, I cannot say that it was critical enough," he says. "Even a member of the Georgian delegation whom I interviewed yesterday said the opposition will be outraged when they read this report, because it was definitely quite positive on Georgia. But she said that most of the violations that the opposition is citing are not documented well enough to be reflected in this report."

The Georgian opposition also received its share of criticism at this week's PACE session. Terry Davis called on opposition leaders to challenge the government "within the limits of democratic discussion, debate and argument," and played down the opposition's accusations of voting fraud.

"It's not right to assume that because you lose an election there's been cheating on the other side," Davis said on June 25. "Sometimes you lose an election because the majority of people actually prefer the other candidate and the other parties. You have to accept that. I think the situation in Georgia has been exaggerated to some extent, both inside Georgia and outside."

These strong statements may help change the view that PACE is losing its authority. But for now, many member states would like to see still tougher action from the Council of Europe.

Deputy Dmitry Diakov, the leader of Moldova's opposition Democratic Party, says the country is making little progress in terms of democratic reform despite the presence of the council's Monitoring Committee.

"Monitoring helps countries that want to achieve it," he says. "Moldova's entry in the Council of Europe in 1995 marked the beginning of a romantic period that lasted several years and during which we made very good progress. Things are different nowadays, we have become a problematic country for the Council of Europe, a country that doesn't fulfill its obligations fully and on time -- a country that promises and fails to deliver. Democracy in Moldova is developing, but unfortunately it has become very specific."

The Council of Europe currently monitors 11 member states: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, Serbia, and Ukraine.

PACE wraps up its summer session on June 27 before reconvening on September 29 for a weeklong fall session.