BY EMIL DANIELYAN
STRASBOURG–France (RFE/RL)–The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) decided overwhelmingly yesterday to approve the long-standing bids by Armenia and Azerbaijan to join the organization–which promotes human rights and democracy.
The two Caucasian neighbors will be considered full members after a formal a endorsement of the decision by the council’s member governmen’s later this year.
Baku and Yerevan have in return committed themselves to seeking a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict and pressing ahead with political reform. Each will now be bound by a long list of specific obligations involving human rights–legal reform and the rule of law.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian Thursday welcomed the initial accession of his country and neighboring Azerbaijan to the Council of Europe.
Oskanian–who is in Washington with Armenian President Robert Kocharian–told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview Wednesday night that he believes accession to the council could help lead to a peaceful solution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "Azerbaijan will be required to make improvemen’s toward democracy–and it (accession to the Council of Europe) will have a positive influence on regional stability and the [Nagorno-Karabakh] peace process," Oskanian said.
The Armenian foreign minister also says he expects membership in the Council of Europe will help Azerbaijan develop into a more democratic society.
Hovannes Hovannisian–chairman of the foreign relations committee of the Armenian parliament–declared that the decision "will open a new page in the history of the Armenian people."
Azeri officials attending the session in Strasbourg were equally enthusiastic.
Two key committees of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly had concluded that membership in the Council would contribute to democratization in both Armenia and Azerbaijan and would also promote peace in the volatile south Caucasus.
Demetrio Volcic–a parliamentary assembly rapporteur on Armenia–said in a speech to the parliamentarians that Europe would have lost an opportunity if Armenia and Azerbaijan had been kept out of the Council of Europe for much longer.
Also throwing his weight behind the dual accession was Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini–the rotating chairman-in-office of the Council’s Committee of Ministers.
Dini said the enlargement of the Council of Europe was in the interest of common values on which democratic societies are based.
Council of Europe Secretary General Walter Schwimmer suggested that the Committee of Ministers will likely seal the two countries’ accession at a meeting next November.
Some officials in Strasbourg had earlier insisted that Azerbaijan’s acceptance be deferred until after the Azeri parliamentary elections due this November.
European governmen’s–however–strongly advocated the simultaneous accession of the two rival countries in an effort to underscore their impartiality in the Karabakh conflict.
Similarly–the US government last week expressed concern about the possibility that Azerbaijan’s membership could be delayed–while Armenia might be allowed to accede immediately.
Council of Europe insiders note that US interference in the organization is rather unusual and has occurred on only a few occasions.
The concerted inter-governmental insistence on the simultaneous accession of the two countries may have been the reason why the council’s parliamentary committee on legal affairs dropped a pre-condition requiring Azerbaijan to democratically carry out this November’s elections.
Still–the Azeri government undertook to hold the elections in such a way that they will be considered "free and fair" by western observers and most local opposition parties.
Armenia’s obligations include enacting a law on alternative military service within three years of its accession–and ensuring that "non-traditional religious communities" be allowed to practice their religion "without discrimination." The Armenian authorities will also have to enact new laws on the media–political parties–non-governmental organizations–and place the country’s prisons under the jurisdiction of the ministry of justice.
Yerevan is also obliged to "use it s considerable influence on the Armenia’s in Nagorno-Karabakh to foster a solution to the conflict."
The Karabakh issue featured prominently in the three-hour parliamentary assembly debate–with most deputies stressing the need for both countries hammer out a lasting peace.
A Belgian delegate summed up the dominant mood when he said: "There is no room in the Council of Europe for those who are at war with each other."
Armenian and Azeri officials attending the session welcomed the overwhelmingly positive results of the vote–saying that integration into European structures will facilitate the search for peace in Karabakh–which is seen as the key to stability in the South Caucasus. Each delegation spoke in favor of the other’s membership bid to demonstrate good will and a commitment to peace.