Russians Enter Europe Council

STRASBOURG, France -- Russia became the 39th member of the Council of Europe on Wednesday, pledging to promote democracy and human rights and saying its accession opened a new chapter in Europe's history.

Russia's white, blue and red flag was hoisted outside council headquarters to mark its acceptance into Europe's oldest transnational political organization -- an entry almost upset by Moscow's military crackdown in Chechnya.

"Today's ceremony opens up a new chapter in the history of Russia, that of the Council of Europe and that of the continent as a whole," Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said in a speech at council headquarters in Strasbourg, eastern France.

A handful of people demonstrating at Russia's treatment of AIDS sufferers whistled and sounded klaxons nearby as a band played the Russian anthem. Police led away the protesters as Russia's flag went up between those of Romania and San Marino.

It was the only public sign of dissent at Moscow's accession to the council, set up in 1949 to promote human rights and democracy at the start of the Cold War.

Russia, whose tortuous path to membership began in 1992, is the 15th former communist state to join. The several hundred people at the ceremony greeted Russia's accession with applause which lasted for less than 10 seconds.

The council's parliamentary assembly voted a grudging "yes" to Russia last month, calculating that it would be better to cooperate with Moscow than isolate it, whatever the reservations over Chechnya and Moscow's human rights record.

Primakov signed the European Convention of Human Rights, a convention to outlaw torture, a charter on local self-government and a convention to protect minorities.

Moscow would also recognize the right of individual appeal and the compulsory jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The Russian parliament is meant to ratify most commitments within a year. Human rights activists in Russia, meanwhile, urged the Council to keep up pressure on Moscow to ensure it complies with its undertakings.

"If the Council carefully and rigorously treats its new member to both support and pressure, then this is a serious and promising step," said former presidential human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov.

"But if the Council of Europe turns a blind eye to Russia, let's say for example by acting passively on Chechnya, then nothing good will come of it," he said. Primakov refused to com said at the ceremony, attended by council Secretary General Daniel Tarschys, Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen and several hundred other people, mostly council officials.

He said the documents signed would "guarantee further progress of our country on its way toward democratic reforms."

In Moscow on Wednesday, presidential spokesman Sergei Medvedev denied that Russia agreed to soften its foreign policy to win entry to the Council of Europe and said it will continue to oppose NATO's eastward expansion.

Medvedev said Russia had not been made to drop its opposition to NATO enlargement to win entry to Europe's main human rights organization.

"Some commentators link the Russian Federation's entry to the Council of Europe with a possible weakening of our position on the problem of NATO's eastward expansion," Medvedev told a briefing in the Kremlin.

"I underline here again that there is no softening and will be none. The president's position is firm and we uphold it and will uphold it," he said.

Moscow says the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's plans to expand to include countries from eastern and central Europe, which were once in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, would threaten Russia's security.

"I would like to draw your attention to the recent declaration by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl which underlined that Russia's security problems must be given the same importance as the security problems of central and eastern Europe," Medvedev said.

He was referring to comments Kohl made during a visit to Russia last week.

Medvedev dismissed comments attributed to Czech President Vaclav Havel, a former dissident, that criticized Russia's foreign policy.

Medvedev said Havel had accused Russia of wanting to replace its old sphere of influence in eastern and central Europe with a new sphere of "threats."

"The playwright Havel is over-dramatizing the situation. You cannot define the truth of Russian policy by emotions or by any imagined situations," Medvedev said.