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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Into the European Fold

When the General Secretary of the Council of Europe visited President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow in the fall of 1992, it seemed quite likely that Russia would join that organization sometime during 1993. However, when Daniel Tarshis, the current head of the Council, came to Moscow last week, Russia was still stuck in the "waiting room." Although Tarshis did not commit himself to a firm date for Russian entry, he did give reason to hope that it could happen in 1995.

Since the beginning of World War II, Europe has been denied the opportunity to seriously consider its own, collective future. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did any real hope appear of constructing a single European entity that would reach from the Atlantic to the Urals and which could serve as the basis for developing stabile, peaceful cooperation. That dream, however, is now threatened by the fact that the countries of Europe are separated by vast differences in economic and political development. Nonetheless, the dream lives on and is moving forward.

The Council of Europe was never intended to be a club for a chosen few. It's founding idea is simple: to create European unity on the basis of a commitment to the values of modern democracy. The entry of the former East-bloc countries is plainly an inescapable element of any European-wide structure.

"It is of the utmost importance that all the countries on the continent share some general minimum of fundamental principles," the president of the Council told me during an interview in Strasbourg in December 1992. "I think it comes down to three things: a commitment to parliamentary democracy, respect for human rights and the institution of rule by law. If one country decides that it does not want to bind itself to these principles, it will forever lose the confidence of the other Council members and, as a result, it will lose all the benefits of complete cooperation."

Does Russia today meet these three criteria? Of course, not completely. However, ever since Russia applied to join the Council in 1992, the question has been put somewhat differently.

No one really expected that this enormous country which had been dominated by a totalitarian Communist regime for seven decades could turn into a model Western-European democracy in the span of a few years. The real question has been whether Russia has demonstrated the will to reform that can serve as its main qualification for membership in the Council of Europe.

In December 1993, Russia accepted a constitution which created a government based on law and held its first ever free parliamentary elections. As a result, the highest institutions of Russian government now have a democratic foundation and so virtually satisfy the Council's requirements.

During 1994, another basic obstacle to Russia's membership in the club of "civilized" countries was eliminated when Russian troops were completely withdrawn from the Baltic states. By doing so, Russia met all its obligations to these sovereign states, although not all of them have responded likewise.

When Estonia was accepted into the Council this spring there was a sharply negative reaction in Moscow in connection with violations of the rights of that country's Russian-speaking population. The same type of situation is now taking shape with regard to Latvia, which expects to join the Council in the spring -- ahead of Russia.

Experts from both the Council of Europe and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) have attested to human-rights violations in the Baltic states. In Latvia, despite the passage of a new law on citizenship, the situation has not improved much, and local authorities continue to pursue a policy of discrimination against Russian-speakers.

As a result, Latvia's acceptance into the Council even before the new citizenship law takes effect and before a number of discriminatory acts are removed from the books could have a negative impact on Russia's application for membership. Ramazan Abdulatipov, deputy chairman of Russia's Federation Council, said as much in an open letter to the CSCE's commissar on national minorities. Accepting Latvia could harm the Council's image in Russian political circles and provide ammunition to Russian nationalists. Such a turn of events would be most unwelcome on the eve of Russia's entrance into the Council.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that Russia still has some serious shortcomings in the legal sphere. We need clear and specific laws in order to really guarantee the defense of human rights. However, Council experts who visited Russia this year found that not one such law had been passed since the constitution was ratified. In many areas there is still no normal legal basis defining the government's activity or that of its agencies.

There are also a number of areas where the existing legislation needs to be completely overhauled. The most important among these is the criminal code, which is now in the early stages of parliamentary approval. This new code will, for example, provide the first legal protection for private property, clearly a fundamental component of the rule of law.

In the final analysis, Russia's membership in the Council is not far off. A Council delegation is expected to visit Moscow in February, and it is expected that a firm date for Russia's acceptance by the Council's parliamentary assembly will be announced at that time.

Of course, there are a number of people in Council who are opposed to Russia's membership, and they have made their feelings perfectly clear. But it is important not to forget that without Russia the Council will never acquire the universal character that is the essence of its existence and, therefore, it will not be able to fulfill the mission it has undertaken.

Alexei Portansky is a political commentator for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.