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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Council Shows Resolve Over Croatia Abuse

For millions of European citizens, the Council of Europe is not perhaps the most familiar of institutions. Its uninspiringly bureaucratic name gives no indication of its central purpose, which is the promotion of human rights and democracy across Europe, and few could deny that for most of the period after its foundation in 1949 the council languished in semi-obscurity.


Since the demise of communism, however, all that has changed. The council now plays an important role both in assessing the human rights performances of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and in encouraging the rule of law there.


At a recent Council of Europe meeting in the northern Greek city of Salonika, the new weight of the institution became clear. The council's parliamentary assembly had convened in urgent session to discuss a number of disturbing events in Croatia, which had been invited to join it in late April.


Only days after pledging to respect the council's fundamental principles of freedom, the government of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman closed down one independent newspaper and brought charges against journalists working on another. Then the government dissolved the Zagreb city assembly, which had elected an opposition politician as major.


The Croatian authorities also continued to obstruct the workings of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague by not sending indicted Croats and Bosnian Croats for trial. The blatant attempts of Croat leaders to prevent the unification of Mostar, the southern Bosnian city divided into Croat and Moslem sectors, were another source of tension between Croatia and the Council.


The Salonika meeting resulted in a unanimous decision by Council of Europe parliamentarians to warn Croatia that it would not be able to join the organization unless it cleaned up its act. Perhaps Tudjman and his allies could not care less -- but this seems unlikely, if only because there is no chance of Croatia joining the European Union or achieving full international respectability unless it becomes a Council of Europe member.


One Croatian delegate complained to the parliamentarians that he thought they criticized conditions in Croatia "more rigorously than in certain other countries" -- by which he appeared to have in mind Russia. Russia, of course, was admitted to the council early this year despite many reservations among Council of Europe member states about the Chechen war and the degree to which Russia is a genuinely law-based state.


If the Council of Europe has one obvious weakness, it is that it is subject to political pressure from member-governments. Ultimately, it would be hard to deny that Russia was allowed into the council because Western countries feared the consequences of isolating or irritating the Kremlin at a politically crucial time for President Boris Yeltsin and the course of Russian reform in general.


Still, the response of the parliamentarians to events in Croatia showed that the Council of Europe cannot be taken for granted in all cases. If the council adopts a similarly resolute stance in relation to the recent flawed elections in Albania, that will also be to its credit.


The council's role is not just to wag fingers at errant states, but finger-wagging is necessary at times. My guess is that the council's pressure on Croatia will gradually produce positive results.