|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||11/07/96, Volume 2, Number 28|
ELECTIONS in Albania: police raids, violence in the streets, reports of fraud, accusations in all directions.
Elections in Russia: nostalgia for authoritarian control, bias in the media, ominous echoes of the past.
Everywhere in Eastern Europe: government attempts to influence broadcasting, continued squabbles about the constitutional order, local government and the judiciary.
It is not only easy to find fault with the elections and governance of the new European democracies, it is also important to do so. Serious problems persist and deserve close and critical attention.
But dwelling solely on the difficulties would be grossly unfair. In less than ten years, we have seen oppressive dictatorships breaking down, fundamental freedoms restored, international contacts multiplying and pluralist political systems taking shape.
The political transformation in Central and Eastern Europe is unprecedented in history. Never before have there been such rapid gains for democracy. The dark spots are still considerable, but they do not dominate the picture.
Even if the elections in Albania did not live up to the requirements of a fully-fledged democracy, they were still oceans away from the abominable practices of the last 50 years. Suffused with the paranoid atmosphere of a besieged fortress, this dictatorial enclave remained entirely isolated from the outside world.
The elections in Russia, too, need to be seen in the light of history. For the first time ever, the Russian people have had the chance to choose their leader in an open, electoral competition.
That they could do this in relatively good order is in itself a remarkable achievement which deserves due appreciation - however one may assess the outcome.
As an organisation of European democracies, the Council of Europe follows the evolution of political institutions in the post-Communist countries with keen attention.
It has a particular responsibility to support the reform process and to involve the new democracies in its many structures of European cooperation.
When the Council was founded after the end of the Second World War, it was given an eminently political mandate: to promote pluralist democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, common European perspectives and common cultural values.
This mission made it very suspect in the eyes of the Communist bloc rulers, but also made it popular with the dissidents and reformers who started the process of democratisation. Early contacts were established with these groups and the parliamentary assembly was quick to open itself to special 'guest delegations'.
Full membership for the new democracies took longer to attain, in most cases a couple of years. In this preparatory period, constitutional rules were examined and national legislation was compared with the standards of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Many problems were solved prior to membership. Others were jointly identified and commitments made on further reforms.
Over the 47 years of its existence, the Council of Europe has drawn up and adopted some 160 different conventions. Some of these belong to the core that all member states are required to accept, but most are optional.
While the European Union offers a set menu, the Council of Europe is closer to the notions of 'variable geometry' or 'Europe à la carte' whereby member states retain their full sovereignty and can choose to what extent they want to be part of the common legal space.
But the core is fiercely defended. There are common standards which all member states are required to live up to. Many of these are included in the European Convention of Human Rights. Others are principles of democratic government, uncodified but vigorously asserted.
In the 1990s, the Council of Europe has beaten all European records as far as enlargement is concerned. In only six years, its membership has risen from 23 to 39 states.
Sometimes we hear that this expansion has been too quick. Has it meant a lowering of its standards, a sacrifice of its basic principles?
As I see it, not at all. Indeed, quite the reverse. It is by reaching out to the new democracies as members and integrating them into the many structures of the Council of Europe that the organisation can best serve its fundamental objectives.
Of course, there is a great need for the new member states to adjust to the common European standards. Though much of this adaptation is achieved in the preparatory period, more remains to be done after accession.
In recommending the membership of a country, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe always takes great care to identify remaining problems and obtain clear undertakings. There are also mechanisms for follow-up.
Monitoring has become one of the key functions of the Council of Europe. It is closely linked to various support activities. Condemnation alone leads nowhere. Instead, we see mutual supervision and mutual help as two sides of the same coin.
That is why, at the last session of the parliamentary assembly, the elections in Albania were discussed not as an issue for facile scorn but as a matter of common European concern. The approach was critical, but at the same time friendly and constructive.
Views on what had actually happened in Albania varied significantly in the assembly. The left was more prone to accept the opposition's complaints, while the right was more open to the governing Democratic Party's claim that it enjoyed overwhelming support and the opposition withdrew only when it knew that it would lose the election.
But if the analysis differed, the prescription was arrived at in great unity. Having heard both sides, the European parliamentarians concluded that informal talks were now urgently needed in Albania and that a 'round table' should be organised to discuss such issues as the forthcoming local elections and the constitution.
The Albanian case provides an excellent example of how monitoring and support activities must go hand in hand. Underlying this strategy is the firm conviction that integration is far better than isolation, that it is better to include than to exclude.
In its support for democratic and legal reforms, the Council of Europe works closely with other organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It has also launched joint activities with the EU, most recently in Russia and the Ukraine.
The next state to join the Council of Europe will be Croatia. In the extensive dialogue carried out with that country, there have been several areas of concern: implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, local democracy, freedom of expression, the reintegration of refugees and cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. In an exchange of letters, Zagreb has given firm commitments on these and other issues.
With 40 member states, the whole of Europe will soon be covered. Another five have special guest status in the parliamentary assembly: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia. Contacts have also been initiated with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Can all of this area become a vast zone of 'democratic security'? That should be the objective. In the Paris Charter of 1990, all member states of the then Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) gave most emphatic support to the principles of pluralist democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Living up to such principles is, of course, much more difficult than making solemn pledges. But that is no reason for wavering.
Quite the opposite. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the Helsinki process, it is that governments must always be reminded of their pledges and principles. Another lesson that can be drawn from the experience of the Council of Europe is that mutual efforts help us approach and achieve these goals.
So how far are we in the consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe? To me, the glass is at least half-full. The accomplishments of the last few years have been tremendous.
The shortcomings, still significant in some countries, are our common concern. Without pluralist democracy and the rule of law in all parts of Europe, there will always be a risk of new confrontations.
Averting such perils requires active support for the reform process. This remains one of the many good reasons for stronger European cooperation.
Daniel Tarschys is Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Eastern Europe, Russia|