On January 24, 2024 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted to not ratify Azerbaijani delegation’s credentials. Such a measure was applied against Azerbaijan for the first time since it became a member of the Council of Europe in 2001. In this chapter of Modern History, we tell about Armenia and Azerbaijan’s accession to the Council of Europe.
To take part in the solemn ceremony of Armenia’s joining the CoE, the official delegation headed by then-President of Armenia Robert Kocharyan arrived in Strasbourg on January 24, 2001.
“We flew to Strasbourg with high hopes and excitement. We all thought joining the CoE is a historical event opening a new page in the modern history of Armenia. We clearly saw the further path of Armenia’s development.
It was a really historical day. Representatives of Armenian communities from various European countries came to Strasbourg to take part in the solemn ceremony. Every Armenian present there was very excited to see the Armenian flag raising in front of the organization’s building to the tunes of the Armenian anthem. It was a festive day for us. After our country joined the UN, this was the second significant event of this kind,” Vartan Oskanian told Mediamax some years ago.
On the same day, Azerbaijan also joined the CoE, whereas the country’s democratic indicators were way behind Armenia’s. Several months ago, Armenia met the requirements of the membership but joining the European family was postponed because of Azerbaijan.
“Our membership took place together with Azerbaijan not because we were dragging behind in terms of meeting the requirements and demonstrating political will but as the organization decided to take into account the NK conflict and accept Armenia and Azerbaijan simultaneously, by all means. So, we “fell victim” to Azerbaijan’s slowness,” Vartan Oskanian wrote in his “By the Path of Independence. The Big Challenges of the Small Country, from the Minister’s Diary’’ book published in 2013.
Armenia was expected to join the CoE over 2000; it was a separate item on the agenda of PACE summer session. The decision was made in Dublin on May 15 following the session of the PACE Political Committee attended by President of PACE Lord Russell-Johnston and CoE Secretary General Walter Schwimmer.
After the session, Walter Schwimmer said in his exclusive interview to Mediamax:
“Armenia started the integration process in 1996. In 1999, we witnessed discussions around real legal-judicial reforms, strengthening of democratic values and constitutional reforms.”
Answering Mediamax’s question whether escalated domestic situation in Armenia would affect CoE membership process, Walter Schwimmer said:
“CoE was shocked by 1997 October 27 events at the Armenian National Assembly. It’s critical that the tragedy and its ramifications not make Armenia digress from democratic values and the path of commitment to human rights protection.”
Hovhannes Hovhannisyan who was Head of Armenian National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Foreign Relations and Armenian Delegation to PACE at that time, told Mediamax:
“In mid-2000, it became clear that the CoE wants Armenia and Azerbaijan to simultaneously join the organization. Before that the issue was not that obviously put on the agenda. It was a political decision by the CoE which entailed the delay of our membership process so as Azerbaijan could manage to fulfill the commitments undertaken by the membership. On this occasion we have repeatedly expressed our discontent to our European partners. Of course, they were well aware that Armenia with its Christian value system is much closer to the organization than Azerbaijan. The Europeans had a real liking for us which infuriated Azerbaijan.”
By the majority of votes at the PACE summer session it was decided that Armenia will join the CoE. In September 2000, the CoE Committee of Ministers was expected to approve the PACE decision which would be followed by raising of Armenia’s flag in Strasbourg.
But it didn’t happen as the CoE executive body decided to approve Armenia’s membership only after the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan due in November.
Vartan Oskanian and Hovhannes Hovhannisyan both agree that by accepting Azerbaijan and Armenia on the same day, the Europeans wanted to boost the regional cooperation which in its turn would create a favorable environment for the settlement of the Artsakh conflict.
“The Council of Europe wanted to demonstrate that commitment to European values could contribute to the conflict settlement and made restoration of war less likely. I think this was the main driving force and purpose behind the decision to access our country and Azerbaijan on the same day,” says Vartan Oskanian.
Hovhannes Hovhannisyan recalls that the ceremonial part of the membership day was organized in a way that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents would be present at the signing of the membership documents at the same time as well as at the ceremony of raising of the flags of both countries.
“The speaker of the Georgian parliament Zurab Zhvania specially arrived in Strasbourg that day. Georgia had joined the Council of Europe back in 1999. Zhvania gave a very touching speech, supporting the two neighboring countries’ decision to join the Council of Europe. He stressed in his speech that the two countries’ joining will boost regional cooperation.
Representatives of other countries also delivered welcoming remarks. I remember that Heydar Aliyev already had health issues then and wasn’t able to participate in these kind of long events, he frequently had to sit down or stop while walking. Our president and our delegation, as a sign of respect, sometimes had to walk slowly or stop frequently while going from one hall to another,” Hovhannes Hovhannisyan recalls.
Vartan Oskanian recalls that Presidents Kocharyan and Aliyev had normal relationship:
“They were talking quite intensively about Karabakh conflict settlement those days. There were some initiatives and suggestions. The presidents left for Paris after Strasbourg to take part in trilateral meeting initiated by French President Jacques Chirac. There were some hopes that the problem would be solved and the fact that the presidents were in Strasbourg joining the Council of Europe served as additional impetus for the positive atmosphere.”
However, both before and after those days in January, Azerbaijan tried to use the membership to the Council of Europe to brand Armenia as “aggressor” in that organization, rather than try to boost democratization at home.
It is remarkable that the Azeri parliamentary delegation was headed by current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during the membership negotiations and afterwards.
“It’s a pity that even after years they couldn’t understand that CoE is not a place for scuffle. The European MPs were already tired of hearing accusations from Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani delegation members were always complaining that the Europeans are biased towards Armenians,” says former head of the Armenian delegation.
The Azerbaijani delegation was even complaining about the souvenir that Armenian delegation presented the Council of Europe on the occasion of the membership.
“The rule states that each country presents a souvenir on the occasion of joining the Council of Europe, which is placed in the area of building of organization. We had considered several options and eventually chose an art composition made of brass. I don’t quite remember what Azerbaijani delegation presented, but it was quite expensive. It happened so that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer set the gift of our delegation aside for his office and placed the Azerbaijani delegation present at the hall. Of course, it became a matter of political speculation,” Hovhannisyan recalls.
According to him, one of the “small victories” of the Armenian side connected with the membership day was that Armenia was presented not only by official presidential delegation in Strasbourg, but parliamentary delegation, that included opposition.
“Before leaving for Strasbourg we were consulting with the president about the formation of the delegation. I suggested that the delegation should include the heads of the oppositional parties presented in the parliament - Vazgen Manukyan, Artashes Geghamyan, Arthur Baghdasaryan and others. This step contained an important and positive message and contributed to our country’s international image. While Heydar Aliyev was accompanied only by his staff and representatives of the government,” Hovhannisyan says.
Photos of Reuters and 2rd.am website were used in this chapter.