Russia fails Council of Europe test

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RUSSIA'S democratic credentials suffered an embarrassing blow yesterday with publication of a report that found Moscow unfit for membership of the Council of Europe.

Passing the rigorous application criteria for the council, based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, is the most esteemed sign of a country's political maturity. For eastern European states, for whom membership of the European Union is far off and fully-fledged integration with Nato remains problematic, speedy membership of the council is an important goal.

But a panel of human rights lawyers and legal experts representing the 32 members of the council have served notice that Russia must introduce legal reforms before its membership application can be considered. The report notes the 'particularly acute . . . problem of organised crime', but cites the central problem as respect for the rule of law.

Constitutionally guaranteed rights, it concludes, 'seem to be more theory than practice. In many important fields the essential legal codifications have not yet been reformed as planned . . . traditional authoritarian thinking still seems to be dominant . . . the concept that it should . . . be for the judiciary to protect the individual has not yet become a reality in Russia.'

The new secretary-general of the council, Daniel Tarschys, recently said that he expected the council to welcome some new members, including Russia, by next year. Yesterday's report is thus less of a death blow to Moscow's hopes than a warning that, to be successful, reform must be speedily introduced.

'It is vital to bring Russia into the fold quickly to add to international pressure for greater democracy, but lower standards would weaken the council; it would risk collapsing under its own weight,' one Western diplomat said.