Russia resists Estonia joining human rights body: Kozyrev highlights abuse of minority, writes Andrew Marshall

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RUSSIA has intervened to try to prevent Estonia joining the Council of Europe because of concern over the Baltic state's treatment of its Russian minority.

The unusual move, seen as 'old fashioned muscle-flexing' by officials at the organisation's Strasbourg headquarters, is unlikely to prevent Estonia becoming a member. The Council, the oldest pan-European body, is not part of the European Community, but is principally concerned with human rights through the European Human Rights Convention.

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, said in a letter to Catherine Lalumiere, the Council's Secretary-General, that 'hundreds of thousands of people are in effect deprived of citizenship' in Estonia and that 'the apparent conformity of national election legislation . . . with European norms is illusory'.

Though Russia has no formal weight in the Council of Europe - it has only special guest status - the incident demonstrates the potential difficulties in the new relationship between Western Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union.

A vote will take place today in Strasbourg on admitting Estonia, which would be the twenty-eighth member of the Council. Lithuania, the first state from the former Soviet Union to be a member, was admitted on Tuesday. Latvia, the third Baltic state, has yet to hold free elections, and officials said that there may be trouble over its Russian minority.

The question of ethnic minorities is a sensitive one. The EC has trade and co-operation agreements with the Baltic states, which include tough human rights clauses. It is considering extending these to Europe Agreements, which are broader, but it has been suggested that it should extend guarantees to include minorities.