Mediamax continues its “Special File” project aimed at presenting the unknown or less known details on Armenia’s foreign policy events.
PACE winter session will kick off on January 25, 2016. During the session, 2 resolutions disadvantageous for Armenia and Artsakh will be discussed. It’s a surprising coincidence that the session starts on the same day as the 15th anniversary of Armenia’s membership 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. Next day, after the signing of the documents on membership, the Armenian tricolor was solemnly raised in front of the building of Council of Europe at the presence of the Armenian parliamentary delegation and President.
Former Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian tells that the Armenian delegation was uplifted while leaving for Strasbourg.
“We flew to Strasbourg with high hopes and excitement. We all thought joining the CoE 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”, Vardan Oskanian said to Mediamax.
The one thing that somehow shadowed the whole joy of the festive day, January 25, was perhaps the fact that 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 of 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”, Vardan 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 will 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, said to 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.
Vardan 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 an favourable environment for the settlement of the 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”, says Vardan Oskanian.
Earlier, Vardan Oskanian wrote in his book that the Armenian side had consistently stressed that “membership to the Council of Europe doesn’t mean that we will move the conflict issues to Strasbourg”. “I noted that we would use the opportunities given by the CoE to settle the conflict within broader cooperation frames”, wrote the former FM.
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 the ceremony of raising of the flags of both countries.
“The speaker of the Georgian parliament Zurab Zhvania came to 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 welcomed it. I remember that Heydar Aliyev already had health issues then and wasn’t able to participate in these kind of long events, frequently had to sit down or stop 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 says.
Vardan 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”, formar FM recalls.
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.
Hovhannes Hovhannisyan notes that already at the time, Azeri delegation attempted to obtain anti-Armenian resolutions distorting the essence of the Karabakh conflict.
By the way, 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.
Azerbaijan 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, pointing out that Armenian delegation’s present is still kept in the Secretary General’s office.
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.
A big reception was organized in Strasbourg Museum on behalf of the Armenian President. Duduk player Jivan Gasparyan and opera singer Hasmik Papyan were invited to Strasbourg for this occasion.
“President Robert Kocharyan invited all the delegation members including representatives of opposition to an informal meeting next day of the reception. We had a honest and positive meeting, discussed the events of the previous day and the plans for the future. These discussions overall, impacted positively in Armenian domestic political atmosphere”, said Hovhannes Hovhannisyan.
P.S. Walter Schwimmer expressed concern connected with freedom of speech in Azerbaijan on February 2, 2001, only a week after Azerbaijan’s membership to the Council of Europe. The occasion was about termination of 2 regional TVchannels in Azerbaijan - Mingechevir TV and DMR TV. CoE Secretary General stated that the suspension will affect the “already limited” opportunities of residents of Azerbaijan to get information out of state media. Walter Schwimmer also reminded that as per Azerbaijan 's commitments to the CoE , the authorities must guarantee freedom of the media and exclude the use of administrative levers on it.