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By Armen Zakarian in Strasbourg
The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer, said on Wednesday that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia must hold democratic elections this year if they are to become a part of the European community.

He warned that a repeat of serious vote irregularities in the three South Caucasus states could set back their integration into the European structures.

“I can not imagine what the consequences would be with regard to the position of these countries in the Council of Europe if the elections are not conducted in a free and fair way,” Schwimmer told the council’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which is currently holding a regular session in Strasbourg.

All three regional countries are scheduled to hold nationwide elections in 2003. Armenia will elect a new president next month and parliament in May. Presidential and parliamentary elections are also due to take place in neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia later this year.

Schwimmer said 2003 will therefore be a “critical year” for the democratization processes in the region. He said the Council of Europe, which promotes democracy and human rights across the continent, will closely monitor the polls.

In his speech, Schwimmer also reiterated the regional significance of a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He again argued that regional economic cooperation and other confidence-building measures would facilitate the search for a mutually acceptable peace formula.

The idea is supported by the Armenian side. Azerbaijan, however, strongly opposes any economic contacts with Armenia until a Karabakh settlement.
Meanwhile, details emerged on Wednesday of last week’s hearings on the Karabakh dispute hosted by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. They were also attended by deputy foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Participants of the discussions revealed to RFE/RL that the Azerbaijani official, Araz Azimov, subjected the mediating troika to harsh criticism, saying that the Minsk Group has proved ineffectual and should be replaced by the Council of Europe and other international organizations.

The sources, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the group’s U.S. co-chair, Rudolf Perina, dismissed the criticism. Perina argued that the conflicting parties were very close to a peace deal during intensive peace talks on the Florida island of Key West in April 2001. Azimov is said to have responded to that by repeating Baku’s claims that no major agreements were reached at Key West by Presidents Heydar Aliev and Robert Kocharian.

The Armenian leadership, for its part, insists that the two men did agree on the main principles of a peace accord but that Aliev subsequently backtracked on them.
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