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Europe

Russia Takes Over as Chair of Council of Europe

No country in the 46-member Council of Europe has been called to answer for abusing human rights as often as Russia. Now, it's Moscow's turn to take over the body's rotating six-month chairmanship.

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Many hope Russia's turn at the helm will prompt it to better its human rights record

Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would focus its chairmanship on the principles of democracy and human rights that the Council of Europe, the first pan-European organization, was designed to promote.

"I believe our common commitment to democracy will certainly be reconfirmed during the six months of the Russian chairmanship," he told reporters. Russia took over the alphabetically rotating chairmanship of the body often referred to as "Europe's conscience" on Thursday.

Lavrov also emphasized that Western Europe does not have a monopoly on human rights.

World is not black and white

Gipfel Europarat in Warschau Sergej Lawrow

Lavrov said Europe needs to recognize many models of democracy

"I do not believe the West would be interested in seeing the Council of Europe become a place where just one out of many models of democracy would be made a criteria to judge each and every other state," he said. "The world is much more complicated. It's not black and white."

Russian politicians have repeatedly called on the Council of Europe to put more effort into fighting terrorism, an issue some believe could become an key element of the Russian chairmanship.

European observers also expect Russia to use its time as chairman to deflect criticism of its own human rights record. Russia met with the council's condemnation for violations against Chechens, police behavior, media freedoms and social, religious and minority rights.

Some progress being made

Chodorkowsky hinter Gittern

Treatment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky met with international disapproval

Russia, who have been called before the European Court of Human Rights 80 times since joining the Council of Europe 10 years ago, is also the only member of the council that has not completely outlawed the death penalty, although a moratorium has been in place since 1996.

But Russia is making some progress. Fewer prisoners are being held in shared cells and the courts are becoming more transparent, according to a recent Amnesty International report, which added that more effort still needs to be made.

According to a 2005 report, Russia has ratified just 46 of 200 Council of Europe conventions designed to protect democracy and human rights.

Position brings added international pressure

German member of the Council of Europe's parliamentary delegation Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said she knows how difficult it can be to force the Russians' hand.

"The reaction at first is friendly, but they do not budge," she told DW-RADIO, adding that the Russians make numerous attempts to shape draft reports to their liking. "The Russian delegation does not let itself become too engaged in anything."

Other politicians, including German member of European Parliament Elmar Brok, have said they hope a turn at heading the council will be an impulse for additional change in Russia.

"This kind of international responsibility provides pressure not to make oneself vulnerable," the head of the EU parliament's foreign policy committee said.

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