Hungary joined the Council of Europe on Tuesday, becoming the first former East bloc country to enter the oldest postwar body promoting European cooperation.
"When the time came, Hungary was bold enough to open a hole in the Iron Curtain," said Catherine Lalumiere, secretary-general of the council."The leaders and indeed the people have contributed so much to bringing the division of Europe to an end."
She and Foreign Minister Geza Jeszensky of Hungary sat at a table in a gilt-trimmed room of the 17th-century Barberini Palace to sign documents admitting Hungary as the 24th member of the council.
"I feel deeply moved standing in front of you," Jeszensky told the audience of European ministers. "This is a momentous day in history, both for Hungary, and, I believe, the Council of Europe."
Czechoslovakia and Poland, who like Hungary have made a dramatic, peaceful switch from Communist dictatorship to democracy, are expected to also join the council in the coming months.
The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria have observer status and Romania and Albania may become observers soon.
The Council of Europe, which includes nearly all Western European countries, has produced 130 international treaties. It is best known for the European Human Rights Convention and European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are binding on council members.
Jeszensky signed the human rights treaty at Tuesday's ceremony. A country must sign the accord and have a parliamentary democracy to join the 41-year-old council.
After the signing, Hungary's flag was raised along those of the other 23 nations at the Council of Europe offices in Strasbourg, France, as the national anthem was played.
"Hungary's admission is the first step in the restoration of the unity of our continent," Jeszensky said.
He added that joining the council was "one of the most important foreign policy successes of the Hungarian government."
Hungary applied for membership in the council a year ago, when reform Communists were still in power. A government dominated by the center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum was formed last summer after the country's first free multiparty elections in four decades.