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“If You’re Not There, You Don’t Know What it’s Like”

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A conversation with OSCE Secretary-General LAMBERTO ZANNIER on the international organization’s strengths and weaknesses as well as its role in Ukraine and in the refugee crisis.

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REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Since January 1, Germany has held chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). “We Germans in particular owe a lot to the OSCE and to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This process stands for the policy of détente between the East and West. We can very well recall just how fundamental this process was for overcoming the Cold War and for the reunification of Germany and Europe,” explained Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Minister for Foreign Affairs and the 2016 Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE. The concrete ways in which the organization carries out dialogue and builds bridges could be seen in early December at the OSCE’s meeting in Belgrade. While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continued to publicly quarrel following the downing of a Russian fighter jet, the foreign ministers of both countries in Belgrade returned to the negotiating table.

Providing “early warning” is one of the OSCE’s main tasks, however it is not always possible to sound the alarm in time. For some time now, the European Union has been struggling with the consequences of two failed “early warnings” – namely Russia’s course of action in Ukraine and with the refugee crisis. True, the annexation of Crimea was unexpected, even for us. While we were aware of tensions, we were no longer present on location. Our office in Simferopol closed almost ten years ago because the Ukrainians no longer found it necessary and thought that no problems remained. If you’re not there, you lack an insight and overview of the actual circumstances.

By the time Russia annexed Crimea, the Euromaidan protests had already taken place. Confronted with pressure from Moscow, then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych (who would later flee) refused to sign the association agreements with the EU. Unlike NATO or the EU, the OSCE is not a club of states. The 57 member states don’t necessarily share the same defense and integration goals or perceptions – nevertheless, each OSCE mission must be approved by all member states. Herein lie both our strength and our weakness. When the Maidan protests broke out in November 2013, I was currently in Kiev because Ukraine, at the time, held the chairmanship of the OSCE. I took to the streets and talked with the people. But the Ukrainian government didn’t want the protests to become an international affair, and as such, it was only once Switzerland held the chairmanship in 2014 that we were able to intervene.

It would also seem that the full impact of the wave of refugees sweeping into Europe since this past summer has caught everyone off-guard. Like I said, we are only able to intervene if all of our members approve. However, the political support on the part of other “big players” is just as important. I remember one OSCE meeting in Istanbul three years ago after the outbreak of civil war in Syria. States that were already being significantly affected by the wave of refugees were complaining that they were being left completely alone to confront these problems. I conveyed these complaints to the appropriate authorities, yet the answer I received from multiple officials in Brussels was that this was not a problem with which the OSCE should concern itself. The OSCE only becomes a useful instrument if the necessary interest is there – without political support from all sides, we lack effectiveness due to our own decision-making procedures.

Building bridges” is also one of the organization’s primary tasks… Yes, because the OSCE isn’t interested in the deployment of tanks. Our efforts are focused on maintaining and restoring peace and order. Ukraine – a country situated directly upon the divide between East and West – is an example of these efforts. In spite of Yanukovych’s attempt to distance Ukraine from the EU, Brussels continued to push for the convergence of Kiev with its own goals. No one wanted to admit that they themselves were part of the problem and it took a while for Brussels to become aware of this. Only once this notion had set in was it suggested that a neutral platform be created that would enable Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans and Americans to sit at one negotiating table – and this is exactly the platform we provide. By now we have nearly a thousand individuals working for us in Ukraine, tasked with the mission of defusing potential conflicts. Additionally, the OSCE monitors compliance with the Minsk Protocol, supervising both the ceasefire and the handover of weapons. Even in Minsk at the political level, our so-called ‘facilitators’ are tasked with liaising between the parties involved – no easy task considering Kiev’s refusal to recognize the separatists.

In the fall, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the wave of refugees could overburden the Balkan states. Do you agree with this? Yes, she’s right. And I have an anecdote to go along with this. In late September, we held our annual conference in Warsaw. Though the meeting was intended to address human rights, when the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić took to the podium, he went into a tirade against the EU and its refugee policy, as well as against Croatia. According to Dačić, politicians in Zagreb were in the process of voting to close their borders, while the discussions in Brussels were taking place behind closed doors. He claimed that Serbia wasn’t once presented with an opportunity to participate – even though the country was equally affected by the changes taking place.

Do you find fault with the EU’s refugee policy? In effect, Brussels is focusing completely on the EU’s external borders and in doing so is losing sight of transit countries. These transit countries, however, are faced with the same risks of social and economic destabilization. The current situation cannot be solved using short-term solutions. Chancellor Merkel certainly recognizes this – she is able to see the big picture and point out its problems. The Dublin Regulation has become irrelevant, that much is clear. In any case, it seems clear that border control and a quota system are insufficient. We have to fight the sources of the problem. The war, of course, and also poverty are causing people to leave their home countries to settle in other places where there are future prospects for both themselves and for their families.

The interview was conducted by Andrea Affaticati.