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Interview: OSCE Protracted-Conflicts Ambassador Measures Progress In 'Millimeters'

The bridge over the Dniestr River near Dubasari in Transdniester (undated)
The bridge over the Dniestr River near Dubasari in Transdniester (undated)
Lithuanian diplomat Giedrius Cekuolis is the OSCE Chairmanship's special representative for protracted conflicts. His arduous mandate includes the disputes over Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, and the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Cekoulis spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson about the status of these seemingly intractable, 20-year-old disputes and about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) ability to regulate and resolve them.

RFE/RL: Let's begin with Transdniester. In 2009 a new government came to power in Moldova and there seemed to be a real impetus toward restarting talks between Chisinau and Transdniester, which had been blocked for nearly six years. The OSCE said that restarting the dialogue was a priority. Yet nothing seems to have been achieved yet. How do you explain the lack of movement and what do you see as the biggest obstacle or obstacles?

Giedrius Cekuolis, personal representative of the chairperson-in-office of the OSCE
Giedrius Cekuolis: I think first of all that the dialogue has been going since the suspension of official talks in 2006. Informal talks that I have participated in have been developing since the end of 2009 and, yes, they were informal, but there were -- say -- 14 different working groups created and they elaborated on some details. So the work was going on. But, of course, there was a suspension, yes. So, therefore, our priority remains making these talks official. Because we somehow, we just blew the dust from it and we now came to a result, which was a declaration in April that everybody in the 5+2 talks agreed and it was official in our declaration that we are as close as ever to the resumption of official talks. So, of course, the last informal meeting on the 21st of June in Moscow was suspended on a stopped-clock principle. I feel sad about this, of course, but still, I do hope that the meeting can be reconvened in Moscow as we were planning and discussing some time in the coming weeks. My hope and everybody's hopes for the resumption of formal talks remain.

RFE/RL: Does the OSCE have a "road map" for Transdniester? What steps are you looking for and what kind of time frame are you anticipating?

Cekuolis: Of course, we should start from the first. The way should begin with the resumption of the official 5+2 talks. Until this happens, it does not make sense to talk about timeframes or anything, you know. And official talks would enable a better quality of dialogue and concrete deliverables that the sides themselves agree to. So, I think, once we agree on the slogan to resume official 5+2 talks then the road map can be drawn in many ways and, if this happens at the second meeting in Moscow -- which I sincerely hope -- then we can prepare the road map or whatever in a few months' time for the second meeting whenever it takes place. I do hope this year. So, I'm still an optimist on this issue....

I would like to say that we are continuing the work despite that this mechanism is [under a stopped-watch condition]. But we are having, for example, from the 7th to the 9th in Germany, we have a conference on confidence-building measures in Transdniester and Moldova. The actors will come and I will participate myself . My minister will be there.... So this is an important thing. I see still the interest in both sides to continue on this.

RFE/RL: In Transdniester and the Georgian breakaway regions, we have seen the wholesale distribution of passports by OSCE member Russia to citizens of foreign countries. In Moldova, Romania has also been engaging in similar practices. We've seen Hungary doing similar things in the past as well. What is the OSCE's position on this practice and can anything be done about it? It would seem to be inherently destabilizing.

Cekuolis: I would say that my position on this is sort of, a little bit negative. I should be frank here because the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities has also repeatedly emphasized that states should refrain from conferring citizenship en masse, so to say, in a massive way or from coercing individuals to take up a particular citizenship by withholding access or rights to services. So, no, even where dual citizenship is permitted, states should not distribute passports to citizens of another state and then use this sort of for claims regarding this group of citizens on the territory of that state. This is my position and, I should be frank, my position is as I said -- that the states, the states involved need to adhere to principles of good faith in resolving their differences. Of course, for us, you know, it sounds a little bit bureaucratic but the ultimate solution to this problem is to make real progress in the resolution of the territorial disputes so that everyone could enjoy the benefits of it. So the distribution of passports is something that I personally do not like.

RFE/RL: Wouldn't it be easier to amend OSCE procedures to prevent this in principle, rather than discussing it in relation to particular disputes?

Cekuolis: You know, the OSCE moves by consensus and so those are questions to be dealt with -- and they are being dealt with -- among the OSCE members. That's part of our job.

RFE/RL: The protracted conflicts are now entering their third decade. Do you think that the passage of time has a way of building momentum toward separation -- that the longer a de facto separation is maintained, the less likely it is that any solution other than separation will be arrived at?

Cekuolis: I fully share with you that there is some frustration felt and, of course, there is a cost both in human-financial and political terms. Even my predecessors, you know, they somehow advised me on this that there is always a hope that you take a chairmanship, you are starting with full energy and everything and you see that things are, despite all your optimism, far more complex. So I really do not like to prejudge the construction of a negotiated settlement -- really, they are protracted because they are protracted. When you are getting involved into them, go deep into the details, you see why they are protracted. So, they can go -- even today -- both ways. I mean, being frozen sometimes is not, I would say, the worst solution because they can go both for settlement or go back to war. This is what makes this a very important subject, very complex and very sensitive. And here progress really is measured by millimeters.

RFE/RL: In the South Ossetia/Abkhazia disputes, Russia has steadfastly blocked the establishment of an OSCE mission in Georgia. Do you see this as a vote of no-confidence in the OSCE itself by one of the organization's own members? Do you think there is any justification at all for Moscow's position on this question?

Cekuolis: Of course, that's a good question. I would like to address it to Russia also. I'll be frank. We've been working a lot and we've been spending much of our efforts on this question of reestablishing a meaningful OSCE presence in Georgia. And we are just thinking about, say, an OSCE team based in Vienna for the beginning who could do something, some shuttling to the regions. But still I would like you to address this to Russia. And Russia was in Vienna quite, well, supportive of those new ideas on how to deal with the changed situation, you know. How to return. We understand that for the moment it is probably impossible, an OSCE presence on the ground, but some sort of a shuttle team, Vienna-based team, as we say, we are working on this. But for the time being, I can tell you that after some months of domestic moves, still we are back to initial positions, which is unfortunate. Still, we have to do our diplomatic work.

RFE/RL: Do you think there is any prospect of an OSCE mission to Georgia in the foreseeable future? Since you are talking about a shuttle mission, it sounds like you are pessimistic.

Cekuolis: No, I wouldn't be so pessimistic, of course. But looking at real facts, I think, we should move step by step and what we are now working on -- the Vienna-based team of some people who have access to the regions, because really after the closure of the OSCE mission in Georgia we have to rethink the OSCE engagement strategy in addressing the consequences of the war in Georgia. That's why we are considering all these different strategies on how the OSCE can come back to Georgia and one of the ways is using this OSCE team based in Vienna and also engaging more and more with locals, more cooperation with local NGOs and civil society. We think this is now the best way forward as we see it.

RFE/RL: Do you think that resolving disputes such as the protracted conflicts would be easier if the OSCE's rules were changed to prevent one member from blocking certain decisions such as this one?

Cekuolis: That is a good question, of course, and it is very tempting sometimes, you know, when we have long debates in Vienna on this, but still I think that we diplomats are being paid quite well, so we can do more work, spend more hours, but I think the principle of consensus is really valid and it is a core of the organization. Because, you know, when you block one country so that means that this country will not comply with the rules of the OSCE. There is no mandate in this way. So only consensus helps, and we know that because of the consensus we have this movement in millimeters only.

But lasting resolution only can be found if all parties fully support the process. So this is it and I'm a partisan of this consensus mechanism that was somehow initially built and continues. It is difficult, I know. It takes more time than to block one or two countries and have some decisions taken quicker. But will they be really implemented then? Because especially those countries who block -- they are concerned and they have some influence, let's say, on the implementation of those decisions. That's the game!

RFE/RL: To take another example: The OSCE monitors along the Line of Contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh region must inform all three parties in advance before they are allowed to carry out any monitoring. Do you think this is an effective way of conducting monitoring and would you advocate that parties to conflicts like this recuse themselves from such decision making as a sign of good faith and confidence in the OSCE?

Cekuolis: You know, the issue is not so much whether the parties need to show good faith and confidence in the OSCE but rather, I think, that whether they have confidence in each other. So, what we noticed when visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan -- we did not feel that there is complete disagreement between the societies and what is very preoccupying is that the governments are not preparing their societies for the possibility of a negotiated solution of the conflict. We think that the sides need to take measures to reduce tensions.

My representatives have visited the region, myself, my foreign minister, everyone, so we are just looking and stressing the need for political will for a negotiated settlement of the conflict, strengthening the cease-fire regime, investigating skirmishes on the Line of Contact, for example, removing snipers a little bit, you know, and establishing a hotline, which is quite necessary and easy to do between local field commanders. And then probably also continue with confidence-building measures. There are villages, nearby villages, there are old people, very much respected, so if they communicate and if some young people communicate, start doing some -- I don't know -- but it would be difficult then for them to shoot at each other.

So, simple things, of course, simply said, but difficult to be done, but this is our position: political will and then a few confidence-building measures. Simple confidence-building measures because the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan -- they are very strong. They have the power to give orders to their troops, let's say, to remove snipers or have a cease-fire for at least three, four months, half a year, and then so on and so forth. And also to prepare in newspapers that there is a possibility, but we are living in the 21st century and so only a negotiated solution of the conflict is possible. I'm not an expert on military things, but it is clear that war will not resolve this conflict....

We should not close our eyes and [should] go and convince and try to do everything the community -- I mean all OSCE member countries, not only the chairmanship because the chairmanship is just for one year, but this is really a long-lasting and deep-rooted conflict and so we welcome very much the efforts made by the Russian president, also backed by [U.S. President Barack] Obama, backed by [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. So we look somehow that the nations should somehow find the compromise in this settlement. But a settlement is really possible. I mean, in all three conflicts that I'm dealing with this year, somehow I do remain optimistic, although cautious. Still, they will remain for some time, but -- let's say in the Moldovan case -- the direction is right....

The direction for all of them is right. I mean, just through building confidence measures, through more contact between societies and, of course, through the simple knowledge by the leaders of these countries that by war you cannot achieve anything. You can achieve nothing in the 21st century. So, that is the possibility that these conflicts might be solved. And then, of course, many details do remain, but therefore our motto of our Presidency -- we started saying that let's make some millimeter steps, but even if those steps will be millimeters -- let's say, in the Moldovan case -- one millimeter that is new, this is a golden millimeter. It is perfect, you know. I don't know what will be, but the process is difficult and I am glad as a professional diplomat to be in it. It is a real experience, a real experience. Still, you know, usually Lithuanians are considered to be pessimistic, but here I am not and I still remain optimistic.

RFE/RL: Finally, does the OSCE consider Chechnya to be a "protracted conflict" and why or why not? Do you personally think it would be useful to have an OSCE office in the North Caucasus? Would you consider approaching Moscow on this question?

Cekuolis: Chechnya, you know, simply I can tell you that my mandate covers those three conflicts. And so resolving any other conflicts also requires a consensus of all 56 members of the OSCE. So I'm sorry, I just cannot comment more on this. My mandate goes to those three conflicts.