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OSCE Secretary General suggests East, West renew spirit of compromise

Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Helga Schmid has spoken to TASS about the proposals to reform the organization and a fragile situation in eastern Ukraine

- Dear Madam Schmid, the crisis of confidence between OSCE participating States is deepening by growing disagreements between Western States and Russia. Is it possible to overcome this crisis in the OSCE? Can the OSCE summit help to revive a fruitful dialogue within your Organization, since the last such meeting took place in 2010?

- The fundamental problem in our region is a lack of trust. From arms control to human rights, we see situations where existing OSCE principles and commitments are challenged or openly undermined. This erodes mutual confidence, restricts opportunities for co-operation, and, ultimately, damages our collective security and stability.

If we want to build trust, overcome the climate of confrontation and create an impetus for constructive cooperation, it begins with participating States following through on their promises. With a renewed commitment and a renewed spirit of compromise, the OSCE would be better placed to prepare and respond to new and emerging challenges as we approach 50 years of the Helsinki Final Act. 

The OSCE is the best-placed platform to foster more fruitful dialogue and to revive a multilateral approach to address common security challenges. After all, the OSCE plays a unique role in bridging East and West on important issues and turning our normative framework into action. When divergences grow and other routes for co-operation narrow, the OSCE has a critical role in bringing stability.

There are plenty of areas that could benefit immediately from such dialogue — both existing security challenges, including conflict prevention and management and also new and emerging challenges, like the link between security and technology, security risks associated with climate change, and evolving threats posed by terrorism and organized crime. If there were a renewed spirit of compromise, the OSCE and its participating States could start making more of a difference in all of these areas.

With regard to the next OSCE Summit for Heads of Government, that is a matter for participating States to decide. We continue to hold annual meetings of OSCE Foreign Ministers, and OSCE Ambassadors meet at least once per week.

- Russia constantly calls for OSCE reform. How do you assess such an initiative? Does the OSCE need to adopt its own charter or any reform at all?

- There is always room for improvement in how any organization operates, so suggestions on ways to strengthen the work of the OSCE and enhance cooperation are welcomed.

I followed with interest the proposals that Russia put forward last year, along with several other initiatives proposed by OSCE participating States as well as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

As always in the OSCE, we operate based on consensus decisions, so any reforms would need to have the approval of all 57 participating States. Should they agree on a set of reforms, then, as the OSCE’s Chief Administrative Officer, my role is to enact them.

- Peaceful settlement of the crisis in and around Ukraine has come to a standstill due to lack of a unified approach between the representatives of Donbass and Kiev in the Trilateral Contact Group talks. Are you afraid of a fragile situation in eastern Ukraine in 2021? What can you suggest to achieve progress in the settlement?

- People living in conflict-affected areas deserve enduring stability and security in their daily lives. Until relatively recently, the security situation in the East of Ukraine has remained more or less stable since July 2020. Recent events with rising tensions and more ceasefire violations show just how fragile the situation is and clearly demonstrates that further efforts are needed.

Echoing the calls by many OSCE participating States, I too call for restraint and immediate de-escalation of tensions. I also reiterate that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine must have safe, secure, and unimpeded access throughout the country to implement its mandate.

The agreed way forward remains the Minsk agreements, consisting of the Protocol, Memorandum and Package of Measures, which are the only documents signed by the sides that offer a way out of the crisis in and around Ukraine.

Periodic recommitments to the ceasefire show that the sides can reduce the fighting if they want.

We have also seen tangible progress that helps real people. In 2020, around 1,500 “windows of silence” — specific localized ceasefires — facilitated and monitored by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), allowed for repairs to critical infrastructure providing water, electricity, gas and communications to six million people. 

Progress that helps people here and now is more than just a step towards the resolution of this crisis.

I urge all sides to implement and fully respect the agreements already reached — to disengage, withdraw weapons and demine — and to protect civilian lives and key civilian infrastructure.

The OSCE, including the Swedish Chair, the OSCE SMM, as well as Special Representative Heidi Grau and the four Working Group Coordinators in the Trilateral Contact Group (comprised of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and the OSCE), remain fully committed to supporting all the sides to find ways to make progress toward a sustainable resolution.

- The OSCE Chairpersonship offered Belarus its services to facilitate a dialogue between authorities and opposition. Minsk has been rejecting such proposals so far. How can the OSCE help Belarus to facilitate such dialogue? Are you going to meet with Belarus’ Minister of Foreign Affairs to discuss this issue?

- Both the current Swedish OSCE Chair, and the previous Albanian Chair, have offered to establish dialogue between all stakeholders in Belarus, using the good offices of the OSCE. That offer still stands.

The OSCE is uniquely placed to help, given our well-established mandate on democracy and human rights and our tools and mechanisms to promote dialogue and cooperation. 

It is not for the OSCE to impose itself. The situation must be resolved in Minsk and among the people of Belarus, in full respect for their sovereignty, their independence and their human rights. We are ready to assist where we can, but a durable solution is for Belarus and its people to find.

I have no immediate plans for a meeting with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, but I am of course, ready to discuss with him, and the Belarusian Permanent Representative in Vienna, how to take forward the OSCE’s engagement with Belarus.

- The COVID-19 pandemic has limited personal contacts and switched the OSCE’s work to online. Do you plan any trips to Russia in 2021?

- Yes, a trip is planned for the first half of the year. However, concrete travel plans will depend on the evolving COVID-19 situation and travel restrictions. 

This will be my first visit to Russia in my role as the OSCE Secretary General, and I look forward to meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In the meantime, here in Vienna, I maintain regular contact with the Permanent Representative of Russia.