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Greece: Piloting OSCE through Doldrums     Print Email
Dora Bakoyannis, Foreign Minister of Greece

Dora BakoyannisThe Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyannis, has the personal experience and poised public presence that comes from an extensive and successful political career. At 55, she has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs since February 2006, coming to that post after gaining national prominence as a leader in the center-right New Democracy Party. Elected by the people of Athens to become the city’s first female mayor, she served four years starting in 2002, preparing and overseeing the Olympics in the capital of Greece, the country where the games were born and where the event in 2004 was hailed internationally as a success for the host nation.

Her personal commitment to international understanding runs deeper than her political and government experience and duties, as witnessed by her work on the cause of empowering women. A group of women with international reputations came together almost three years ago to promote this cause in hopes of advancing social and political development and change in regions gripped by strife and terrorism. A founding member of the group (along with now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), Ms. Bakoyannis plans to convene a major international conference next year in Athens bringing together women who have been victims of terrorism from all over the world and from backgrounds of all sorts and origins. “All these women have felt the same pain, so they can send out one message from the foot of the Acropolis. We are not talking about a war of religions, but we are talking about life in the concrete, not life in the abstract. Our humanistic value-system has to prevail over the beliefs of some people that they can use violence whenever and however they think they need to.”

With her experience, Ms. Bakoyannis is an unusually dynamic figure as the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This year Greece holds the rotating presidency, and Ms. Bakoyannis – and the Greek government – are working to steer the body toward a new lease on life. For a period of several years, the organization lost prominence – only to be confronted last year with the war in Georgia. In February, Ms. Bakoyannis visited Washington, early in the term of the Obama administration, to meet with Mrs. Clinton and other top U.S. leaders in hopes of getting the new administration to see and seize opportunities of working with the OSCE that were largely ignored by Washington in recent years. The 56-nation body is the only security organization in which both Russia and the United States are full members.

The Georgia conflict confronted the Vienna-based organization with a double challenge. On the ground, it has largely paralyzed the OSCE mission in Georgia. At a broader security level, the OSCE needs to grapple with a proposal from Moscow for international talks on a new “security framework” that might supersede NATO and the OSCE – and ironically might be discussed in the framework of the OSCE. Initially dismissed by Washington, the Russian proposal is viewed as an opportunity by Ms. Bakoyannis, as well as by Western leaders in countries including France and Germany.

She acknowledges that she will have her work cut out for her in persuading some nations, notably the U.S., to focus more positively on the OSCE. Her chances for that must lie in hopes that President Obama will start to see this body as precisely the kind of forum where his administration could proceed to deploy, as he has said he wants to, the full panoply of soft power, including diplomacy and development, that can complement the hard power in the U.S. military arsenal. The OSCE has the flexibility (the potential frustrations) of being an organization that operates by consensus of its member states. In its present form, it came into being as a result of the 1973 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Helsinki over three stages and dubbed the “Helsinki Process.” That historic deal turned essentially on agreement that all nations renounced any attempt to change the existing borders in Europe by force and also that they would cooperate in promoting greater recognition of human rights for their citizens. This accord, signed by the Soviet Union and the United States along with European nations, eased cold war military tensions in Europe and also opened up spaces for more action by dissidents in Communist-run countries. Over the succeeding years, especially after the cold war’s end, the Vienna-based OSCE gained new members in central Asia and even further east. It developed specialized agencies, with headquarters in different European capitals, to pursue work, largely through local non-governmental organizations, on causes as diverse as human rights, freedom of press, arms control, prevention of human trafficking, fair elections and other steps toward democratization and now even the environment. Like other multi-national bodies such as NATO, the OSCE has changed significantly in recent years, as its focus moves from “Europe” to the east and the transitions toward democracy in countries there. A sign of the times is that next year Greece will be succeeded in the presidency of the organization by Kazakhstan. Amid strong evidence on paper about the continuing role of the OSCE, there can be no hiding the challenge it confronts today in the light of developments such as the recent ebb in U.S. involvement, the harder line of Russian diplomacy and the unresolved conflict in Georgia and its two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They have proclaimed their independence, citing Kosovo as a precedent, but they have been recognized only by Russia. Other OSCE states have stuck to the organization’s founding principle of respect of the territorial integrity of member states, in this case, Georgia.

On her trip to Washington to raise consciousness in the Obama administration about the OSCE’s value and potential for dialogue of the sort that the new administration says it wants, Ms. Bakoyannis sat down with European Affairs for a wide-ranging conversation about her quest for what she calls “new bridges.”

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Q: The EU aspires to work as a whole, but from the outside it often seems that there are still splits between different categories of member states – for example, between big nations and the smaller ones. Do such differences play out in policy?

A: I think differences do exist but this is actually one of Europe’s strengths not weaknesses. To the degree that they exist, the “dividing lines” are not so much between the big and the small states. At the outset some were describing “dividing lines” between the older and the newer members of the European Union. The argument for that was that some of the countries that entered the EU in 2004 have a history that can be a heavy burden and differentiate their attitudes from the older EU members. Now, as a result of the financial crisis we are seeing more European unity, not less. Of course in this sort of crisis, ideas may always flourish that one should focus on one’s national interests. Or that a recipe for success in dealing with the crisis is on a national basis. But the truth is that we will have a recipe for success only if we deal with the crisis in a holistic way, by taking into account the problems of everyone, in the North and the South, the East and the West. Everyone understands this and the voices of medium-sized countries like Greece or Austria or even smaller countries like Cyprus and Malta, are being heard constructively on the crisis and other issues. So my view is that the individual differences among our members are ultimately a strength for the EU as a whole.

Q: Turning to the OSCE, Greece is chairing it at a difficult moment. How do you see the situation?

A: The OSCE these last few years was not much appreciated, to put it politely, by some of its member countries. People sometimes felt that it was too difficult to get agreement among our 56 member countries, with America and Russia at the same table. With decision-making by consensus, there is of course no guarantee that you will get to some agreement, even at the lowest common denominator. So some people were worried that the OSCE was lacking teeth.

The Georgia crisis, in my opinion, changed that perception. First of all, it made clear how wrong it is to believe that we don’t have to deal with the “frozen conflicts.” As shown in Georgia, they don’t just stay frozen but can become hot very quickly – and hot in Europe. The Georgia crisis was a war in Europe, the first war between two countries since World War II and that is very serious. In this conflict, the EU took the initiative in peace-making, under the leadership of President Sarkozy, in trying to find a modus vivendi. But the OSCE also played a valuable role during the crisis which showed its true potential. Furthermore the OSCE has not only been helpful on the ground, but could be a forum to start a dialogue and keep everyone engaged. A lot will depend on the willingness of Russia and of the new American administration. If both want, the OSCE can be the forum used to proceed with the needed dialogue. There are other places where interaction is on-going with Russia – for example, the NATO-Russia Council, the EU dialogue with Russia and other channels. But the OSCE could create added value as a forum for discussions on security issues.

Q: Do you think that the OSCE would remain a viable venue for discussions even if the OSCE mission in Georgia has to be withdrawn? Right now, the status and future of the mission seem to be in limbo. Russia wants the “status” of the mission to implicitly recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia and its supporters want to ensure that the mission is defined in terms of Georgia’s territorial integrity, including the two breakaway regions that have been recognized by Moscow. How do you see the way forward? What will happen if the mission has to close?

A: Honestly, the closing of the OSCE Mission in Georgia would be a setback. We have had some successes such as the agreement we got on the continued presence of 20 military observers in Georgia. We also had another step forward when an agreement was brokered, with a lot of shuttle diplomacy by my special representative, to resume the flow of natural gas from Georgia to South Ossetia. This problem did not get a lot of publicity, but nevertheless was a major humanitarian issue for those living in the region of South Ossetia. We managed to solve that.

The OSCE presence is needed there because it is doing good work. To continue, we need the cooperation of both Russia and Georgia. Either of them can stop the Mission if they want to, but we will spare no effort in trying to show everyone that the Mission is needed. We in Greece are well positioned as honest brokers, and we try to be as constructive as possible, understanding that we are dealing with two completely different points of view. Thus we have prepared a proposal which, in our view, does not cross the “red lines” of anybody. If we want to keep the Mission, we have to “de-politicize” its role, put its presence on a technical level and get agreement that there is essential work for the Mission to perform that all sides want to see continue.

If the future status of the OSCE Mission implies, one way or the other, recognition or non-recognition; then you won’t have a Mission. We must all understand that agreeing to a Mission does not automatically mean that you have reached an agreement on the essence of the problem. It means you have a compromise, and the OSCE can continue being important in the Geneva talks (about the Georgian conflict), presenting a third point of view there. Meanwhile the OSCE could continue its humanitarian work, institution-building and helping out with practical questions the way we did with the gas problem.

It’s not an easy situation but almost by definition, the OSCE performs very difficult tasks. Our 19 Missions are in democratic countries in transition. That implies changes and necessary reforms, while frankly no government is delighted to have an international mission on its soil which might criticize its actions. But everybody agrees that our presence is healthy. In my opinion, if we didn’t have the OSCE today, we would need to invent it.

Q: There has been a call by Russia for a new pan-European security pact. Moscow says this proposal could address many new international challenges, including terrorism. But initial reactions in some Western capitals have characterized the initiative as a bid to undercut NATO – and perhaps even the OSCE. Now the OSCE is discussed as a possible venue for talks about this idea. As the representative of Greek foreign policy, are you and your government especially receptive to proposals coming out of Moscow?

A: I think everybody pays close attention to what the Russians say. The Euro-Atlantic structures have proven themselves in the post-war period by guaranteeing an era of security that makes practically all participants happy. So nobody is calling into question NATO or, the EU. Having said that, the question is: Should one build on the existing framework by going further to address long-term security issues which exist in Europe and engaging Russia? Our answer is yes, we should have a dialogue with the Russians, including but not limited to its continuation in the NATO-Russia Council and the EU-Russia talks. As President Sarkozy and other European leaders have said, we need to look at our common security together and discuss and take note of what President Medvedev has put on the table. The question is how to do this and what format should one use. My opinion is that the OSCE is well positioned to handle this because its structure is already in place and such talks are part of its mandate. We all know that the Helsinki process that ultimately led to a ground-breaking accord about Europe’s future was a very long process. So if we want to proceed now, we have to be well prepared from the outset and be modest and patient [about our ambitions]. But a new dialogue with Russia is possible. Still it must be clear that it must not just be on issues of “hard security” but also on “soft” security issues among others: energy security, climate change, etc. So we should explore this as this seems to be the opinion of the vast majority of Europeans.

Q: What are you telling leaders in the Obama administration about this?

A: I am saying that there is a unique momentum. The change in the U.S. administration has produced high expectations for better and more balanced cooperation between the EU and the United States. We should see where we can combine our forces and build bridges. The atmosphere is good, but atmosphere alone is not enough. You need to have real policies towards that end. Knowing the challenges – and there are many, I don’t want to elaborate further but we all need to work on concrete policies of cooperation of benefit to everyone.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 10, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2009.