Since the Ukrainian crisis started, the tone at the table of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) can recall the Cold War. But at least the US and Russia talk to each other in this format on a daily basis, Lamberto Zannier told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Lamberto Zannier is an Italian career diplomat who currently serves as Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization. Its 57 participating states are located in Europe, northern and central Asia and North America and cover much of the land area of the Northern Hemisphere. It was created during the Cold War era as an East–West forum.
He spoke to EurActiv’s Senior Editor, Georgi Gotev.
What brings you to Brussels? I saw in the Commissioners’ program that you met with Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi?.
I often come to Brussels. The EU is a key stakeholder in the OSCE. I meet with people in the Commission, with ambassadors of the PSC, with officials in the European External Action Service, I will also meet with people in NATO. It’s a regular exchange of information on the agenda of the organisation and issues of common interest.
The EU is a very strong force within the OSCE. Take our operation in Ukraine. 70% of the budget of the OSCE is paid by the EU, so 70% of that operation is also paid by the EU. And 70% of the staff of that operation, roughly, is from EU countries.
Can you explain the role of the OSCE in Eastern Ukraine? Is it about observing what is happening on the ground, and does the OSCE play a role in assessing the implementation of the Minsk agreements?
We have a monitoring mission, but we have also a role also in the context of the negotiation, in facilitating the dialogue. We are more involved in certain groups than others, but we are in the Trilateral contact group on Ukraine, the group that is the chapeau of the whole operation. [The Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine is a group of representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the OSCE that was formed as means to facilitate a diplomatic resolution to the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.]
It’s a complex architecture, because you have the Normandy format on top of it [the Normandy format, in which the Minsk agreements were negotiated, consists of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany].
On the ground, the role of the OSCE has evolved. It has a broad mandate. The mandate is mostly about monitoring and reporting, in an environment that is very polarised when it comes to the media, the role of the media and the interpretation of what is going on. It’s good to have an international, more impartial voice, that is on a daily basis reporting what is happening.
But then beyond that, we have taken the role of facilitation on the ground, that has become over time very close to the role of a peace-keeping operation. Our personnel are unarmed, but we are monitoring the ceasefire. And we are engaging more in relations with the population, humanitarian assistance, assisting the sides to de-mine, and we are monitoring the withdrawal of the heavy weapons, according to the annex agreement to the Minsk protocol. And we are periodically looking at the situation in these areas.
We have now UAVs [drones], we are also developing capacity with fixed cameras mounted high up on mobile vehicles, to look in the distance. Ee have satellite imagery. The EU is contributing to that. We are trying to look a little bit at the borders. We have a separate mission in Russia, in the Rostov oblast. It’s a small mission, at two border crossing points.
Is it close to Donetsk and Lugansk?
Yes. The two places are called Gukovo and Donetsk. So there action (is) going well beyond observing and reporting.
Does it mean that you are able to see everything you would like to see?
We still have problems of freedom of access. We would like to be able to move around more freely, but we keep getting stopped at checkpoints and delayed in our movements. A few times we have also been harassed. We have had quite a few incidents; some of our monitors have been taken hostage for a month. We have been shot at, a number of times.
Who is usually behind this?
It’s always very difficult to tell, but the hostages were taken in the separatist area, by some of the groups operating there. The latest incidents we had is when we had our people threatened on the separatist side, but then on the Ukrainian side we had one of our vehicles shot at. So it’s not entirely just one side to blame.
Do you realistically believe that a reasonable solution can be found, or is it going to be another frozen conflict for many years to come?
The solution can be found if the sides engage in good faith and decide to find it. Obviously nothing is easy, everything is very sensitive politically. Now there are difficult discussions coming up in the Rada [the Parliament] in Ukraine, I hope they make the right decisions….
On the constitutional reform?
On the constitutional reform, that is part of the implementation process of the Minsk agreement. This was already due last year, so it’s important it moves forward. On that basis there will be elections. We have offered to monitor the elections, so we can help build the road toward normalisation. But we will support. We cannot decide on behalf of the parties or instead of the sides. They will have to make their own decisions. We will respect those decisions.
Regarding the frozen conflict scenario, what we see now is not a frozen conflict. Yes, the military are increasingly entrenched and there are continued violations to the ceasefire, there is a threat of larger-scale resumption of hostilities. The military set-up on both sides is pretty robust. So there is still a potential for major operations, if they decide to take that course. Obviously we hope this won’t be the case and we’re there to facilitate reengagement. But nothing is frozen. If we manage to have full respect of the ceasefire, this will create space for us to develop a number of other functions, in the direction of economic stabilisation, rehabilitation…
You have a mandate for that?
The mandate is very broad and we can certainly do that, if we find the financial support and the human resources for making that happen. But before that you need safe environment and elections. You cannot credible elections in an environment where you have armed militias roaming around, people intimidated and a continuation of low level hostilities. Because this would impact on the elections, and we will have to assess the conditions for elections.
What are the living conditions of people?
I’m increasingly been told that people are tired of this. People are suffering, there is increasing unemployment, and we are getting close to a humanitarian catastrophe there. The Ukrainians are very keen on reestablishing links [with the rest of Ukraine], but the pensions and the reactivation of all the social services is issues linked to everything else.
The OSCE is a European organisation where Russia and the USA also sit. What role are the Russians and Americans playing in all this? There are high stake for both of the, right?
Of course. I would say both are playing a very important role. The OSCE is about inclusivity. The American ambassador talks on a daily basis to the Russian ambassador in Vienna, and that’s probably the place where there is the most intense exchange. Even though it’s very difficult. The atmospherics have changed, and after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis sometimes the tone reminds us of the Cold War. Of course it’s a different environment, but on the table of the OSCE there are very tough exchanges at this moment. But there are exchanges. And there are issues on which there are convergences, like when it comes to fighting terrorism, or violent extremism, radicalisation and that sort of things.
Can we be optimistic about a solution based on the Minsk agreements, leading to the lifting of sanctions?
It’s not for me to say. Obviously there are difficult decisions needed. On the one hand, it’s important that the Rada in Kyiv passes the legislation that is needed to take these steps forward. On the other, we would like to see also a termination of transfer of military equipment, of ammunition to the separatists, because this is fuelling a long-term conflict.
You mentioned earlier two border crossing points. Are you able to monitor the entire Ukraine-Russia border?
No, we are not able to monitor the borders as we would like to. We are episodically reaching them, but we don’t have systematic control of the borders.
The ultimate goal of the Minsk agreement is that Ukraine restores control of its border.
When shall we see that day?
That is a step that should come after the elections. There’s a sequence in there. That’s why I would like to see all the steps falling in place. We have even been considering, internally, the possibility of investing more in terms of presence at the border, preparing the ground for the Ukrainians to return.
But can you explain why you have a presence at two spots, and no presence on the long line of the border?
That was an agreement reached in Berlin in July 2014, in the Normandy format. At that time, there were only two crossing points that were not controlled by the Ukrainian border forces. And the agreement was to place the OSCE on the Russian side, because we had very little freedom of movement on the separatist side.
That mission had a three-month mandate that was each time renewed. There is however a problem, because after that agreement, there was the Mariupol offensive in the South, and the border not controlled by the Ukrainians expanded down to the Azov Sea. And there were other border crossing points there, but they were not covered by the Berlin agreement, and the Russians refused to review this agreement.