President Soares in interview: A year of great challenges

OSCE PA President Joao Soares (Portugal) recently discussed his priorities for the coming year and his hopes for the new Greek Chairmanship of the OSCE. In an interview for the OSCE PA website, Mr. Soares described what he sees as the greatest challenges facing the Organization and the role of the Parliamentary Assembly in addressing these challenges, particularly when it comes to so-called 'frozen conflicts.'

Other issues discussed in the interview included the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, the Mediterranean Partners for Co-operation and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposal for a 'new European security architecture.'

Here follows the full transcript of the interview.

Question: In general, how do you see the coming year for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly?

Joao Soares: I see the coming year as one of great challenges. We are the world's largest international organization - besides the United Nations, of course - ranging from Vancouver to Vladivostok. And we comprise a territory in which many of the major challenges and the major difficulties are occurring in the world. So, for me, it's very important that both the governmental and the parliamentary sides of the OSCE are ready to meet the challenges we face.

I can give you an example: the recently solved gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine. We are the only international organization that has within our territory the major producers, the major transporters, and the major consumers of this energy. So we are the most able of the international organizations to face this challenge. Because it's not only Russia that produces the gas, it also comes from Central Asian countries that are members of the OSCE, some of which are very active members of the OSCE, for example, Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and all these Central Asian countries are connected with Russia by the gas pipelines and, of course, Ukraine and Belarus, the countries that transfer this gas to the consumers in Western Europe, which are also active members of our organization.

Q: How do you propose that this gas/energy conflict be solved? And what should be the role of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly?

JS: We know the limits of our power and our capacity. As experienced parliamentarians from 55 parliaments and 56 states, we have the power to influence the governmental side. We can use the powers and rights that we have to influence those who have the executive capacity in our organization. And of course we can be on the frontline of the political discussions that are behind the crisis that we are experiencing so strongly this winter.

We can also play the role of being a forum and a political platform for the discussions, both political and technical about these questions, as we have been, for example, in the crisis that we lived through last summer in the Caucasus and the war between Georgia and Russia. The most important debate over this crisis was held by the Parliamentary Assembly at our Fall Meetings in Toronto.

Q: Where do you see the Georgia crisis today and how do we go forward?

JS: We have my predecessor and good friend, and a great parliamentarian from Sweden, President Emeritus Goran Lennmarker as our Special Envoy to the Caucasus. He went there a few days after the war and visited Georgia, tried to go to South Ossetia but was denied entry, has been to Azerbaijan and Armenia, and has played a discrete but very strong role in this conflict and in the preparation of the debate that we had in Toronto.

At the same time, I was with Secretary General Spencer Oliver in Moscow talking with Mr. Lavrov and with Mr. Grizlov to prepare for the debate in Toronto in September. And Goran Lennmarker and I have been following the situation very closely and talking frequently with the political figures of this region and Russia. I have been updated several times by Mr. Lavrov with whom I had a working meeting during the Helsinki Ministerial Council of the OSCE, and with Russian ambassadors. We have also been in touch with the former Foreign Minister of Georgia, Eka Tkeshelashvili, and the new Foreign Minister of Georgia, Grigol Vashadze, and we are discussing with our Georgian and Russian parliamentary members the possibilities we have to promote solutions to this crisis.

Q: Do you plan a personal initiative or trip to the region?

JS: There are some proposals on the way from Goran Lennmarker, who I trust very much and who I consider as a reference for us in the Parliamentary Assembly, and we will wait for his next visit to the Caucasus, that will take place very soon, to consider new initiatives.

Q: What else do you plan to concentrate on as President in the coming year?

JS: Well, regarding the Caucasus, I want to underline that we are talking to people who are in power and with people who are also in the opposition. As far as Georgia is concerned, I've talked with Nino Burjanadze, who was a member of our Parliamentary Assembly and who is a very experienced parliamentarian and the last President of the Georgian parliament. I've also talked with Salomé Zourabichvili, who is a former Foreign Minister and who is now in the Georgian opposition, which shows that the Parliamentary Assembly respects the role of the opposition as part of the democratic process.

But I am also concerned with the other so-called frozen conflicts, such as Nagorno-Karabakh. Goran Lenmarker is following this situation closely, and we hope that we can take initiatives at the parliamentary level as far as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, involving Azerbaijan and Armenia, is concerned. And we are also paying close attention to Transdniestria. I will go to Moldova and Transdniestria in the beginning of February, before our Winter Meeting in Vienna, to have personal discussions with the political figures there.

We are also trying to improve our contacts with our partners in the Mediterranean. Our Special Representative for the Mediterranean, former President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Congressman Alcee Hastings made a comprehensive tour of our Mediterranean Partners in early December of 2008, and we will try to increase our discussion about the crisis the world is now experiencing in the Middle East.

Q: How important is the Mediterranean region for the Assembly?

JS: The Mediterranean region is fundamental for peace and security in the OSCE region. Many of our Southern countries have close contact with our Mediterranean Partners. And we have seen the way that democratic changes are being implemented in many of these countries. Perhaps we should even try to adapt our rules to provide our Mediterranean partners a stronger voice in our meetings, forums, and debates. I was very glad to see that in our Fall Meetings in Toronto during the debate on the Caucasus crisis, there was strong participation from Mediterranean Partners.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposal for a new European security architecture. How do you view this issue? And what do you think the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's role in this discussion should be?

JS: That is something we have been discussing with our Russian partners and also our French partners, because President Nikolas Sarkozy welcomed the proposal that President Medvedev made, during the French presidency of the European Union. And I see clearly that the OSCE should be in the center of this discussion and is the appropriate forum for this discussion about the new architecture for security and co-operation in Europe.

We have listened carefully to our Russian counterparts, both at the governmental and parliamentary levels, and we know that our Russian friends want the architecture to be different from the OSCE. They want it to include NATO and the Commonwealth of Independent States. And I agree with the idea of having all those who are relevant around the discussion table, but the table of the discussion should be the OSCE, where all members of NATO, the EU, and the CIS are already represented in their national capacities.

This discussion does not depend on the Parliamentary Assembly, because if it depended on the Parliamentary Assembly, the discussion would be underway, but it depends on the governmental side. And I am a little bit afraid, and I don't want to criticize because I believe strongly in the work that the OSCE does, but we should be careful about the tendency that all great international organizations have to get caught up in internal bureaucratic debates instead of looking outward. The most important value that the OSCE has had, even when it was a conference, was the fact that it was the most flexible international organization and the most open to the outside world.

The OSCE should have more people in its field missions than in its headquarters in Vienna. But the headquarters, administratively, is becoming fatter, and that is something we as parliamentarians should always point out. And we in the Parliamentary Assembly have expressed our concerns over the bureaucratic gridlock in Vienna, because we believe strongly in the capacity of the organization to which we belong.

Q: Let me ask you about the next six months leading up to the Annual Session in Vilnius. By that time, what do you hope as President to have accomplished?

JS: I hope that when we arrive in Vilnius, we have improved the role of the Parliamentary Assembly at all levels. As far as election monitoring missions are concerned, I think it's now perfectly clear to the OSCE governmental side the change we need (to quote Barack Obama) in our organization. And I would like to increase our capacity to be on top of the issues and to respond to them quickly as they are occurring.

We have the ambition to discuss and address all the major issues and challenges for the countries that our within our organization - from Vancouver to Vladivostok. I have great expectations about the economic conference that we are going to have in Dublin in May 2009. The world, and our region, is facing a big economic crisis.

And we can also be on the frontline for proposals that are needed to face new challenges, never seen before in our recent history. And I want to underline the fact that we have many, many experienced people in our parliamentary delegations. These are people who have been in executive power, who have been in governments, who are going to be in governments, and who have broad international relations experience. This experience is very valuable to encourage the governmental side to be more open to change and reform.

Q: Do you want to say anything about your hopes for the Greek chairmanship?

JS: I had the pleasure of being with Secretary General Spencer Oliver and Presidential Advisor Andreas Baker in Athens in December of 2008 working with our Greek partners in the parliament, the President of Parliament, the Head and the Deputy Head of the Greek parliamentary delegation Panayotis Skandalakis and Petros Efthymiou, and also with the Greek Foreign Minister, Dora Bakoyannis. Personally I have great expectations as far as the Greek Chairmanship is concerned because they have very experienced politicians who are ambitious and energetic, and I think they will make a positive contribution to our Organization.

And we also have a very good team of Greek parliamentarians participating in our Assembly. It is important to remember that the history of democracy started in Greece, and I am confident that our Greek counterparts will be faithful to their roots. And they are in a very special region of the world where many of the conflicts we are facing are taking place which makes their experience and their sensibility very relevant.

I also have great expectations for the Fall Meetings we are going to have in Athens. I am optimistic that the Greeks are open to the idea of a summit to discuss Medvedev's and Sarkozy's proposal for a new European security architecture. Our Russian friends might be looking more to the following year, when Kazakhstan takes over the Chairmanship, but we will see what happens. We are also looking forward to what changes happen in the United States with the inauguration of Barack Obama, and those changes will start with the change of the American Ambassador who plays a very special role in Vienna, in the heart of our Organization, in the Permanent Council.