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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Trying to fill in the missing holes of Europe is not easy

Trying to fill in the missing holes of Europe is not easy

Interview with: Jean-Louis Laurens
7 June 2009 - Issue : 837

When Georgia went into its would-be breakaway province of South Ossetia last year, and Russia swiftly counter-attacked in a rout that left the Georgian forces decimated and the province – along with its Georgia neighbor, Abkhazia, now in Russian hands – it caused more than concern at the Council of Europe, because both are members and it was the first time two had gone to war. The Council, Europe’s low-keyed and quiet campaigner for human rights, was left with the vexing problem of how to handle the aftermath, although insisting it supports territorial integrity and backs Georgia’s claim to still have a right to the provinces.

It wasn’t the only example of how the European Union and its other neighbours in Europe who are members of the council have left a lot of holes in the map: there’s the question of what to do about Kosovo, which broke away from Serbia and declared its independence, riling Russia and creating a dilemma of whether the new country should be recognised, a delicate affair indeed for the Council, which keeps an arms-length distance from intrusive politics.

And there’s Cyprus, where the Turkish army still occupies the northern third of that European Union member, even while Turkey wants to join the club, but won’t recognize Cyprus or allow its ships or planes to enter Turkey. And there’s Belarus, ruled by a repressive leader whose authority is so heavy-handed, it’s the only Council member to be suspended, but where entreaties are always being made to push for democracy and to meet the Council’s standards.

The Council is based in Strasbourg, France, but has an office in Brussels, and it was there last week that its top troubleshooter, Jean-Louis Laurens, Director General of Democracy and Political Affairs, had an on-the-record sit-down lunch with journalists from several news organisations, including New Europe, and then was interviewed on our television arm, NEtv. Laurens, comfortable and freely-speaking with his suit jacket off, was frank and open and didn’t shy away from tough questions, making him a remarkable diplomat indeed, one who sought out thoughts and opinions and didn’t shy away or hide in his office.

He said of Europe that, “If you look at the map, there are still missing pieces, one is Belarus and the other is Kosovo,” two countries the Council would like to see included under its aegis, even as he acknowledged their problems were different and said, “Of course, they are not at the same level.” The problem for the Council is that Serbia is already a member and, while it can’t block recognition or bar entry by itself, can make the issue very thorny indeed, as the Council doesn’t want to inflame feelings. That’s why the Council hasn’t officially taken a position on Kosovo’s independence, but he noted it was able to work with Kosovo and Serbia to help restore Orthodox religious structures that were destroyed in riots. “It was giving a signal we don’t accept a monolithic situation,” and can be an important mediator, he said, even as he acknowledged, “There is clearly a deficit of human rights protection in Kosovo.”

He said the Russia-Georgia case was even more troublesome and that the Council is still pushing the right of people displaced from their homes to return. But, he lamented, “We have no access to South Ossetia, it’s impossible for us to go there.” Instead, he said, it is working with non-governmental organizations and said, “We’re preparing the ground for dialogue and solutions,” a tactic the Council prefers to confrontation and badgering.

In Moldova, where riots ensued over elections, Laurens said there was a lot of misinformation and said the international community wasn’t paying enough attention to the country, one of Europe’s poorest. “Clearly, there were peaceful demonstrations that turned violent,” he said, adding that he knows because he went to the capital of Chisinau and found there had been many arrests and many people injured in violent incidents, which dissidents claim was the result of beatings from the authorities. “What I saw was real violence,” he said.

But he said as a result of the visit and intervention by the Council that many of those arrested had been released and there is now more scrutiny over what is happening in the country. “The political situation is very complex,” he said, because a three-fifths majority is required to elect a president and the ruling body is one vote short, which will mean new elections this summer, not giving enough time for the Council to effectively monitor the polls. He said he found evidence the last election was not fair and said, “There is very little time to correct shortcomings in the last election … voting lists where some people voted twice,” and where the opposition has no access to the media.

“We need to make sure voter lists are being checked by the international community. This is one of the poorest countries in Europe and it’s in a very difficult situation,” he said. In the end, he said, the Council will continue to use diplomacy and negotiation because, he said, “Most decisions can be made by a majority, but we practically never vote. We look for consensus,” even if that’s hard to find in the jigsaw puzzle that is Europe.

Making it clear
Later, in the NEtv interview, he elucidated on what he said at the luncheon.

We’ve heard a lot today about, what you called, some of the holes in Europe, some of the missing pieces. I am particularly interested in Belarus, do you feel that Belarus is slowly inching closer to democracy and the standards of Europe? Or have they been forced to that by the economic situation in which they find themselves?
Our assessment is that recently there’ve been timid moves in more positive, European-oriented policy in Belarus. One positive step definitely was liberation of some key figures of the opposition, some political prisoners. That of course was of the most welcome development because there cannot be a notion of political prisoner and democracy. They’re totally alien. You can’t be a democracy if you have political prisoners. Also there have been a registration of some movements including political opposition, some NGOs were registered. But not everything goes in the same right direction. There are also signals of still difficulties, for example people being arrested for taking part in activities on democracy outside of Belarus. However our assessment is to try to give encouragement in positive developments. That’s why we are now creating an information office in Minsk, and the Assembly is considering re-establishing institutional links with the parliament of Belarus.

When you imagine Kosovo as well, you explained that it’s not at the UN Security Council where Serbia can block any progress on that. Yet, has Serbia been inching closer to a position … beginning to see the value of what the Council is talking about having some more openness in terms of recognising Kosovo?

I have to be clear. Serbia has always favoured the Council of Europe working in Kosovo. It has always been supportive of the Council work to promote standards and values in Kosovo. Because they do realise that this is also for the benefit of the minority population living still in Kosovo. And this is provided by status-neutral. The Council of Europe is not in the situation of recognition, not recognition. Our work is to promote normal European values in Kosovo.


James Higham said...

My goodness, John, that was really something. I'll copy, paste and read.

jailhouselawyer said...

James: Yes, I think I struck gold with this article.