RD Interview: The Secretary General of the OSCE discusses the latest on Ukraine, European counter-terrorism, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the goals of his upcoming trip to Moscow.

Police officers and volunteers take part in a security exercise at the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in northern France in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks attacks in Brussels. Photo: AP

Against the backdrop of continued negotiations over the political fate of Eastern Ukraine and growing concerns about terrorism within Europe, Russia Direct recently sat down with the Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lamberto Zannier, to discuss security challenges facing Russia and its European partners.

Ahead of his upcoming visit to Moscow, Zannier discusses several of the problems he sees in resolving the Ukraine crisis – including an increase in the number of ceasefire violations and worrying signs that the coordination mechanisms between Russia and Ukraine are now dysfunctional.

In addition to discussing the current situation in Ukraine, Zannier outlines possible ways the OSCE might become more involved in counter-terrorism activity. As Zannier points out, the OSCE needs to evolve continually in response to new security challenges, something that he plans to discuss at next week’s meetings with Russia’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

Russia Direct: After the Brussels terrorist act you made a strong statement: “We can no longer just complain and mourn. We need to acknowledge that what we have done so far is insufficient and things are bound to get much worse. We need to act on multiple fronts — a more determined fight against terrorist groups and, in the longer term, clearer strategies to promote integration and avoid social marginalization. We must also act to protect our own culture and civilization, which is coming under attack.” How do you see this new effort carried out by the OSCE?

Lamberto Zannier: The OSCE is a security organization and we always need to adjust our agenda to address the security challenges that affect people. Terrorist acts are affecting our countries — all of them in different ways. Therefore, we need to take this very seriously and need to step up our engagement.

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Of course, I wouldn’t say that the OSCE is an anti-terrorist organization. But as a security organization, we need to see how to contribute. In doing that, we begin from the areas where we already have the mandate.

We have decisions made by our ministers on preventing the movement of terrorists, countering the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes, countering violent extremism and terrorism, enhancing legal cooperation in criminal matters and promoting human rights and the rule of law.

RD: Within these areas that you have mentioned, what exactly can be done?

L.Z.: We move in many directions. At the strategic level, we work with the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the United Nations and assist them in the implementation of anti-terrorism conventions at the regional level. We have a memorandum of understanding with Interpol, and we are discussing stepping up our engagement to assist Interpol to work better with our participating states.

We have a number of specific initiatives at the OSCE, for example focusing on the violent extremism issue. We are working on social media training for youth on countering violent extremist narratives. We use our field operations and events here. Not so long ago, we launched a big campaign to counter violent extremism and terrorism, and already more than five million people have been reached.

We have also more technical activities, like training for police officers and border guards. And we promote inter-agency cooperation.

 The OSCE Secretary General, Lamberto Zannier, right, during the interview with Russia DIrect. Photo: OSCE / Victoria Segovia 

RD: In Central Asia you mean?

L.Z.: We do it in many places, including Central Asia. In northern Italy, in co-operation with the Italian Police, we will be organizing  a series of trainings on anti-trafficking as part of combating human trafficking, but there is a terrorist angle in that activity.

There are many things we can do. We don’t have a monopoly or a specialized role, but we can contribute to the overall fight because all our countries are one way or the other affected by this.

There are many angles to terrorism. If you focus on the foreign fighters’ issue, for example, you will see that we need to start looking at our own societies first.

Some of the fighters in Syria come from the U.K., France, the Balkans, Russia, Central Asia, from many places in the OSCE region. Each of these states has to understand what we also need to do internally — and the OSCE is one of many platforms where we can discuss that challenge and act against these problems.

RD: What can you say about cooperation in this field between Russia and Western states that are participants of the OSCE? Is it satisfactory? Is it moving anywhere?

L.Z.: I would say yes. We complain that geopolitics is back and that working together is more difficult. But on the agenda of the OSCE I would say that the issue of fighting against terrorism is one of those areas where this cooperation is more visible. We cooperate with Interpol, the European Union, NATO, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

RD: What is the current state of cooperation between the OSCE and CSTO?

L.Z.: We have regular contacts. I have excellent relations with CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha. I visited him a number of times and he came here to Vienna.

Of course, the nature of our organizations is different. Our mandates and modes of operation are different but some of the challenges we face are the same. This is a good base for us to continue talking to each other and continue engaging and discussing how to create new coalitions to address new problems.

RD: Could you give some tangible examples that could explain some weaknesses, not just strengths, of the OSCE in the field of counter-terrorism, so that it could be clear what exactly can be done in concrete terms? As far as I understand, information sharing among special services is not part of the OSCE mandate.

L.Z.: Of course not. We cover another space. You have to build coalitions and have tools because the policy of the organization is only as strong as the weakest link of the chain. We have to identify where the potential problems are. For example, the Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe — that’s important. We train border guards in the region and through that, we give expertise.

What is interesting about the College is that we bring border guards from various countries, including Afghanistan. We had more than 300 Afghans there. We train them together with the Central Asians. They come to know each other better and it’s easier for them to cooperate later in addressing common challenges.

We are strengthening rule of law in a number of countries where we have field operations — working with the police, prosecutors, etc. The more efficient these offices will be, the more efficient these countries will be in addressing the problems that they have.

Another thing that we do is work a lot with civil society. And that’s a good starting point to address the problem of violent extremism. Look at the root causes of terrorism. The fact that societies are becoming more complex, more multiethnic and the tensions that creates, the marginalization of groups that can produce homegrown terrorism is something that we see.

RD: What are the lessons of the latest flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? Do you foresee any changes in the OSCE’s work there?

L.Z.: We are working at the political level and are trying to send Personal Representative of the Chairperson-in Office Ambassador Andrzej Kasparzyk to monitor the situation in the region.

Unfortunately, Nagorno-Karabakh has been a long-term issue on the agenda of the organization. It can only be solved by the sides involved. I personally believe that in order to strengthen the ceasefire, we should have a mechanism to investigate incidents. These proposals are on the table.

We need confidence-building measures. We need a set of measures to help develop a climate of mutual trust, which is not there right now. The problem is that, for one reason or the other, the sides never made any progress in agreeing even on these small steps. Therefore, we operate in a climate of mistrust.

The town of Askeran, near the area where clashes with Azeri forces were taking place, in Nagorno-Karabakh region. Photo: Reuters

We have seen progressively over the last two years a slowly increasing number of violations of the ceasefire, casualties, including among the civilian population. The latest flare-up was the biggest crisis since 1994. This now has led to an intensification of political action, including action by the Russian Federation as one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group.

Certainly, the OSCE Chairperson (German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier) has been active. The Minsk Group has met here. We had a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council last week. That’s what the OSCE does: We put at the disposal of the sides a set of mechanisms. But at the end of the day it is up to them to use it and what to make out of it.

RD: The Ukraine crisis has long been at the center of the OSCE’s attention. Yet, in the past months we have seen an increase in violations of the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine. Do you see chances today to move forward with the implementation of the Minsk Agreement?

L.Z.: The situation on the ground is worrying. We have seen a multiplication of ceasefire violations, the lines of contact coming closer together. In a situation where we have seen a rather static phase in terms of the movement of the lines, with every inch that is gained, it is difficult to convince the sides to go back. That should be our plan: We should try to work towards disengagement, to move them further apart and also create space for us to be better inserted between the sides to avoid restarting of the hostilities.

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However, I am concerned that one mechanism that has been set up by an agreement between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, called the Joint Center for Coordination and Control (JCCC), has become rather dysfunctional over time. Although the JCCC was not a product of the OSCE, it was conceived to contribute to  creating local ceasefires, addressing incidents. For that, you need a place where there is military-to-military contact.

RD: When did the JCCC become dysfunctional, or less active than one would wish?

L.Z.: It did not happen overnight. Over time there was an increasing distance between the Ukrainian and Russian sides of the JCCC. In the initial phase they were working together, in the same building. Then they started disconnecting physically.

We talked to both sides of the JCCC but they did not engage enough with each other. We became almost a bridge between the two — which we are happy to do if that helps. But we would welcome more direct engagement between them in discussing the issues and would be happy to be around to support it.

RD: When exactly did that happen?

L.Z.: I think the turning point was during the fighting in Debaltseve (in January-February of 2015) but recently it became even worse.

RD: Are there any attempts to revive the process of reforming the OSCE? There were high expectations for the German chairmanship. It’s been four months already. Has anything happened?

L.Z.: The German chairmanship is very pragmatic. They avoid setting over-ambitious agendas. Despite the fact that the Helsinki +40 process [institutional reform of the OSCE — Editor’s note] is formally over, the issue of reforming the OSCE remains.

Because of the divisions among our participating States, there are different visions of what the OSCE should become in the future. In the context where it is difficult to find an agreement, the best thing is to try to improve what we have now, looking at areas where we can make practical steps forward.

To give you an example, we are doing really well with what we call Security Days [high-level conferences devoted to critical aspects of security that bring together officials from governments and international organizations, academic experts and representatives of civil society from OSCE participating states. — Editor’s note].

There was one on migration in Europe that opened the way for a policy discussion on the role of the OSCE on migration — an informal working group has been set up. And there will be one in Berlin on the topic of reconnecting Europe, rebuilding trust and confidence.

We are going to the roots of the problems that have emerged in Europe over the last several years. I don’t see movement on ideas such as drafting  a charter. This proposal remains on the table, of course.

RD: Russia favors the creation of a charter for the OSCE, turning it into a full-fledged international organization. What are the arguments against it?

L.Z.: The OSCE was built as a conference, as a political process. Now it calls itself an organization but I think it’s the only international organization that has no member states; it only has participating states. That gives you the notion that the countries see themselves as participants in a process and not members of an organization.

The transformation of the CSCE (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe — Editor’s note) into an organization is not complete, and some don’t really think that we should go beyond what we have done.

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The decisions that we take are political. Our only legal document is the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and it is in a major crisis. At the same time, our political commitments are very strong. Some countries are saying that we can preserve the flexibility of the organization if we do not formalize it too much. I discussed it with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, and he said: Well, the United Nations is based on a charter and it is a very flexible organization anyhow.

You can argue it both ways.

RD: You are traveling to Moscow in the coming days for a conference on international security organized by the Russian Defense Ministry. What do you intend to do in Moscow other than that — are there other meetings?

L.Z.: I am going to have meetings at the Foreign Ministry. I am also interested in attending this conference and raising a few issues there. I am concerned that the political-military agenda of the OSCE is somehow losing speed. We need to rethink some of the things we do.

For instance, we have transparency and confidence-building measures that are still based on documents developed in the 1990s that reflect the post-Cold War phase. Now that we have new forms of “hybrid” conflict, we need to re-look at them and adjust them.

Eduard Basurin, deputy corps' commander of the Defense Ministry of the Donetsk People's Republic, talks to OSCE mission staff in the village of Nikolaevka. Photo: AP

For example, when OSCE participating states tried to send military inspectors to Ukraine under the Vienna Document in the beginning of the crisis in Donbas, some of those inspectors were taken hostage. I remember that one of the first tasks of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) was freeing those inspectors.

Therefore, one of the things I personally believe we could do is to have a more neutral way of performing inspections in the polarized environment of conflict or crisis — maybe having inspectors under the OSCE flag rather than national inspectors.

RD: You mean OSCE military inspectors?

L.Z.: Yes. Why not? I know there is skepticism around it but I also think that a good case can be made for that. After all, the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is an OSCE operation and because it is an OSCE operation, it has more access than anyone else can have. Replicating this in the arms control area could be perhaps one way to go forward.