As personal envoy of Chairman-in-Office for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Netherlands Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Central Asia, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari holds a unique position. Among the five Central Asian nations, all members of the OSCE, the recently appointed veteran diplomat strives to maintain dialogue with the newly established states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.
Looking at the many regional challenges ahead, including rising poverty, corruption, Islamic extremism, human rights violations, and a lack of pluralism, he said in an interview with IRIN: "There is no alternative to dialogue, even though the progress sometimes seems to be slow or even minimal. I do not believe that isolation would lead to any results."
QUESTION: After having visited most of the Central Asia nations now as OSCE special envoy, what is your overall assessment of the region from the perspective of human rights and democracy?
ANSWER: First, I want to underline that my role is not that of a special envoy or special representative, but a personal envoy of the Chairman-in-Office. My agenda is not different from that of the chairman, and my task is to assist the chairman in carrying out dialogue at the highest political levels in the Central Asian participating states. In all my visits to the countries in question, I have also met with civil society actors, journalists, and representatives of international organisations to get a balanced view of the situation.
But back to your question. I have no illusions that the democratisation process would be easy or results rapidly attainable. The transition from the Soviet system to market economy and democracy in Central Asia has proved to be a longer and more difficult process than expected. It has to be realised that the reform process is a slow process. But at the same time it has to be made sure that the reform process is actually going forward, however slow it might be.
Q: Of the five Central Asian republics, which one is making the most progress in terms of OSCE priorities, and what lessons can be drawn from this?
A: don't think it would be advisable to rank the countries according to most progress made. It is true that some countries have advanced more in certain areas than others. Our task is to encourage all to go forward with reforms.
Q: What role can OSCE usefully fulfil in a country like Turkmenistan, which you recently visited, when there is little interest on the part of the government to engage with the international community?
A: I think that it is extremely important for the OSCE and the international community and individual member states of the OSCE to stay involved with the developments. This can, of course, best be done by maintaining a presence on the ground. There is no alternative to dialogue, even though the progress sometimes seems to be slow or even minimal. I do not believe that isolation would lead to any results.
Q: The OSCE can throw a spotlight on specific conditions and highlight abuses and lack of respect for human rights, but has no real power to effect change. So is there a need for a more robust OSCE mandate in Central Asia?
A: As a Finn, I would like to draw your attention to the history of the OSCE. When the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was held in Helsinki in 1975, few believed that it would yield any results. But when in 1995 we were celebrating the 20th anniversary, even those who had been sceptical admitted the benefits of the process. It is important to remember that the OSCE is the only Euro-Atlantic security structure where the Central Asian countries are represented as full members. Thus the reform agenda does not come from outside, but is attached to the membership itself.
I very much believe that the OSCE approach, including dialogue, joint projects with the host countries and support for the civil society, yields results. The presence of the OSCE centres in the host countries, and also field offices in some of them, is of great importance. But the OSCE is only a small organisation. At the moment, it is present with centres in all five countries, but the overall amount of resources involved is quite limited. The organisation can only have as much resources and as robust a mandate as the participating states allocate to it.
Q: What role, if any, can the international community at large play in eliciting greater reform amongst the five Central Asian nations, and under what framework?
A: Coordination is needed in making sure that the actions of the international community are complementing each other. This is not only between different international organisations but also between the member countries of those organisations. The only way to reach sustainable results through external involvement is to create a common strategy. The OSCE or any other organisation can only assist in the process; the responsibility to make the principles of the OSCE a reality for the citizens lies ultimately with the countries themselves.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge for Central Asia today and why?
A: There certainly are many great challenges: the rising poverty, corruption, Islamist extremism, human rights violations, political structures that do not encourage pluralism etc. One of the challenges I would especially like to take up is that of education. The level of education, both in qualitative as well as quantitative terms, has been declining ever since independence. The hope that the many problems of the area can be solved in the future lies in the human resources of the countries themselves. If people who are capable of managing the society - in governmental structures, NGOs as well as in business - are lacking, the reform process will become even more difficult than it is now.
Q: We tend to only hear about the OSCE's activities in Central Asia when it's related to human rights. What other work is the OSCE doing in these nations that needs more recognition and support?
A: It is true that the OSCE acts strongly in the human dimension area. Especially recently, the OSCE in Central Asia has increased activities and projects also in the political-military dimension and in the economic and environmental dimension. Increased attention to the other two dimensions does not mean decreased attention to the human dimension, but a balanced approach to all the three.
There are a number of good projects being carried out in the political-military dimension and the economic and environmental dimension. The Dutch chairmanship has emphasised, for example, the issue of trafficking - in drugs, small arms and humans - which cuts across all the three dimensions of the OSCE. The OSCE also has projects on police reform and mine action, training for small entrepreneurs, projects to raise environmental awareness etc. I think that these examples illustrate that there are a number of things done on each of the three dimensions. We can also not isolate progress on one dimension from the other three dimensions. The basis of economic development lies in respecting the rule of law etc.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions