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Karel De Gucht made resolution of the frozen conflicts a priority of his chairmanship (epa) January 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As Spain begins its work as the 2007 chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), RFE/RL correspondent Dan Alexe speaks to the outgoing chairman in office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, about his tenure in 2006 and likely steps in the year ahead.


RFE/RL: How would you characterize Belgium's chairmanship of the OSCE this past year?


Karel De Gucht: Considering that the OSCE is, in a way, an organization in crisis due to great divergences between participating states, I think Belgium was successful in holding this organization together. I think this organization is actually in better shape than one year ago.

"We made several attempts at convincing the Russian authorities to allow the OSCE to operate in Chechnya. But Russia's refusal was total."

RFE/RL: In your opinion, will the OSCE be able to maintain this performance in 2007?


De Gucht: We are now succeeded by Spain, by my friend Miguel Angel Moratinos, who is an excellent diplomat. People sometimes say that I am not a diplomat, that he is a career diplomat, while I'm a politician. I'm absolutely convinced that he will be an excellent chairman in office.


RFE/RL: What do you think will happen if Kazakhstan takes over the presidency in 2009?


De Gucht: One must look at the decision we made in Brussels [at the December ministerial meeting], which I consider a wise decision. We said Kazakhstan was eligible. Every presidency, however, must meet the same criteria with regard to guaranteeing democracy, the principles of the OSCE's charter, etc.


We also acknowledge the fact that Kazakhstan will in coming months submit a program for democratic reform. On the basis of the evaluation of this program and its implementation, we will make a decision on the 2009 presidency at the next ministerial [meeting] in Madrid.


RFE/RL: Let's go back to your presidency. You initially announced that searching for solutions to the frozen conflicts in the CIS was a priority for the OSCE. But these conflicts, including Transdniester and South Ossetia, remain far from being resolved. Do you see this as a failure of the OSCE?


De Gucht: This is certainly not a failure of the OSCE. The OSCE's sole function is to be an honest broker, to try to encourage the interested parties to find agreements. In South Ossetia, it is true that there has been a referendum, but we haven't recognized it, and the international community has not recognized this referendum either. On the other hand, there has been a conference of donors for the rehabilitation of South Ossetia. We visited South Ossetia, and I think that with the means we were able to gather, we can rehabilitate South Ossetia. And that changes the facts on the ground.


It is true that with regard to Transdniester and South Ossetia, we are currently unable to resolve these frozen conflicts for one simple reason: Russia doesn't want to solve these problems now. And I don't have any levers that could force Russia to do it. I am convinced that the frozen conflict that is potentially the most dangerous is Nagorno-Karabakh. If we fail to find a solution, sooner or later it will pose very serious problems.


RFE/RL: What about Chechnya? The OSCE appears to be ignoring this conflict. This is all the more surprising since the OSCE monitored the 1997 elections that brought Aslan Maskhadov to power, and declared them free and fair. Since these elections, the OSCE has remained tight-lipped on Chechnya.


De Gucht: We made several attempts at convincing the Russian authorities to allow the OSCE to operate in Chechnya, but we didn't get permission from Russia. We can't force it. I am in favor of a mission in Chechnya; I was even ready to make serious concessions in order to be able to resume our activities in this region. But Russia's refusal was total.

What Comes After The Referendums?
Russian President Vladimir Putin at his presidential residence outside of Moscow in July (TASS)

EXPANSION PLANS? Russia is well equipped -- at least constitutionally -- to absorb breakaway republics like Transdniester, Abzhazia, and South Ossetia into its federation.
In 2001, on the initiative of Russia's presidential administration, the Duma approved a law that allows the Russian Federation to absorb not only foreign states, but also their parts. This includes entities that have no physical borders with Russia, for example Transdniester.
The law, however, stipulates that the territorial exchanges can be done only after legal agreement with the central government of the country to which the breakaway territory belongs.
Since the law was passed, various deputies and bodies have tried to change the legislation in order to make it easier for Russia to incorporate foreign territories. In July 2004, Andrei Kokoshin, the chairman of a Duma committee on links with CIS and other foreign countries, asked the Supreme Court what would be the quickest way of Russia legally absorbing South Ossetia. The court ruled that incorporating South Ossetian territory into the Russian Federation could only be done in talks with the Georgian government.
In 2005, the Duma rejected proposals from the nationalist Motherland party that Russia could incorporate foreign territory based only on the will of a local population. By this logic, Russia, with its interethnic problems, could also become the victim of similar tactics from neighboring states. For example, in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia there are public groups making claims on Russian territory.
So what is Moscow likely to do after the referendums in Transdniester and South Ossetia? First, it will begin a campaign to get international legal recognition of the results of the polls. Second, it will recognize the results of the referendums and encourage its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to do the same.
It could also feasibly incorporate them in the CIS. Or unite them in a kind of mini-CIS-2. The leaders of Transdniester, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia have already formed, under Russian patronage, an alliance of "unrecognized states" and signed an agreement of mutual political and military support.
And Moscow is also likely to encourage its own internal regions, which are not subject to international law, to recognize the breakaway regions. For example, Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, recently said that "Moscow recognizes South Ossetia and Abzhazia."
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