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OSCE: Official Wants More Political Will To Confront Ethnic Crises

  • Roland Eggleston

Max van der Stoel is in his last few months as the OSCE's High Commissioner for National Minorities. After almost seven years in the post, he will retire at the end of the year to become a visiting professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands. RFE/RL's Munich correspondent spoke with van der Stoel at OSCE headquarters in The Hague. Van der Stoel says he believes much of the continent's ethnic violence could be averted if there is a greater effort to resolve tensions before they erupt.

The Hague, 5 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Max van der Stoel is Europe's leading expert on the problems of national minorities. He describes his office as an "early-warning system for ethnic problems" wherever they appear -- from Yugoslavia to the former Soviet Union.

In a recent interview with our correspondent, Van der Stoel said he believes many European governments lack the political will -- or the foresight -- to take preventative action to avert ethnic crises before they erupt.

Timely and effective action, he says, can help to avert a costly crisis. But he said that often nothing is done until it is too late.

Van der Stoel's views are based on his six-and-a-half years of experience as the OSCE's first high commissioner dealing with the problems of national minorities. The former Dutch foreign minister has played an important role in negotiating minority language rights in Latvia, Estonia and Slovakia. He acted as a catalyst in the Hungarian-Romanian Treaty of 1996, and helped guard against the rollback of Hungarian minority rights in Slovakia during the former prime minister Vladimir Meciars administration.

He argues that, in many cases, preventing ethnic tensions from developing into a crisis can be helped by relatively simple measures. Providing free language education for the minority populations -- ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, for example -- is one measure Van der Stoel mentions frequently. He argues that the international community should help to provide financial support for such education.

He supports the creation of institutional channels for dialogue between governments and national minorities. He argues that minorities should be allowed to participate in talks about matters that directly concern them.

Van der Stoel is critical of governments reluctant to help pay for measures intended to help minorities integrate in the country where they are living. He says governments tend to focus on military security and don't recognize the value of other forms of security, such as reducing tensions by spending money to make minorities part of society.

"I could mention quite a number of cases where, perhaps with a fraction of what is annually spent by the OSCE states on defense, a lot of things could be done which could reduce the risk of ethnic trouble and tensions and conflicts in the ethnic field."

Van der Stoel stresses, however, that minority rights are not a one-way street. Just as the state and local communities have a duty to protect the rights of the minorities in their jurisdictions, so too do the minorities have obligations.

"I think if one really wants to achieve security and stability in Europe, then one of the basic requirements is full respect for the rights of minorities, as laid down in the various international standards. That means -- to put it quite simply -- that they have a right to their own identity and the right to develop that identity. At the same time, I add, they also have obligations. I think they have also the obligation to respect the territorial integrity of the state."

Ideally, he says, members of minorities should feel they belong not only to their own particular ethnic or linguistic community, but also that they share a sense of belonging to the wider society in the state where they live.

He says that the chances of inter-ethnic tensions will be significantly decreased if minorities feel they have a stake in society, if they have input into discussions and decisions where the interests of their own minority are involved, and if they feel their identities are being protected and promoted.

Like most experts, he is no friend of the idea of minority regions seceding from a state. He says secession is seldom a viable option for achieving long-lasting peace and security. He says it is frequently a violent affair with many casualties. As Van der Stoel put it: "We have seen very few velvet divorces."

He points out that the creation of a new state in this way often leads to the creation of new minorities and new tensions. Instead, he and most other international experts recommend various forms of self-government or autonomy to provide solutions for minority problems within the framework of an existing state.

Van der Stoel believes Europe is gradually moving forward in respect to minority rights. He disagrees with those who argue that minority problems are worsening:

"It depends on what part of Europe you are looking at. If you look at the former Yugoslavia, then of course I would share your pessimistic assessment. But there are also areas where I think progress has been made. I think a number of steps have been taken in the Baltics which could help to promote better ethnic understanding, especially in Estonia and Latvia. I am also thinking of the change of regime in Slovakia. Since Meciar has left, we have seen the phenomenon of the Hungarians being represented in government and also of the government's removing some of the more objectionable parts of national legislation regarding minorities."

Van der Stoel's current tasks include assisting in the discussions in Romania and Macedonia on providing higher education for minorities. Other permanent issues on his agenda include the social and language rights of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia and the problems of minorities in Croatia. He is also involved in strengthening the mechanisms for dialogue and interaction between ethnic groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

In September of last year, he organized the first international talks on the problems of the Meskhetian Turks. The Meskhetian Turks had been forcibly resettled under Stalin from Georgia to Uzbekistan. After Uzbeks launched pogroms against them in 1989, more than 200,000 of them left and 70,000 now live in Russia. Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan attended the talks.

It is an ambitious agenda for an office that consists of Van der Stoel and a staff of 11. But he says he fears that ethnic trouble may be brewing in several parts of Europe unless active steps are undertaken now to prevent it.

One of these regions is Macedonia, with its delicate balance between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, who make up around 25 per cent of the population.

Macedonia is the only country about which Van der Stoel has issued what he calls a formal "early warning" to OSCE governments that ethnic tensions are growing into a crisis. That was in May at the height of the Kosovo conflict, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled to Macedonia.

Although most of the Kosovar Albanians have now left Macedonia, Van der Stoel believes that the international community must pay more attention to Macedonia to help it avoid ethnic problems.

He is also trying to resolve the integration and social problems of the Crimean Tatars. About 250,000 descendants of those deported to Central Asia by Stalin have returned but live in poor conditions. He fears a radicalization of the younger Tatars unless they are given a chance of a better life.