Daniel Baer is the new U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). During the organization's annual "human dimension implementation meeting" in Warsaw, Baer sat down with RFE/RL to talk about the upcoming elections in Azerbaijan, the situation in Belarus, and what he, as one of very few openly gay American ambassadors, thinks about the latest developments in Russia.
RFE/RL: As you take up your post, what areas would you like the OSCE to focus on? Are there any specific countries you would like to push a bit more?
Daniel Baer: Obviously pushing is an important part of what the OSCE does. But there is also the pull-factor. I mean, really, it is my view that the kind of assistance and support the OSCE and its independent institutions can offer is something that should be attractive to many states in the OSCE area.
So, one of the ways the states can demonstrate their commitment and their leadership within the OSCE -- and indeed within the international community -- is to invite OSCE institutions to either come out and help them improve or to have a field office. Sometimes there is a range of technical assistance that field offices can provide on an ongoing basis. And really, that is an opportunity for a government to demonstrate -- not only to other governments -- but also to its own citizens first and foremost, its commitment to making progress.
[This also demonstrates] to international investors and others who will engage with the economic sector in that country that the government is committed to good governance, committed to making progress on open economy, and committed to regional stability.
RFE/RL: What is your view on the upcoming elections in Azerbaijan?
Baer: I think it is a very challenging situation there. There has been a lot of pressure placed on civil society and serious questions raised about the independence of media. There has been enormous pressure placed on independent journalists -- on people like Khadija Ismayilova, a courageous, amazing investigative journalist who has spent a lot of time investigating allegations of corruption.
I think in a place like Azerbaijan, one of the markers of a transition or progress on a democratic scale is when leaders see investigative journalists who are exposing challenges to good governance as critics, but also as part of the solution in terms of delivering good governance for your people. You need those voices out there to show what is wrong, to show you what needs to be fixed.
RFE/RL: The governing party in Azerbaijan announced this week that they would like to block RFE/RL from broadcasting during the elections. What is your immediate reaction to this?
Baer: I hadn't seen that news yet. I have obviously been immersed in activities here in Warsaw. I would go back to what I said before: One of the challenges in Azerbaijan with having a credible election is that if you don't have a credibly free media environment leading up to the election, people will raise questions.
I think it is clear that the government would like to demonstrate to the world a success on election day. One of the ways to demonstrate a success is to open up the media environment even more and make sure that there aren't accusations that only one side to the story is being shown. So any clamping down or shutting down of media activities, I think, on election day, is regrettable.
RFE/RL How will you approach Belarus, where there appears to be little change?
Baer: I came to this job from Washington and one of the things I had worked on in Washington with colleagues from around the world was to successfully pass a resolution in the [United Nations] Human Rights Council that created the special rapporteur on Belarus. It is clear that the world has spoken, that the problems, the human rights challenges in Belarus, remain urgent and severe.
You are quite right that things haven't changed for quite a while. It is going to require leadership from the top to change the trajectory. It is a choice and when the choice to make progress is made I think that President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka will see that there are great benefits for him as well as for the people of Belarus.
RFE/RL: What do you make of the latest developments in Russia when it comes to [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transexual, LGBT] rights?
Baer: We have made clear our concerns about the legislation in Russia, which I should note, while it is clearly targeted at LGBT people, it doesn't just restrict the rights of LGBT people; it restricts the rights of all people. It has been interesting to me to watch how many newspapers, media outlets in the U.S. and Europe have focused attention on that issue in the last few months. It has gotten a great deal of scrutiny and it deserves scrutiny because it is in tension with human rights obligations. But it happens, again, in the context of a variety of concerns about human rights. We have expressed our concerns about the so-called foreign-agent law and the way that is used along with raids of NGO premises, etcetera, to restrict the activities of civil society in Russia.
I think one of the lessons this teaches us is one that is applicable more broadly, which is that it is rarely the members of one group of people who are suffering a rollback in their rights. It is usually a much broader issue. In this case I think we ought to remember even as we ask questions and raise concerns about the so-called gay propaganda law, that the gay propaganda law isn't alone there.
RFE/RL: You are one of very few openly gay American ambassadors. In your job as OSCE ambassador you will have to deal a lot with Russia. Does that make you a bit apprehensive considering what is going on in Russia at the moment?
Baer: No it doesn't. I mean, much more important than my being a gay ambassador is the fact that I am the ambassador from the United States of America. I already have a good working relationship with my Russian counterpart at the OSCE. We have had several conversations already. I have only been at the job for 10 days now, but I think we will have a perfectly fine working relationship and I am not concerned at all. I have committed to him that I will be straightforward and frank with him and I have invited him to be the same with me and I don't see any real concern with that.