Warsaw, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, who last year chaired the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), says that conflicts in the Balkans and in the newly independent, post-Soviet countries were at the center of the OSCE's activities throughout 1998.
Geremek spoke last week in Warsaw with an RFE/RL correspondent. He said that during his one-year chairmanship of the OSCE he had focused on dealing with problems of "post-imperial heritage in the heart of Europe," particularly in former Yugoslavia and in the former Soviet Union.
Kosovo was, and still is, the principal problem for the organization, Geremek said, adding that the situation in the Serbian province has been more complex and difficult to deal with than those related to other parts of former Yugoslavia.
Geremek said that the main difficulty resulted from the complexity of the Helsinki process, which emphasized both the principles of "state sovereignty" and "self-determination of people."
"Kosovo couldn't be treated in the same way as Bosnia was. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, finally, the international community intervened, after three years of errors, of mistakes, of passivity. And it was paid by human lives. So, in Kosovo we tried to do [in] good time what should be done."
Geremek said that the OSCE had to recognize that "Kosovo is a part of Yugoslavia," but at the same time defend the rights of Kosovar Albanians. Here, Geremek was quick to stress that the OSCE fully recognized that, while ethnic Albanians were a minority in Yugoslavia as a whole, they were a majority in Kosovo. This determined the choice of strategy.
"Our way to approach the question was to abandon political rhetoric of the difficult choice between the national autonomy asked for by the Albanians from Kosovo and the local autonomy proposed by the Yugoslav authorities. We tried to introduce concrete issues. These concrete issues were: in what way the representative power in Kosovo can be formed and what will be the relation of this power to Belgrade authorities, in what way the executive branch will be formed and what will be the relationship between this Kosovo executive and Belgrade, and in what way the question of education, the question of police, the question of religion can be settled."
As OSCE chairman, Geremek sent 2,000 monitors to Kosovo last year to verify a fragile cease-fire between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serb security forces. He said that mission brought for the first time ever OSCE and NATO into a "direct relationship," with NATO troops posted in neighboring countries ready to pull out the verifiers if they were threatened.
"It was a good precedent, and a good lesson for the future," Geremek said, adding that "without NATO, nothing would have been possible."
Turning to problems he had faced in Central Asia, Geremek said that they provided a qualitatively different set of problems for the OSCE. Aside from conflicts in specific countries, the thrust of Central Asian regional politics centers on international disputes over "water and oil," Geremek said.
"Oil is a natural wealth of that region, but water is a regional problem. And water and oil should be a matter of political dialogue. I think that OSCE can create a framework for it."
Finally, Geremek said the long-festering dispute pitting Azerbaijan against Armenia over the mostly ethnic Armenian breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, has affected the political situation in the entire Caucasus region. But he said the effects of the dispute extend beyond the region and concern European security as a whole.
Since 1992 a group of 13 OSCE member-states organized in the so-called Minsk Group -- its work is to culminate in convening a conference in the Belarusian capital Minsk -- has been active in trying to arrange a peaceful settlement for Karabakh. France, Russia and the United States currently chair the group.
The OSCE also maintains a monitoring mission in Armenia's capital Yerevan that is responsible for watching over the developments in the disputed area. It periodically reports to the Minsk Group on the situation.
But it is hard to see the end of tensions there. "It is not easy to find a solution to that conflict," noted Geremek, adding that both Armenia and Azerbaijan must "show sufficient political will to find a solution."
(This is second of three features based on an interview with Bronislaw Geremek, Polish Foreign Minister and former chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.)