Warsaw, 1 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek served during the last year as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Last week he talked in Warsaw with an RFE/RL correspondent about his experiences and the OSCE's role and activities.
Geremek said that he had faced a two-fold challenge when he took over the OSCE chairmanship. First, he had to ensure that a relatively recent transition of the OSCE from a Cold War institution into a body aspiring to provide a foundation for "a structure of European security in the next century" would continue and solidify.
Secondly, Geremek says he was faced with an immediate, although more limited task of reconciling differences among major OSCE member-states on the role the organization should play in relation to other institutions dealing with problems of European security.
The OSCE was established in the early 1970s under the name of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) as a forum for dialogue and negotiations between East and West. The concept derived from the experience of the so-called Helsinki process, named after a major conference on European security held in 1975 in Finland's capital. For years the CSCE functioned merely as a series of meetings and conferences.
With the decline of the Cold War, the organization began changing. It acquired an active operational structure at a summit in Paris in 1990. The 1994 Budapest summit changed the name to OSCE, recognizing that it had become more than simply a conference.
The OSCE comprises 55 participating states, including the United States and Canada as well as all European countries and the newly formed Caucasian and Central Asian states. All have equal status within the organization and operate on the basis of common rules and norms, but have their own, frequently conflicting, problems and interests.
Geremek's task was to deal with those conflicts in the interest of both maintaining peace and building a stable framework for the OSCE's future activities. He said that from the beginning he was determined to introduce such concepts as the "importance of the human dimension," that is respect for rule of law and human rights, as well as that of "solidarity" in the OSCE activities. Moreover, Geremek said, he tried to make sure that OSCE would not be limited merely to appeasing conflicts in the still volatile post-Soviet area but would deal with all aspects of European security.
A major "question of the day," as he put it, was Russia's insistence that the OSCE become the primary European security organization to which all other security institutions, including NATO, would be subservient. NATO members, and particularly the United States, rejected that view.
Geremek said that the issue was particularly difficult to deal with for him, since as foreign minister of Poland, which saw NATO as the only institution capable of guaranteeing its security, he could not accept Russia's view. But he said that as OSCE chairman, he had to ensure that the issue would be fully and thoroughly debated.
Looking back at his one-year experience of chairing the OSCE, Geremek said that significant progress was made on several key issues.
"And I can say that we obtained a very good, loyal, dialogue with Russia, with the U.S. and with all other countries of the OSCE concerning the future of the organization."
He specifically mentioned the work on laying foundations for the future maintenance of European security, saying that it would have a "positive effect" in furthering discussions on the matter. And he said that a degree of understanding was also reached on the issue of relations between the OSCE and NATO.
"As far as this idea of the OSCE as a kind of superstructure of the European security, we obtained a comprehensive response that the OSCE, being such a pan-European security [organization] cannot have the aspiration for a kind of supervisory role, or dominating role in Europe."
Geremek said that to chair the OSCE was for him an important personal experience. He recalled that for a former Polish political dissident -- Geremek is a prominent veteran of many years of opposition to communist governments -- the Helsinki process that led to the emergence of the OSCE had both encouraging and discouraging elements.
The process introduced the principle of human rights into European politics but also indirectly accepted Soviet domination over East Central Europe by legitimizing post-World War Two territorial and political changes. It was, in Geremek's words, "a kind of peace in a cemetery."
But he said that for him, the experience of chairing the OSCE had put that impression to rest. Geremek said that he understood that "during this year of activity ... the world changed, the OSCE changed, and it's no more a heritage of the Cold War but it can become a structure of future" peaceful coexistence.
(This is first 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.)