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OSCE: Annual Meeting Considers Terrorism; Belarus Presence Welcomed

The 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) opened its annual meeting today. The fight against terrorism and repairing damaged relations with Belarus are expected to be among the main issues discussed at the two-day event in Oporto, Portugal.

Prague, 6 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Foreign ministers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are holding their annual meeting today and tomorrow in an effort to ensure the relevance of the organization in a changing world.

At the meeting in Oporto, Portugal, ministers are due to approve a major policy document on terrorism. OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy spoke to RFE/RL from Oporto: "The main issues, yes, will be a new Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism and the foreign ministers are also likely to agree on a document on meeting new threats to security and stability in the 21st century. That means things like organized crime, religious fundamentalism, corruption, etc."

Like the NATO alliance, which held its "transformation" summit last month in Prague, the OSCE is an organization created during the Cold War. And although many of the principles the OSCE was originally founded to promote -- such as international cooperation and human rights -- remain relevant, OSCE members say they too, must adapt to new times.

With this in mind, Portuguese Foreign Minister Antonio Martins da Cruz, who holds the rotating presidency of the 55-nation group, told his colleagues at the start of today's meeting that "the emergence and development of new threats...have led to a recasting of the OSCE's future role." But he added that far from becoming irrelevant, the OSCE, because of its experience and geographic reach, was well-placed to take on the challenge. The Portuguese foreign minister said the global fight against terrorism would have to be a cooperative effort fought on many fronts and not just with weapons.

Murphy elaborated on this point for RFE/RL: "One of the unique features of the OSCE is that it has a comprehensive approach to security. That means that it doesn't only deal with military and security issues. It also deals with human rights, the so-called 'human dimension' and the economic and environmental aspects. So, as the chairman in office said after meeting the OSCE's Asian and Mediterranean partners yesterday, it is essential to tackle the economic and social problems, which as we all know can form a fertile breeding ground for terrorism."

Murphy said the Charter on Preventing and Combating Terrorism, which ministers are due to formally adopt tomorrow, will be more than a declaration of principles. It will outline specific areas where the OSCE can help countries improve their overall security. "[One] area where the OSCE can offer expertise is in border controls. Many of the participating states have somewhat inadequate border controls. They have rather porous borders and checks on the borders are often inadequate. This is another area where we have expertise and this is being made available to the participating states. So it's both a collection of declaratory principles and very practical work as well."

All OSCE members appear to agree on the need to address problems posed by terrorism. But disagreements on means and priorities remain. Sparks flew today when Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov sharply criticized Britain for failing to arrest separatist Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakaev, who arrived in London yesterday from Denmark.

Zakaev was briefly detained for questioning at the airport but subsequently released after British actress and civic activist Vanessa Redgrave posted bond for him. Moscow had originally requested Zakaev's extradition from Copenhagen, but was turned down by the Danish authorities.

Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, Ivanov drew a direct comparison between Zakaev and internationally wanted Al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden, asking British officials if they would have also released bin Laden, had he shown up in London.

Russia wants the OSCE mission in Chechnya, whose mandate expires at the end of the year, to have no role in trying to find a political settlement between the Kremlin and Chechen separatists and focus exclusively on coordinating humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, the issue of Belarus is not on the ministers' official agenda. But OSCE officials say the presence of Belarusian Foreign Minister Mikhail Khvastou in Oporto is welcome and could help resolve the current impasse between the two sides.

Belarus this year effectively ended the operation of the OSCE's observer mission in Minsk when it refused to extend the visas of five foreign diplomats representing the organization in the country. The last one left in October. The OSCE incurred the wrath of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka after it qualified last year's presidential elections as falling short of democratic standards.

But this week, there were signs of a thaw, with Lukashenka saying he would be prepared to allow the OSCE to return to Minsk.

At a briefing this afternoon, Rui Aleixo, the OSCE coordinator in the Portuguese Foreign Ministry, told journalists that Belarusian diplomats had indicated they would soon present Minsk's official proposal for a new OSCE mandate in Belarus. Aleixo said this was an encouraging sign. But the Portuguese diplomat added that because Minsk was seeking to negotiate on all points -- including the scope and duration of a future mandate -- no final results could be expected in Oporto.

Little time remains to strike a deal. Diplomats are facing an effective deadline for negotiations of 19 December, after which the OSCE will be in its Christmas recess until the end of the month, when the Portuguese presidency's term will run out.

Portugal has repeatedly indicated it wants to see a quick resolution to the standoff, as OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy stressed once again today. "The OSCE is ready and willing to move at any stage. The chairmanship has been saying for some time that the ball is very much in the Belarusian court on this. But we remain ready to move."

Portugal was the only EU state not to sign up to a travel ban on Lukashenka and his top officials, in order to ensure Khvastou's presence at the Oporto meeting.