Now when you stepped down from OSCE SMM deputy head are you free from your commitment to OSCE? Can you speak without restraint? Or you did sign any Non-Disclosure Documents?
First of all it’s important that I have not resigned, I have reached 10 years of service with the OSCE
and this is the maximum foreseen in the rules of the organization I’ve worked before for the OSCE in Kosovo and in the Netherlands. As a general rule, you cannot work more than 10 years for the OSCE.
What is the procedure of selection of the chief of the OSCE? How come you were here?
That’s the same procedure as for the most of the other staff, except for the national staff. All international staff, with few exceptions, is selected according to the secondment principle – your country’s authorities nominate you, so you have to apply with them, and the application procedure is different in every country. In my country you have to go through the Foreign Ministry of Switzerland. They then put forward your name to the OSCE. The OSCE creates a long list – the first list with people that meet basic criteria of the job description. That list is then shared with the Mission and the decision is taken based on a competitive procedure as it happens during any other recruitment process. Then it goes back to the OSCE Secretariat, from there to the seconding state and then back to the candidate. So, my salary while working for the OSCE was paid by the Swiss government, not by the OSCE. The secondment allows keeping staff costs lower because it is not the Mission of the OSCE that pays, it’s the respective governments that pay. The hiring method is different for the national staff. They are directly contracted by the Mission. Their applications do not go through the Foreign Ministry of Ukraine in this case. They apply directly and are hired directly by the Mission.
Was it your will initially to apply for the position in Ukraine?
The Mission started in the end of March 2014, before the conflict. I have known Ukraine before because in 2013 Ukraine chaired the OSCE. I was in Kyiv in December 2013 for first time for work when there was a ministerial meeting organized by Ukraine at that time. And when this possibility came up of course I was interested. Not least as there was no armed conflict. But then, of course, the conflict started rather quickly in the eastern part of the country. And my initial assignment of six months it turned out to become almost five years.
You used to work in Kosovo, Bosnia. Are these conflicts similar to the one in Ukraine's Donbas? Or they are essentially different, radically different?
I don’t think it’s wise to compare conflicts directly because they are different. The history, the stakeholders, the reason why they started and the place involved as well as how the international community approached them were different.
Now, what is the same in each of these conflicts, including the one here in Ukraine, is that the civilian population suffers most. That has been the case in any other conflict I have seen and it’s also the case here now. The biggest difference, however, that in any other conflict I have seen, in the Middle East, in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere is that they all had their basis or foundation, direct or indirect, a group dynamic as the cause of the conflict: ethnic, religious or otherwise – at least partially.
This is not the case in the conflict in Ukraine. There is no ethnic or religious cause for the fighting and hate among people across the artificial contact line is not a driving factor. People cross the contact line in Donbas on a frequent basis. That you don’t see in other conflicts. This is what makes this conflict different. The armed conflict in Ukraine is politically driven and only politicians can end it.
Again, what is the same is that the population suffers, and what is required here and in any other conflict are measures to protect civilians. Because – unlike soldiers or armed men who understand the dynamic of the conflict and who have armed vehicles or sit in trenches – civilians don’t, they are in the kitchens, in the gardens and they are not protected. That has been the same in all the conflicts that I have seen. As it is here, and it is important that this is recognized that the first and outmost priority should be the protection of civilians by anyone trying to find the solution and by anyone involved in the conflict itself.
Have there been militants backed by the other countries in those conflicts?
These conflicts are different. In some conflicts, for example in the Middle East, I’ve seen different religious groups – Muslims pinch against Christians, or different historical groups, – Palestinians pinch against the Israeli Defence Forces. And of course, these root causes are different from what is visible here at the surface. The involvement of states in conflicts was obvious in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, in the Middle East, as it is here. And states have taken the responsibility to resolve conflicts. There, for instance, there have been the agreements that were aimed at ending the fighting in the former Yugoslavia as the Minsk agreement here, where states and other actors have undertaken certain obligations and have taken upon themselves the role to resolve the conflict.
The realities on the ground in all of the conflicts I’ve seen have been distorted by the media and decision makers. In all the conflicts, it was important to have access to the areas where the fighting takes place for independent media and the international community to be able to have an objective view of what is happening and to report about it to the international community and the people affected by the fighting. Decision makers who bear the responsibility to end the fighting or who have promised to do so need objective data and other information on which they can base their decisions.
As you know the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is, at the moment, the largest representation of the international community in Ukraine. It is often referred to as the eyes and ears of the international community because it is, at least partially, able to document the reality, the facts on the ground. It is important because often different sides involved in a conflict try to distort the reality to their own benefit.
That is why this is important for decision-makers, also for the public, including the public affected, the civilians, to have an objective point of orientation. And that probably is equally important as it is in other conflicts.
Is there any chance the distorted reality will be documented better, not partially?
It’s the responsibility of everyone involved. First of all, those who fight, those who covertly or openly support those who fight, but also the media who is documenting, covering this conflict that they try to adhere to the highest possible objective standards.
I do believe it is possible, but it takes a lot of courage for journalists and for those who want to report real facts on the ground to do so and not being seen then on one or the other side. You know that the Special Monitoring Mission and myself have often been criticized of being too neutral, but this is not neutrality in the sense of not being able to position the mission on one or the other side. It is there because neutrality as such is a tool to help to bring a solution about and not to fuel the conflict further by speculative guessing as to what might have happened or what is happening or what has happened, but sticking to the facts and not blaming one or the other side.
Questions of guilt and responsibility is best decided through a judicial process. If the question is of blame or guilt, criminal responsibility, that is the legal process to go through and most adequately courts, national or international courts, should deal with that question, because then it will be not done arbitrarily or subjectively, but it will be done according to the law and according to the most objective standards. Then it’s not for the media and not for the OSCE SMM to assume that role. The facts that the SMM reports, however, may be used by a judicial process as supporting document or evidence in adjudicating these important questions.
Are you satisfied with the work of Ukrainian mass media, their neutrality or impartiality in covering these issues?
It’s difficult for me to judge, my access to the media is limited because I would need to be fluent in Ukrainian or Russian for that matter. I do also think that because access for Ukrainian and international media is difficult or almost impossible to non-government-controlled areas, handling this matter of balanced reporting about the conflict is difficult. So, that is one reason it is difficult to have a balanced picture, because – I know for a matter of fact or at least I knew until the point I have ceased working for the OSCE SMM – that Ukrainian journalists and even international journalists had great limitations. It was almost impossible for them to access non-government-controlled areas. It was restricted and that, of course, makes it difficult to have a holistic picture. I’m not saying it in defence of the journalists. This is a factual objective observation to explain why the media coverage is as it is at the moment.
I don’t know if this is absolute but almost all journalists I have seen trying to cross the contact line have not managed to do so. Not because they are afraid, but simply because the armed formations on the other side would not permit it.
What can you tell us about what was is like to work in Ukraine? I mean cooperation or opposition to OSCE by Ukrainian authorities, Ukraine's Armed Forces, the non-recognized republics and their armed groups.
First of all, there is the government and the Armed Forces of Ukraine who are the legitimate actors that have a role in controlling all of Ukraine, including those areas that are at the moment not controlled by them. Putting the armed formation and any Ukraine authority on the same level would be highly inappropriate.
The Mission, at least, out of my judgment, had good relations in a very difficult time with the authorities and different ministries, including with the Ukrainian Armed Forces, regular contact at all levels here in Kyiv, but also directly at the contact line. I would fully understand if the Ukraine Armed Forces who defend the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine feel uncomfortable with being monitored. I would feel the same if there are internationals standing next to you, documenting what you do and how handle your weaponry. Even though they felt, I guess, uncomfortable, the relationship that I witnessed was good working relationship and common understanding of our role and our understanding of the role of the armed forces.
On the other side of the contact line, there you have these armed men also referred to as the armed formations. Logically, there are no government institutions there that the SMM could rely on. The Mission has a presence in Donetsk city and Luhansk city, and for that purpose, of course, there was contact with these armed formations as well. Both in terms of its own security, but also for the reasons related to the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Their violations and their non-compliance was brought to their attention additionally to the fact of course, that they, as anyone else, had access to the SMM’s reports made public on its website.
It is also important that, seen over the past 5 years, the freedom of movement of the Special Monitoring Mission was hardly actively interfered by Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but had always been actively interfered by the armed formations in the areas beyond government control. And there was no change in that throughout the four and a half years. And that also shows that the Ukrainian Armed Forces and all Ukrainian authorities have understood the mandate and the value of the Mission, whereas the armed formations, the armed men on the other side of the contact line still have seen the work of the mission as a nuisance because they knew that when the Mission would see something on the ground, it would be in the report the following day. So the active restrictions that had been imposed by the armed formations often were for the only intent to stop the Mission from observing and reporting.
Did you have access to prisons?
At the very beginning of the Special Monitoring Mission, we did have access to prisons. That was arranged through the security services of Ukraine. Again, access in areas beyond government control was more complicated.
Now there is a humanitarian working group within the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, where there is an Ambassador, a co-ordinator working with the matter. The Special Monitoring Mission had been facilitating and monitoring the exchange of detainees across the contact line. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission (HRMMU) and others have no regular access to all places of detention. The ICRC and HRMMU follow-up on referrals of individual cases. In this context, the OSCE SMM was in regular contact with both the HRMMU and ICRC and shared information and coordinated, as we did with Trilateral Contact Group. These organisations do excellent work in this field.
Have you ever been put pressure on? Have you ever been asked to "close your eyes", turn a blind eye to anything?
Not speculating and being blind are two different pairs of shoes. The Mission has always been reporting what it has seen. And when it was stopped by the sides to monitor it also reported that fact. But it did not speculate or assume what it did not see or was prevented from seeing. If anything, then it was the sides who blinded the Mission out of fear the SMM would report the facts of their non-compliance and interference.
I don’t know what you mean by putting on the pressure in this case. There was constant communication between the Special Monitoring Mission and different authorities and actors. We had no intent to cause any surprises for the host government, so there were regular interactions with the Foreign Ministry, with the Defense Ministry, with the Security Service at all levels here in Kyiv, but also at field levels.
Most importantly, of course, all the reports that the Mission has been producing have been made public, so there have been no surprises for the government here. The most obstacles, once again, that were put in the Mission’s way, were the active freedom of movement restrictions that the armed formation have imposed upon the Mission, often with threat and pointing weapons towards its monitors or its equipment in areas not controlled by the government.
Now when you are not in the office of the deputy head of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, can you speak of the things you saw in a grey zone, which you haven’t spoken before?
Well, I have always been speaking about what I have seen at the contact line. First of all, the terminology of the grey zone has meanwhile come to be used frequently but if I would ask you about the definition of the grey zone, you would have difficulties in giving me a correct answer. The only area that has been defined in the agreements was a ‘security zone’ or ‘safety zone’, which is 15 km on each side of the contact line. That should have been a safe area. As you know, however, this safety zone is by far the most dangerous zone at the moment. Now, the Special Monitoring Mission has been publicly reporting as to what is happening to this safety zone – the mines, the forward moves, the destruction of infrastructure, gas, electricity, water pipelines, the difficulties civilians face crossing through that safety zone.
'Unfortunately, the work done by the SMM shows that the parties did not stick up even to the basic promises they made within Minsk agreements. If there were any political willpower, the security in the region could have been stabilized. Though, there is no political willpower yet." These are your words after you stepped down as the OSCE SMM deputy head.
Why the Minsk agreement is not implemented? How can political willpower help in stabilizing the situation in the region?
It is difficult to measure the success of an observer mission because the absence of violence in certain areas or volume – that one may consider to be an actual result in this case – cannot be observed. It is just not there.
I think it is not entirely correct to say that the sides have not reacted. More specifically, it is clear that the sides actually do react to their obligations under the Minsk, Take the last time when re-committed to ceasefire, that was between the 28th and 29th of December, when the ceasefire violations have dropped by up to 80% from the day before their re-commitment to the day after that re-commitment. And that is not a natural decline in the number of ceasefire violations. It happened because they have decided not to continue fighting. What that means is that the orders have been issued and they have been largely obeyed. Otherwise the numbers would not go down. What that clearly shows is that if on the political side the decision is made because there is a New Year in this case or Christmas, harvest season or the beginning of the school year, or most recently International Women’s day the numbers go significantly down. Yes, they increase again because there is no sustained will to keep them down, but also because the conditions on the ground are such that the sides are far too close to one another, there are far too many weapons at engagement distance, all in violation of the agreements.
What needs to happen first is the political will to implement the agreements and I’m not suggesting that it should only be Kyiv. It has to happen mutually in Moscow as well as in Kyiv. Only then, if it happens mutually, it will be possible that the commanders on the ground get the right orders, and I’m sure they will be obeyed given there is political will. But it has to happen mutually, it cannot be unilateral.
Why the numbers grow every time after these short ceasefires – does it mean that the order did set up the end date or that the officers in the field violate the orders?
I will not speculate. The facts are that when the orders are issued, the numbers go down. That means that those that fight obey to these orders. What is also a fact, and you can read it in the reports of the SMM, is that the sides are standing far too close to one another and that many weapons, tanks, mortars, artillery pieces, MLRS, etc. that must have been long withdrawn are still in areas where they should not be. Combined these two together, and it becomes clear that you need both orders to stop firing but you also need orders to deal with the military root cause on the ground. So that where they are too close they disengage from one another and where they have weapons in places – where they shouldn’t be – they are being withdrawn and remain withdrawn. Only then it will become a sustainable ceasefire. So, it requires, however, for this move of weapon withdrawal and disengagement, also political decisions to be taken.
Is it true, that the last real disengagement was performed over two years ago?
The decision for disengagement has been taken in September 2016, I think it was the 21st of September, 2016 and that decision remains valid. It has designed three pilot disengagement areas, and the SMM have been monitoring these closely and these findings are publicly available. In fact, it has installed video cameras in each of these areas to closely document what is happening there. What is required is that these areas are being dis-engaged and any other area where the sides are standing too close to one another. But again this requires a decision at the political level and a mutual decision, not a unilateral decision. It requires a mutual decision, and then a mutual move.
Is it possible today?
Yes, I believe it’s possible. But it’s only possible at the moment Moscow and Kyiv materialize that political will to do so.
Is the Minsk process helpful?
It foresees measures that are standard in order to end the violence. What it has not, of course, inside is a miracle to produce political will. These two capitals have to make sure that such political will actually comes to the fore.
But there are civilians on the ground, and it is for the their plight that should motivate people that have the possibility to make these decisions to make these decisions soon.
You’ve been repeatedly accused by the society that while working in the OSCE “you’ve failed to see direct evidence of Russia’s interference”. What you can say now – are there Russian troops or Russian career military people in Donbas? Was it Russia’s interference, invasion?
In the areas beyond government control the Mission has been observing in particular: the convoys that left and entered Ukraine, specific weapon types, the electronic warfare systems. The Mission has documented the facts that the armed formations have a sophisticated supply. This is not speculation as the Mission can count how much they shoot at the contact line and because it has observed convoys coming in and out of Ukraine. The special monitoring mission has spoken to individuals who claimed to be members of the Russian Armed Forces fighting in Ukraine on rotation. All of that is publicly available. But it’s important to make the distinction that it is courts that have to decide about evidential standards. The task of the SMM is to provide facts.
Questions of evidence are for courts to decide, and I have always maintained the position that the SMM is collecting facts, establishing facts. Facts can be disregarded, ignored or used in court. But it’s up to the court to decide what evidential standard they would like to apply.
The SMM is not a court institution, it’s a monitoring mission. SMM is not an investigative body, it’s not an intelligence gathering body and it’s not a court. The national and international courts are the ones that might be competent to decide about the standards of evidence
But the courts won’t end the war in Ukraine, neither can the OSCE, any of the UN or PACE resolutions. What’s the sense of the OSCE’s activity, of court decisions and of resolutions of the international organizations?
Decision makers in Moscow but also Kyiv can end this conflict.
Once again, to measure the success of an observer mission is difficult. It is difficult to make a conclusion that the presence or the reporting of a mission adds to the reduction of violence because the absence of violence, unless it’s absolutely quiet, is difficult to make a case for.
I would argue that the SMM has certainly contributed to the containment of the conflict that didn’t spread further. It’s also thanks to the monitoring mission that everybody knows what needs to be done. Nobody can claim that it is unclear who violates the agreements and how. It is also thanks to the reports of the Mission that it is clear how tremendous the suffering of the civilian population is to this day, that also makes clear where help is most needed. But ending the fighting is not the task of the SMM or any other international organization, that’s the task of the sides. The task of the SMM is to document whether they do so or not.
Stopping the fighting, holding down the weapons, dis-engaging, de-mining, - that’s the task of those who have taken upon themselves the responsibility. You will find their signatures on the bottom of each agreement signed in Minsk.
Most and foremost that is Moscow but also Kyiv. Both have taken on specific responsibilities with regard to the weapons, to specific weapons that are on the ground of Ukraine, to the mines that are in the ground of Ukraine, with regard to the humanitarian questions, etc. All of these responsibilities have been agreed by them.
The SMM’s task is to document whether they do so or not. And there is no other entity at the moment that would have the capability to document this. That it is seen as the failure of the mission not to end the fighting, I understand that when expressed by frustrated civilians affected by it, but it is a wrong conclusion. The failure is squarely with those who have said they would end it. The mission’s task is to deliver reports and to document what’s happening on the ground. And look on the Internet: thousands of such reports have been made public; videos of these violations have been made public. These build the testament of this failure of the sides to comply with what they have agreed to.
The lack of will cannot be attributed to the SMM. The SMM’s task is to document if such will has led to results on the ground. The only ones that have to look in the mirror and answer the questions as to whether or not these agreements have been fulfilled are those that have taken up on themselves the responsibility to do so.
There’s an SMM in Ukraine’s western Zakarpattya region, where Hungary created a reputative conflict around the education law and tensions in local communities. Was this conflict artificially created?
It’s correct that the SMM is also monitoring outside Donbas, in eight other cities: Kyiv, also in the South - Kherson, Odessa, and in the West. The SMM have been following up on reports of alleged violation of minority rights in Western parts of Ukraine, but as you will see from reports, by and large, even though a culture center had been sabotaged, the situation remained overall calm. And that had been made clear in our reports and in several public statements as well.
What about the reports from Kherson and Odessa?
The SMM in Odessa, for instance, follows closely the follow up within the judicial process of the 2014 May events. It also follows with its team in Kherson the developments at the administrative boundary line with the Crimean peninsula and crossing points where it observes and reports consistently about what happens.
You left the OSCE. What are you going to do with this experience? What’s the next step in your career?
Now I am enjoying my time off with my family. I have no concrete steps. I certainly will remain available for Ukraine because, of course, this conflict here and Ukraine in general are very close to my heart. And after four and a half years working in your country if I can be of any help here, I would of course do that. A new challenge has not yet come, and I am quite happy at the moment that I don’t have to get up very early every morning and can enjoy my time, which I could not do for almost five years.