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26 April

“In case of the meaningful UN mandate, Austria would consider playing its role in the peacekeeping mission in the Donbas”

Former special representative of the Austrian OSCE chairperson-in-office for the Transnistrian settlement process about options for the peacekeeping mission in the Donbas, the motivation for friendship between Austrian and Russian politicians, and about ways in which the experience with the Transnistrian conflict can be useful for Ukraine

Interviewed by Yuriy Lapayev

What are differences and similarities between conflicts in the Donbas and Transnistria?

— There are some similarities, especially if you look at the terminology being used. In fact, upon closer look, differences are more important than one without in-depth knowledge would assume. Histories or genesis of the two conflicts are very different. In Transnistria, the soviet army happened to be there long before the Republic of Moldova declared independence and Tiraspol decided to choose its own way. This is a big difference to be kept in mind.

In 1992, directly after the conflict, the cease-fire bilateral agreement between Moldova and Russia defined another big difference of the OSCE settlement process in Transnistria. This is reflected in the 5+2 format, where the sides of the conflict have open and uncomplicated exchange and are more or less treated as equals. Of course, there is a big difference in the Donbas situation and the Minsk Agreement, with interlocutors who would not talk to each other.

In the academic approach to mediation in general, beyond political terms, there is a notion of the ripeness of the conflict, of how mature, how old the conflict is. The ripeness of the two conflicts is very different. In Transnistria, there was a long period of almost 25 years. Barely any progress happened in terms of resolutions. Only last November, for the first time in many years, we saw the agreement on five different issues. Those issues had been on the table for 10–15 years and had repeatedly been discussed. Only after that, the agreement became possible. That is also the difference compared to the Donbas, where we all hope it will not take 20–25 years to solve issues of immediate concern for the population. These are the needs of the population that are in the focus of our efforts, making the Donbas similar to Transnistria. We are working on how we can help people with access to social services and education, and have their rights respected, despite conflict and difficulties. In Transnistria, we have seen unexpected but substantial progress.

Despite the fact that it may seem hopeless, I hope we will see such a similarity in the Donbas. The biggest difference is that we do not see any indications of political resolution in the Donbas, where we still disagree in many ways on what is happening. While in the Transnistria, we are at least trying to exchange views on what the objective of our talks is. There are different political aspirations in Tiraspol, in the Republic of Moldova and in the international community, but it happens in any conflict. Another big difference is the role and attitude the Russian Federation has vis-à-vis regional contexts. In the Transnistria, the Russians have had an opportunity to be co-mediators finding solution between the parties to the conflict. Russia was interested in guaranteeing the implementation of anything agreed. Basically, the Russians are playing the role ideal in their political conception. In the Donbas, it is very different because of different involvement there.

A large part of the population of Austria has no idea what is really happening in the Donbas and how serious events have been. Some have heard that 10,000 people were killed, but have no understanding of how severe the conflict has been and how dangerous it still is.

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What are the key features of the 5+2 format? Can the same or similar format be used in Ukraine?

— I think 5+2 is a very specific format for the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict and mediation efforts. It would be wrong to assume this format could be transposed to other regional settings.

In the 5+2 format, there are two sides of the conflict, plus three mediators, the OSCE, Ukraine and Russia, and two observers, the EU and the USA, maintaining professional and serious engagement based on discussions, rather than philosophical excursions. This is one of the main achievements we are able to implement. The settlement process should be result-oriented. We do not meet to discuss what everyone feels like discussing. We engage on the more senior level and the 5+2 meetings take place only when we have a real target, close to delivery. At these meetings, we clarify agreements that have been prepared and built on the level of working groups. For other layers beneath, we have international partners, embassy representatives making sure the engagement is substantial.

Engagement of international partners is very important in these processes, and Ukraine has played a very strong role in the Transnistrian settlement of the last few years. We have repeatedly pointed out that what is happening has regional implications for Ukraine, when it comes to commercial and economic needs of the population. There are many perspectives and directions going towards Ukraine, in particular to Odesa region. Over the last few years, Transnistria has understood that Ukraine is the most important partner in many educational, social and economic projects. After universities in Tiraspol, many people consider studying in Odesa. We have found new solution for students graduating from universities in Tiraspol. Now, with the apostille from Chişinău, they can go for their studies in Odesa or any other European city. Solving the problems of youth, of the next generation, is the key to the settlement of the conflict.

The bilateral agreement had stopped the military phase of the conflict. Example of the successful resolution of the conflict directly impacts the level of engagement of the sides and is beneficial. Although, it is difficult to maintain a different format with other issues. In regard to any other issue, regional interests, economic, commercial or political matters, there is not the same principle of equality.

I think, the international community recognizes the Republic of Moldova altogether, respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity. And every year, at the Ministerial Council, 57 OSCE participating states point out that there is ground for the special status of Transnistria.

The government of the Republic of Moldova has been very slow in offering any kind of special status or concept of what could be done. For instance, it could be a regional status or regional autonomy, which is not unusual for many European countries. Of course, it is more difficult if such autonomy is born out of conflict. The trouble is for 25 years we have not had any draft proposals, any conceptions of special status that could be shared and discussed. Successive OSCE chairmanships, including Sebastian Kurz during his last-year visit to Chişinău and Tiraspol, have pointed out to our friends in Chişinău that there should be vision to which the political leadership could agree. Of course, this has been more difficult after the election of President Igor Dodon, because we have very different approaches. In case of Transnistria, the 5+2 format is the most acceptable approach to be continued. In December, at the Ministerial Council in Vienna, all the OSCE participating states reaffirmed that this is the only mechanism to resolve the conflict.

As for the OSCE, currently we have the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in the Donbas, and people are concerned with the lack of objectiveness and efficiency. In your opinion, what can be done to improve its activity?

— Let me start from the situation that the OSCE mission has in Moldova. The mission involves 50 people. The personnel performs a wide range of activities, well beyond political settlement and mediation efforts. There has been no military engagement, thus it has been much easier. There is also the Joint Control Commission (JCC) in Moldova, reminiscent of what we have in the Donbas. This is a joint military body serving for communication, control and verification. It regroups Moldovan, Transnistrian, Russian and Ukrainian officers. In the Transnistrian conflict, this Commission is usually quite helpful and constructive in solving issues of the military presence and peacekeeping forces. With regard to terminology, it cannot be considered as the UN peacekeeping mission, in which sides of the conflict do not participate in the settlement process. I think the OSCE is facing an immensely difficult task in Ukraine. I served as the UN peacekeeper in Cyprus 30 years ago. In many ways the challenge, the complexities and the engagement that we had in the 1960s and 1970s were not as complex and as dangerous, as they are in the Donbas.

The work of the OSCE mission observers is not always met with justified esteem. It is an incredibly difficult work. Observers face challenges much more complex than those in non-violent conflicts. Over the last years, we have never seen openly hostile engagement, and we realize it would be difficult to find a comprehensive political solution. This will be a challenge for many years to come. Still, in Transnistria, we are able to help and make lives of people in that area or in the wider region so much better, because we, in Europe, understand their rights.

The Council of Europe has been focusing on these rights to be respected whenever possible. These are commercial rights, rights for education, social interests and freedom of movement. This is something younger people are more interested in, because they are mobile and can make the difference between political narrative and their own abilities to shape future and make choices. Political slogans sound very Soviet-like and are different from their reality. Coming back to your first question, the population in Transnistria is almost entirely free to travel. They have passports and visa-free regime. We have organized close contact with the EU border services to verify that the procedures applied are fair and match those of other European citizens. It is helping to assure there is no blockade against the Transnistria due to speculations in the media. After Moldova and Ukraine signed into the Association Agreement with the European Union, we can see that Transnistria is also interested in being part of such economic integration. We have heard from representatives of Tiraspol and even from Russian interlocutors that this is their interest. It would be very different in the Donbas because of geography and previous position of many locals in regard to this issue.

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Let us get back to the problems of the Donbas. Currently, one of the most discussed issues is the prospect of deploying the peacekeeping mission. What do you think of the prospects of such a mission? Will it help resolve the conflict?

— I think that the properly conceived and clearly mandated UN mission could solve the conflict and lead to normalcy in the Donbas. What do I mean by “clear mandate”? This is something we know very well in the UN. Peacekeepers should be impartial. Certainly, no forces being part of the conflict should participate in the peacekeeping mission. In this context, the situation in Transnistria is actually very rare, as troops are referred to as peacekeepers there. For the Donbas, these forces should have the capability to maintain peace. In view of military engagement, heavy artillery and armored vehicles, these forces have to be rather robust to provide peace. The states participating in such efforts should be recognized by both sides as impartial and neutral, not only in terms of their behavior, but also in terms of the general perception, in terms of the policy of the peacekeeping country. In Europe, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, and Ireland are perceived as such. Those countries have engaged in many parts of the world since 1960s. Knowledge of a Slavic language could also help, so Belarus might play that role in the Donbas. As for Austria, our government has highlighted that in case of the UN mandate meaningful for the whole region rather than for certain parts of the line of contact and commitment to reestablish administrative procedures and fair elections, Austria would consider playing its role in such a mission.

In your 2012 interview for The Ukrainian Week, you warned of negative consequences should the Ukrainian natural gas transportation system (GTS) be sold to the Russians. Recent events have proven you right. Now we have another threat in Nord Stream 2. What can you say about it?

— The Ukrainian gas transportation system is a priority in the political approach of many EU member states. As for individual economic actors and companies, the picture is slightly different. Austrian, German, French or Dutch businesses are playing an active role in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 projects. As for Ukraine, decision process is still going on. In my opinion, an international structure should be provided to make sure that the Ukrainian gas transmission system is functioning according to objective criteria. No European client or company should see the need to build other pipelines that are not essential. Although it is a little overdue as it should have been done years ago. Now, such an effort is urgent due to the political background, but the solution for the existing structure could be found in one or two years, which would be too late.

Possibly, one of the interests of Europe could be storage capabilities of Ukraine. Underground storage facilities in Western Ukraine have the capability to store the annual consumption of countries the size of Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. These are the opportunities that Nord Stream would never provide, and this is actually the strategic value of the Ukrainian GTS. It would be a shame to lose these opportunities. For Ukraine, it would mean loss of revenues, that is considerable, but it would also decrease security of the European gas market, and that is something we would rather not see happen.

European politicians, including Austrian ones, are often seen as supporters of Russian efforts to undermine gas projects and solidarity among EU and NATO countries. Do you know the reasons for this behavior? How can Ukraine overcome this problem?

— There are several factors, one of which is history. In Austria, we have very strong and positive memories of common history with Ukraine, namely its western regions. But we also had positive moments in our history with Russia. Looking back to Austrian imperial history, there were periods of alliances between the Austrian Empire and the Russian Empire. This history brings positive feelings towards the Russian Federation these days. Besides, there are many people respecting efforts of the soviet army in the liberation of Vienna and other parts of Austria during the Second World War. A large part of the Austrian population perceives those efforts as a positive development that has brought about the end of the Nazi rule. Nowadays, it is cultivated as the Russian achievement. Although, the Ukrainian Embassy and many others always point out that the soviet army at the time was not exclusively Russian. There were Ukrainian fronts and there was actually a disproportionally high presence of Ukrainian soldiers. There is also another aspect, as this year we commemorate 50 years of gas deliveries. Austria was the first Western country to have signed the treaty with the Soviet Union for the import of Russian fuel. People think gas deliveries have always been reliable. The presence of Russian businesses, especially in the financial sector, is quite important. In Vienna, there are many more Russians than Ukrainians. One can hear a lot of Russian in Austria.

Russia has had very different politics vis-à-vis Austria. I was shocked to see that Russia, so friendly and respectful of Austrian interests, can behave differently in its immediate neighborhood, where it is being disrespectful of the sovereignty of neighboring states. Russia is not shy to use means and instruments of the past. That is why, I am happy that we have very good visits on the high level between Ukraine and Austria. Lately, President Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian delegation have visited Vienna, and now Austrians are preparing the visit of the Federal President of Austria to Ukraine. At the same time, we have high-level political engagement with the Russian Federation. We are trying to provide a platform for dialogue not only with Ukraine, but also with Syria and Iran.

There is always room for improvement of our bilateral relations with Ukraine. We have very good reporting about the situation in Ukraine. Some Austrian media take a lot of interest in the conflict in the East. Still, a large part of the population of Austria has no idea what is really happening in the Donbas and how serious events have been. Some people have heard that 10,000 people were killed, but have no understanding of how severe the conflict has been and how dangerous it still is. This is a serious challenge, we should remind people to look at the facts and to understand the background. In Austria, I am always surprised at how far away most people feel, despite the vicinity. Vienna is closer to Western Ukraine than to the western regions of Austria. The real challenge for Ukrainian diplomats is to share objective information about Ukraine.

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BIO

Wolf Dietrich Heim was born in Kirchdorf an der Krems, Austria, in 1967. He graduated from the Vienna University of Economics and Business in 1994 and worked at the Foreign Ministry of Austria after that. From 1997 to 2001, he was cultural attaché of the Embassy of Austria in Japan. From 2001 to 2003, he was deputy head of the diplomatic mission (minister-counselor) of the Embassy of Austria in Finland. In 2004–2006, he was deputy head of the Executive Secretariat for the EU. From October 2006 to August 2010, he worked as deputy inspector general and acting inspector general of the Foreign Ministry of Austria. From 2010 to 2015, he was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Austria in Ukraine. In 2017, he was special representative of the Austrian OSCE chairperson-in-office for the Transnistrian settlement process.

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