Peter Burkhard is current Head of the Organization for the European security and cooperation(OSCE) mission to Serbia since 2012. He has diplomatic experience as a chief of the OSCE office in Baku, Head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine and as Swiss ambassador in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Cuba. Speaking about Serbian chairmanship of the OSCE in 2015 he stated that he is hopeful that Serbia will rise to the challenge, drawing on its experience and record of neutrality and impartiality, to showcase its commitment to OSCE principles and to advance its reputation and role.
You were a Swiss ambassador to Cuba. What do you think about current state of bilateral relations between the US and Cuba?
On December 17, 2014, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years. The U.S. agreed to ease remittances, travel, and banking restrictions; and Cuba agreed to release fifty-three prisoners the United States had classified as political dissidents. This is a positive step forward for the overall relations of both countries considering a number of open issues between them, as well as the fact that Cuban community is one of the largest in the US and an integral part of the US political life.
You were a Head of the OSCE mission in Ukraine. Could you compare Yugoslav and nowadays Ukraine crisis explaining the OSCE role in those conflicts?
It is difficult to compare the two situations and any attempt to do so would require a lengthy analysis. Regarding the role of the OSCE, at the time of the Yugoslav crisis, the organization was much less developed than now and it was only one of the international players involved, and to a limited extent. Today, the OSCE has more instruments at its disposal and its Monitoring Mission is the key international presence on the ground. However, just like in the case of former Yugoslavia, with Ukraine the solution depends mainly on the actors involved in the conflict.
Serbia takes the OSCE chairmanship in a year when that organization celebrates 40 years. What significance does it have for Serbia diplomacy and the international community?
In fact, the OSCE will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, a document which set some of the founding principles of the organization. This will also provide an opportunity to reassess the OSCE’s current and future role. In that context the role of the Field Operations could also be examined and further enhanced, since this is one of the OSCE’s main comparative advantages.
Main pillars of the OSCE mission to Serbia are rule of law and human rights, police reform, democratization and the media. To what extent a strengthening of those pillars by the OSCE mission will help Serbia on her way to the full membership in the EU?
The OSCE Mission to Serbia, which I have the privilege and honor to lead since December 2012, is an instrument for joint action to assist the Serbian authorities and its citizens. In particular, our mandate requires us to work to improve OSCE standards in the fields of the rule of law, police affairs, democratic institutions and media.The programmatic activities of the OSCE Mission to Serbia contribute to making Serbia a more functioning democracy based on the rule of law. For example, OSCE Mission works to achieve progress in areas such as: reforming the judiciary with a view to making it more functional, consolidating the progress made toward introducing a police service more attuned to the needs of the Serbian public that it serves and with an ethos rooted in the concept of democratic policing, enhancing the respect for human rights and rights of national minorities, improving the professionalism of journalists and ensuring a media landscape where the public service and private outlets compete on a level playing field and fostering the inclusive and efficient functioning of the institutions that define a parliamentary democracy. These are all the steps that would contribute to Serbia’s further progress towards its stated goal of joining the EU. In fact, the OSCE commitments and standards are consistent and complementary with EU requirements for membership.
Why the OSCE has played a important role in processes of post conflict transition, especially in supporting wide spectrum of reforms on entire Western Balkan as Serbian minister of foreign affairs recently stated?
Originally, the Western Balkans was recognized by the participating states as the region where the OSCE presence was both deemed useful and welcome by the countries concerned. Therefore, virtually all countries of the region at one point had OSCE presences. Though the mandates of the Missions are different and some of them have finished their work, the OSCE was able to play a critical role in reforms and in post conflict stabilization in the region, since the EU perspective has been delayed in the Western Balkans as compared to other regions such as Central Europe.
According to Helsinki final act of 1975 The participating states will likewise refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation or other direct or indirect measures of force in contravention of international law. Why it is not applied on Kosovo case?
In international relations, as in internal developments, the implementation of many principles is rarely perfect. I would like also to note that the principles of the OSCE are not legally, but only politically binding, which of course, does not make them less important. Sometimes, the implementation of those principles requires concerted efforts and the will to compromise. Regarding Kosovo, the OSCE as an organization has a status neutral position.
What do you think about the present state of Serbian media scene?
The year 2015 will be the break-through moment for the entire media system in Serbia, and at this moment it is difficult to predict simply based on the new legal framework what the media scene would look like in a year. The main issues remain: transparency of the media ownership, privatization of state owned media and digitalization. The OSCE Mission to Serbia will continue to support journalists throughout the country by providing professional training, and it will continue to work on promotion of freedom, multi-culturalism and independence of media
You have big diplomatic experience. Which country was the most difficult to work there?
You might think that this is paradoxical, but my immediate answer would be my home country: Switzerland. The explanation lies in a mixture of various reasons. Obviously not because Switzerland is a “difficult” country. The main reason, for me, is possibly, that I never wanted to work in the Government, i.e. in a Ministry. I joined the Foreign Ministry because I wanted to work literally in the Foreign service, i.e. abroad.
What is the main issue when speaking of intention of regional and international organizations to peacefully address international conflicts?
We believe the best way to find durable solutions to conflicts is through dialogue around a negotiating table. In finding a long term solution to a conflict the opposing sides need to practice shifting of their point of view: from insisting on their opinions and positions to identifying mutual interests/needs.
Serbian columnist Bosko Jaksic wrote that OSCE doesn’t have an effective operational mechanisms in world processes. How do you comment that statement?
Unlike diplomats, journalists have the privilege, but also bear the risk of making sometimes quite bold and intentionally harsh judgments. None of the international organizations have a perfect set of mechanisms. They are what their member-states or the participating-states allow them to be. So the problem lies not in the organizations, but in those who create and run the organizations. OSCE is no more and no less what its participating states want it to be. And this applies to other international organizations, as well.
How will the OSCE chairmanship affect current Serbian foreign policy posture of balancing between east and west?
As the OSCE Chairperson, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, has said, Serbia will be able to bring to the table its own experience as a country that emerged from conflict, and to capitalize on its good relations with all sides and especially with the OSCE participating states that are working to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. The OSCE chairmanship is a significant opportunity for Serbia. I am hopeful that Serbia will rise to the challenge, drawing on its experience and record of neutrality and impartiality, to showcase its commitment to OSCE principles and to advance its reputation and role.
On the one hand, the OSCE is a forum for dialogue – a feature which is embodied by the interaction between and among the participating States in Vienna. This interaction is guided every year by a different country in the capacity as Chairmanship in Office. In this function, the country holding the chairmanship has the responsibility of steering the organization. On the other hand, when consensus is reached, the OSCE is an instrument for joint action in the hands of the participating States. This aspect of the organization is exemplified by its three Institutions – the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities; the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media – and by its 17 Field Operations
Micheline Calmy-Rey and Vuk Jeremic wrote that Swiss chairmanship led the OSCE in trilateral contact group that brokered Minsk protocol. What do you expect for Serbia to be the most valuable diplomatic achievement during her OSCE chairmanship?
I’m sure that Serbia will fully engage itself to make its chairmanship as productive and as effective as possible. In that sense, I do not doubt that at the end of the year its contribution will be adequately recognized at the OSCE ministerial conference in Belgrade. But, I cannot venture to predict what this might be, since we are only at the beginning of the year .