“To ensure a safer future in Europe, we need to do more than just react!”
Miroslav Lajčák is Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic. During calendar year 2019, the 56-year-old is also the Chairperson-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). From 2017 until 2018 Lajčák served as President of the United Nations General Assembly for the 72nd session, where he advocated for dialogue, strengthening multilateralism and serving the needs of all people. Sven Lilienström, founder of Faces of Peace, spoke with Miroslav Lajčák about peace, the crisis of multilateralism and the Ukraine conflict.
Mr. Lajčák, the Faces of Peace initiative aims to highlight existing and future potential conflicts and find diplomatic solutions. What does “peace” mean for you personally?
Miroslav Lajčák: Obviously, peace means something different for every person. To me it is much more than, simply, the absence of conflict.
Peace is waking up without fear; it is looking to the future with hope; it is opportunity!
Peace is not that easy to grasp or define. It is something which is woven deeply into the fabric of society. It is waking up without fear; it is looking to the future with hope; it is opportunity.
Peace cannot be installed overnight. It does not come from a workshop run by an international team of experts.
And, building peace takes a lot of time. It cannot be installed overnight. It does not come from a workshop run by an international team of experts. Rather, it must be built up – block after block, layer after layer. And this can only be done by the people on the ground, who were there – in their homes, and in their villages – when peace was not. They are the most important actors in the peacebuilding process.
Even as the international community diversifies its priorities and activities, peace must still be at the top of the agenda.
Probably the saddest part of trying to define peace is the fact that many people cannot speak from experience. Peace is still not a reality for everyone. Conflicts rage on across the world. International terrorism poses as grave a threat as ever. And, as we have seen, political, religious and social intolerance is rising. So, even as the international community diversifies its priorities and activities, peace must still be at the top of the agenda.
At the beginning of the year, Slovakia took the annually rotating OSCE chair. The OSCE is a multilateral organization. Is the crisis of multilateralism a threat to peace in Europe?
Miroslav Lajčák: Before talking about the crisis to multilateralism, it is important to reflect on what this term – “multilateralism” – means.
Through multilateralism, we can all win – no matter how different we are!
At its core is the idea that, if we are prepared to make some concessions, and find common ground and a way to work together, we can still pursue our own objectives – just in a way that is not to the detriment of others. Essentially, through multilateralism, we can all win – no matter how different we are.
Every time we nearly destroyed our world order as we know it, we came back to it – back to multilateralism.
Multilateralism is not a new concept that just popped up some years ago. Actually, it goes back centuries. And, although I am not a historian, I can still see a clear pattern: every time we nearly destroyed our world order as we know it, we came back to it – back to multilateralism. Multilateralism has been seen, in the aftermath of wars, as the only way to avoid the creation of new ones – the most notable example being the establishment of the United Nations from the ashes of World War II.
The OSCE – the largest regional organization in the world – is no different. It was formed during the Cold War as a way to avoid escalation, and bring parties from east and west – spanning from Vancouver to Vladivostok – around the same table.
The concern we hear more and more these days is that we may forget why we decided to seek dialogue and establish a platform to work together. And in fact, it seems we are already forgetting this, given the tendency towards the “old” way of doing things, whereby each actor – each country – is out for themselves. If we let this trend continue, it is not only European security which is at stake, but also our global community. That is why we need more voices from the majority – those who believe in multilateralism – to speak out. Otherwise, we are on a path that could lead us to repeat the mistakes of history.
Speaking of security in Europe: To what extent will the security mechanisms in Europe change in the coming years and what role will the OSCE play in the 21st century when it comes to security policy?
Miroslav Lajčák: The security context in Europe and beyond is changing at a very fast pace.
Now we are grappling with new, invisible dangers from cyberspace and climate change.
100 years ago, we thought about security in terms of tanks and armies. Over the past decades, our concerns moved from nuclear threats, to non-state actors and terror attacks. And, now we are grappling with new, invisible dangers from cyberspace and climate change.
This evolution can be seen in the OSCE too. For the past decades, it has been a regional leader on military-to-military transparency and arms control. In simple terms, this means using clear, transparent communication – for example, on the demonstration of new weapon systems – to build confidence between states. This, in turn, leads to the chances of a miscommunication or a sudden escalation in tensions to decrease.
Today the OSCE has developed a set of confidence-building measures focused on the use of information and communication technologies!
However, while in the past these confidence-building measures centred on traditional military activities and policies, they have had to adapt in line with changing circumstances. So today, for example, the OSCE has developed a set of confidence-building measures specifically focused on the use of information and communication technologies, which participating States are now being encouraged to adopt.
I think the OSCE can play a core role in de-escalation and trust-building in Europe for years to come.
As a regional organization that has embodied a comprehensive approach to security since its establishment, I do believe that the OSCE can play a leading role in responding to 21st century security challenges. The fact that it is not a likeminded organization – bringing together states with different positions and ideals around the same table – can lead, obviously, to delays. But, the results and decisions are stronger for it. Our Chairmanship has sought to focus on what we call “providing for a safer future”, which has meant trying to intensify the conversation on new and evolving issues like the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the prevention of violent extremism, climate change and connectivity. The OSCE has the capacity and tools to expand and diversify in line with prevailing external trends, and I think it can play a core role in de-escalation and trust-building in Europe for years to come.
You have described the Ukrainian conflict as a “key issue”. What contribution has the OSCE Mission made to resolve the conflict under your chairmanship and what is the current situation?
Miroslav Lajčák: The crisis in and around Ukraine is our key security concern on the European continent nowadays.
The number of casualties in eastern Ukraine is higher than anything we have seen elsewhere in Europe this century!
The number of casualties we have seen in eastern Ukraine in the past five years is higher than anything we have seen elsewhere in Europe this century.
But, although shocking to hear, it is not about numbers. The real tragedy becomes clear only when you look at the hundreds of thousands of people severely impacted by the conflict, living along the contact line in dire humanitarian situations. Their daily struggle does not make headlines on the front pages of our newspapers. But it is very real.
When it comes to the crisis in and around Ukraine, the OSCE does, indeed, make a difference on the ground. Although dialogue in Vienna among the 57 participating States can be difficult at times, it is still the only platform where participants regularly discuss this topic. And, this diversity of actors did not hamper the OSCE’s ability to act quickly in response to developments on the ground when it deployed the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) back in spring 2014.
Effectively, the OSCE staff members are the eyes and ears of the international community on the ground.
The Mission has been in place ever since then and is doing an extremely important job on the ground with its staff of more than 1300 members. Our monitors are in the field observing and reporting on ceasefire violations, monitoring the latest developments and the hardship faced by people. Effectively, it is the eyes and ears of the international community on the ground. The SMM is also facilitating the repairs of critical civilian infrastructure, which, due to conflict-related damages and lack of maintenance, has a direct effect on the daily lives of the conflict-affected population.
Unfortunately recently there were days when there were more ceasefire violations than before recommitment!
You were asking about the current situation. The unlimited ceasefire recommitment starting on 21 July was a welcome development, and we have seen a significant decrease in the amount of civilian casualties and the ceasefire violations following this. Nevertheless, unfortunately recently (As at 11 October 2019) there were days when there were more ceasefire violations than before recommitment.
We witnessed positive dynamics between the Russian Federation and Ukraine that led to the exchange of detainees. Also, there have been very good discussions within the Normandy Format that will, I hope, lead to a long-awaited Summit of the Normandy Four leaders. Important steps were made also within the Trilateral Contact Group, where the sides agreed upon the disengagement process and the Steinmeier Formula. And, last but not least, repairs to help people in crossing across the broken bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska are taking place.
I was personally committed to this because I saw the suffering these people had to go through in crossing the bridge.
Alongside our support to the SMM and the overarching political process, we have prioritized actions that we think could alleviate the suffering of people on the ground. At the early stages of our Chairmanship we developed a set of confidence-building measures, one of which focused on the repair of the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska. I was personally committed to this because, during my first trip to Ukraine as Chairperson in January, I saw the suffering these people – mostly elderly people – had to go through in crossing the bridge. Simple tasks like collecting their pensions or seeking healthcare put their lives in danger. So, after years of negotiation, the fact that a by-pass bridge has opened, and repairs on the broken bridge have begun, is an important symbol, and a real opportunity for progress.
As a NATO member, Slovakia currently invests 1.2 percent of its GDP in defense. This still falls short of NATO’s two-percent target. Do we need to increase our defense spending to safeguard security in Europe?
Miroslav Lajčák: Actually, through modernizing our Armed Forces, Slovakia’s defence expenditures went up to 1.73 percent of our GDP in 2019, and will reach the 2 percent target by 2022, which is ahead of the 2024 deadline.
We thought that the era of large, heavily armed forces in Europe was over. Unfortunately, we were proven wrong.
But I think what is more important here is that an increase in defence spending is a direct reflection of the rising insecurity and unpredictability in our current security environment. After the end of the Cold War, for many years we thought that armed conflict in Europe would be a relic of the past, and no longer a tool used to deal with differences between states in Europe. We thought that the era of large, heavily armed forces in Europe was over. Unfortunately, we were proven wrong. In many cases, we have seen old threats persisting in our region, and new challenges still emerging – from cyber, artificial intelligence, or environmental degradation.
To ensure a safer future in Europe, we need to do more than just react!
To ensure a safer future in Europe, we need to do more than just react; we need to constantly evaluate and adjust our courses of action to stay one step ahead of the curve. And this also means focusing more on prevention. Simply said, we must work together to address the root causes of potential hostility and conflict early on, before they have time to grow – and provoke a reaction.
Slovakia has always been a staunch supporter of arms control and disarmament in combination with dialogue and diplomacy as a better way of achieving stability and security in Europe. And I hope that in the future this approach to security will regain traction.
The Visegrad states had a not inconsiderable influence on who occupies the top posts in the EU. Does Europe need the V4 group and if so, does the V4 strengthen or weaken the unity of our continent?
Miroslav Lajčák: You are right, the V4 had a strong voice in the debate on the top posts in the EU and it resulted in securing portfolios which are important both for our four countries, and for the EU as a whole.
For Slovakia, the Visegrad Group is an important tool for pragmatic regional cooperation and a guarantor of good neighbourly relations and regional stability. At the same time, it provides a useful platform for consultation and coordination on the European agenda.
Slovakia is pro-Europe and pro-EU, and the same goes for our three V4 partners.
Looking back, the V4 was created to facilitate and speed up our integration into the European Union, to overcome the East-West divide in Europe and to contribute to our European unity. And this purpose still remains valid. Although we may disagree at times, coming from the same cultural, political and economic background, the V4 countries often share the same views. And taken as a whole, we represent around 65 million EU citizens, whose voices, ideas and fears should be heard in the EU. As we all know, at the EU, we are united in diversity. And vehicles for our unity are dialogue, respect for our differences and the ability to find compromises. Slovakia is pro-Europe and pro-EU, and the same goes for our three V4 partners.
Mr. Lajčák, our seventh question is always the same: What three trouble spots are in your opinion currently the most dangerous and what measures do you suggest to de-escalate conflict and stabilize peace?
Miroslav Lajčák: As Slovak Foreign Minister, what is happening in Ukraine is our most urgent challenge.
Instability in Ukraine is a threat to our own stability; insecurity in Ukraine is a threat to our own security.
Ukraine is our biggest neighbour and the only one that is not a member of the EU. Instability in Ukraine is a threat to our own stability; insecurity in Ukraine is a threat to our own security.
As a member of the international community, Slovakia respects, trusts in and relies on international law. And its principles, such as sovereignty, territorial integrity or peaceful resolution of disputes have been at stake for Ukraine in Crimea or the Donbas and Luhansk regions – which is very worrying for us.
People on the ground need to understand and own the process!
When it comes to a way to peacefully resolve this conflict, I think, in theory, we have everything in place: We have the plan in the form of the Minsk Agreements; we have the mechanisms to implement the plan in the Normandy format and the TCG; we have the public demand for peace, stability and prosperity of the regions in question. The only roadblock was the absence of enough political will to take on the painful challenge of turning all of this into action. Now, after a long time, we are finally seeing political will to take steps forward, and I really hope we will see a Normandy Meeting soon. But we cannot forget that this is not just for political elites; people on the ground need to understand and own the process. Not everyone will support each and every step that is being taken, but we need to find a way to explain what is happening – to ensure their hopes and ideas are heard, and to respond to their concerns.
These days, the Middle East is certainly one of the most complicated regions of the world.
Secondly, as a firm Europhile and Atlanticist, I should mention Iran as another major concern. JCPOA – the nuclear deal – has been one of the great achievements of multilateral diplomacy and one of the successes of European foreign policy. At the same time, as an Atlanticist, I cannot ignore the fact that different approaches towards Iran have sown the seeds of many disagreements in the transatlantic bond which is helping neither Europe, nor the US, let alone the Middle East. As a Europhile, I still believe that the deal can be saved. As an Atlanticist I admit that the problems go beyond the scope of issues regulated by the JCPOA.
Why don’t we change the tactics and for once give peace a chance?
And, finally, as a multilateralist I believe we have to deescalate the situation around Iran and return to the negotiating table. These days, the Middle East is certainly one of the most complicated regions of the world. The cradle of civilization has seen so many conflicts, challenges and troubles in the past. Why don’t we change the tactics and for once give peace/peaceful co-existence a chance?
As is so often the case, we have all the tools and capacities – we just need the will to use them properly!
Thirdly, I will mention a hot issue, rather than a hot spot – in fact two intertwined issues: Climate change and the technological revolution. They affect us as human beings in every aspect of life – and they affect international relations, trade, prosperity of nations, and our safety and security. As a matter of fact, both of these issues should be seen in the context of our very survival. We have experienced environmental degradation as well as technological innovations in the past. What is different today is the speed and the scope of the changes. The pace of climate change is getting out of our hands; while technological progress both in the real and virtual worlds mean, that our capacity of self-destruction is almost unlimited. However, we can reverse both. If we use our skills the other way around, technological progress can provide the answers needed for the challenges posed by climate change. As is so often the case, we have all the tools and capacities – we just need the will to use them properly.
Mr. Lajčák, thank you very much for the interview!
Please also read our interview with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger (German).