OSCE Office in Baku Alexander Cornelissen: “The outside world should not be oblivious to the fact that it is Azerbaijan that has remained under partial occupation by its neighbor for all that time”

OSCE Office in Baku Alexander Cornelissen: “The outside world should not be oblivious to the fact that it is Azerbaijan that has remained under partial occupation by its neighbor for all that time”
# 14 October 2011 09:11 (UTC +04:00)
Baku. Victoria Dementieva – APA. APA interview with former head of the OSCE Office in Baku Alexander Cornelissen
- You were the first head of the OSCE Mission in Baku in 2000-2001. Have you visited Azerbaijan again after your appointment? From your point of view, what kind of changes took place in Azerbaijan in economic and human rights sphere?

- It was a great pleasure to visit Azerbaijan again in October 2010, some ten years after my appointment as Head of the OSCE Office in Baku, on a tight schedule that allowed for catching brief glimpses of the tremendous changes and challenges Azerbaijan is facing. The trip was far too short for a balanced appraisal but Azerbaijan receives its friends from abroad with exceptional warmth and hospitality –this applies at all levels, in the streets of Baku when one struggles with a changing roadmap and in all contacts and communications bearing on the reasons of one’s itinerary. The vibrancy and tremendous expansion of Azerbaijan’s economy are apparent at first glance, societal transformation and, for example, developments in the protection of human rights, are less obvious to the untrained eye.

- Have you had any information about Azerbaijan before taking the office of the OSCE Mission in Baku?

- Before my appointment as Head of the OSCE Office in Baku I had been posted in Vienna as a member of our national delegation participating in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It was in that environment that I learned about Azerbaijan and Azerbaijan’s neighbors in the South Caucasus. Security and cooperation in the region was a regular item on the agenda of the OSCE Permanent Council meetings in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna every Thursday morning, then as now. Over the years in Vienna my awareness of Azerbaijan’s predicament steadily grew. I developed a close and cordial working relationship with the colleagues from Baku.

- What impressions do you have after few years of working in our country?

- At the time, Azerbaijan was struggling with the legacy of an armed clash with its neighbor in the region and with the challenges of gaining national independence from the former USSR, all at once. The transformation of a Soviet- style social order into a modern market economy formed but part of the national agenda. Azerbaijan remained enmeshed in a conflict with its neighbor, also a participating country in the OSCE, in which its national identity had been put to question but simultaneously demanded from Azerbaijan’s government and people to remain on speaking terms with its neighbor and with the international community. Such was the setting in which the Office in Baku commenced its operations in the early days.

- How was the cooperation with Azerbaijani officials?

- The reference to Office rather than Mission in its terms of reference had been made to bring out that, in furthering cooperative security, we should aim to respond to Azerbaijan’s needs and priorities. We considered Azerbaijan, a participating country like the others in the Permanent Council in Vienna not only as a partner in a shared commitment to furthering security and cooperation in Europe but also as our taskmaster on location. For that reason we recognized the need for an utmost effort on our part to come to grips with the concerns and priorities of our hosts in devising a program of work for the long haul. This called for a lengthy series of in-depth consultations with the various government departments and other relevant agencies with the specific purpose to create a program of activities that would reflect Azerbaijan’s perspective on its national requirements and also pass the scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s partners in distant Vienna. Cooperation with Azerbaijani officials in this endeavor was exemplary throughout our efforts to meet these dual requirements.

- With what difficulties/challenges did you face during your work in Azerbaijan?

- Stumbling blocks arose mostly in the practical and institutional sphere. It took the Office more time to scrutinize permanent office quarters and build up a functioning international roster from scratch than anticipated. The powerful earthquake that jolted Baku in the fall of 2000 scared the wits out of many of us, my self included, and caused cumbersome delays in program delivery for which the Office was ill prepared. OSCE Headquarters demonstrated scant understanding for the Office’s travails in this department. Overall the institutional requirements of our operations necessitated as much attention as our programmatic focus in the early days.

With very limited manpower to spare the Office in Baku concentrated its efforts on the promotion of a dialogue on substantive concerns between Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations on the one hand and the corresponding branches of the governmental apparatus on the other. Thematically, the Office intended to reinforce the Governments intentions in regard to media reform. The Office also concentrated on collaboration with the Justice Department in regard to penal administration and reform and on the monitoring of the electoral process in which we were careful to avoid trespassing on the judgment of our colleagues at the central OSCE institutions –in this instance the ODIHR in Warsaw, Poland, but obviously remaining attentive to their substantive concerns:

The consolidation of a pluralist democratic order in the transforming societal conditions that Azerbaijan went through ten years ago seems to remain in a state of flux to this day. I made it a point of personal priority to advance Azerbaijan’s admission to the Council of Europe and found myself testifying in support of Azerbaijan’s case in Strasbourg just a few months after taking up my recently minted responsibilities in Baku. The case for membership was overwhelming from a vantage point in the South Caucasus. Even though a tacit rivalry might have been discernable between the applications of Armenia and Azerbaijan it was clear that the more or less co-terminus acceptance on similar conditions could be expected to have a pacifying impact on the strained relations between the two neighbors, a solid reason that by itself would justify admission without even mentioning the obvious benefits for the national efforts of both countries and the concerns of their individual citizens in the broad fields of democratization and human rights.

- And what were the easiest and the hardest things for you as the OSCE Ambassador in Azerbaijan?

- As the easiest part? To develop a grasp of the tremendous tasks Azerbaijan was confronted with in rebuilding and modernizing its societal infrastructure and simultaneously to address the challenges to its national identity and independence.
What proved to be the most difficult part? To bring our infrastructure -which had to be built up from scratch- on a par with the level of service that could be expected from us to help meet Azerbaijan’s needs in this regard The home front could not always muster an understanding of the constraints on our operations in the start up phase. Upon my return to Baku last year it was heartening to learn of the tremendous expansion of the range of activities of the Office in Baku during the past ten years. Whatever came of our hard fought projected work program in which we had invested so much of our limited capacities for program delivery in the early days, subsequent developments provide ample indication that the OSCE was on a right track in working with Azerbaijan on its commitments to security and cooperation the South Caucasus.

- Unfortunately, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was not solved until now. On your opinion, what is the reason of that? Could OSCE Minsk group format justify itself?

- The Nagorno-Karabakh issue gives cause for increasing concern. Circumstances around the cease fire line of contact between the opposing military forces dug in on both sides along the line were tense ten years ago. They seem to be much more so today. The outside world should not be oblivious to the fact that it is Azerbaijan that has remained under partial occupation by its neighbor for all that time. The OSCE Minsk process has justified itself in that it brings together the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in a flexible format guided by three principal actors on the world scene, who are in a position to address the issues involved not only in the OSCE, but also in the United Nations Security Council. Some progress toward a solution may be discernible but the pace of the mediation effort remains excruciatingly slow.

Why this is so only those who are on the inside track of the peace process can judge. From a more distant vantage point it seems that the Minsk format should take pains to ensure that the current tensions along the cease fire line will not escalate into another armed clash that may well trigger another war between the two countries with disastrous consequences not only for the two in their bilateral environment but with a spill-over into the wider region and the world beyond.

Armenia and Azerbaijan should recognize each other as principal stakeholders in the peace process. Outside supporters, including those who partake in the Minsk effort should not derive their positions on substance from sources or concerns extraneous to the issues involved in the bilateral relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in particular in regard to the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As far as the conceptual underpinnings of the Minsk effort are concerned I would consider that an operational priority might be warranted for the integrity of states over the self determination of peoples. It just will not suffice to agree that ‘both’ should be respected. Failing such real priority setting, peace making becomes illusory, not only on conceptual grounds or on matters of principle but also because peace making requires building it. The long term commitments needed to give peace a chance stand a chance of success only if made in the framework of secure and respected international borders.

It is not the OSCE who can procure that international legitimacy to neighbors in conflict. However, the United Nations can. While the Minsk Three –the Russian Federation, the US and France, may position themselves as pivotal movers in either institution I believe that, after more than fifteen years of their inconclusive involvement, the preservation of the cease fire and the subsequent stages of making and building the peace in the southern tier of the South Caucasus region call for more comprehensive international support. International actors should not be oblivious to the fact that the UN Secretary General has his own mandate for the preservation of international peace as laid down in the UN Charter. The prevailing circumstances in the conflict zone may well warrant his more direct involvement in the quest for a durable and workable settlement. I hasten to add that such involvement of the UN Secretary General, personally or on his behalf, should not be meant to replace, duplicate or coordinate existing programs or activities in the international arena but, quite to the contrary, to enhance their impact and effect by projecting a sharper international focus on conflict resolution on the strained relations between the two neighbors in the South Caucasus.

- What kind of experience you get during your work in Azerbaijan and did you use it in your further career? What is your position now?
- As to your question on my personal circumstances: I am technically retired, after 34 years of national and international civil service. But social reconstruction, security and cooperation remain my trade. I feel indebted to Azerbaijan and try to think along in the search for a durable resolution of the conflict.