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“Switzerland’s good offices are still in demand”

Alex Majoli/Magnum

Basel-born diplomatic heavyweight Heidi Tagliavini tells about the tragedies witnessed in Eastern Europe, which she says were exacerbated by the implosion of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago.

Tagliavini, who speaks eight languages, has carried out 18 missions in 30 years. These were mostly in the former Communist bloc for the United Nations, the European Union or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Recently retired, she looks back at the peace efforts in Georgia, where she worked for almost ten years. You experienced your diplomatic baptism of fire almost 20 years ago with the First Chechen War, which lasted from 1994 to 1996.

Heidi Tagliavini: Yes, I was in the Netherlands for what was my only “classic” diplomatic job. In 1995, when Russia approved an OSCE support mission as part of the peace process – in which Switzerland was taking part – I left practically overnight.

It was a rude awakening because I didn’t know the reality that awaited me in Grozny, which was deserted and in the midst of war, with artillery fire every night. We were six OSCE diplomats from different countries, living in a house without doors or windows – there wasn’t any water, gas or electricity either.

This first mission made a big impression on me and motivated my subsequent work. I discovered working in the field, which suits me very well: offering warring parties a space to discuss a possible peace agreement, seeing to it that they talk to each other, trying to re-establish an element of trust, making proposals, monitoring human rights and rights of refuges and the state of law and so on. After that war between Russian forces and Chechen fighters demanding independence, the conflict was Islamicised and spilled across practically the entire Caucasus. Russia says al-Qaeda is within its borders today…

H.T.: The Caucasus is very rich culturally, ethnically and linguistically, but it also has a tragic history and a difficult legacy. Its ordeals are one of the tragic consequences of the implosion of the Soviet Union. This dissolution provoked a series of terrible and intractable conflicts, above all on the edges of the former empire, as much in the northern Caucasus as in the southern Caucasus.

With globalisation, the development of Islam – which wasn’t an issue in the secular Soviet Union, whose regions didn’t really have much contact with the outside world – has become a political factor. Today, you get the impression that the Caucasus is increasingly slipping from Moscow’s control, in any case mentally. But you also have to admit that the country is so massive that it’s hard to control.

The Chechen wars have done nothing to sort things out and today the region has largely been abandoned. It requires courage to work there and it’s hard to attract investors. Yet the 2014 Winter Olympics are set to take place in Sochi. Doesn’t Russia have an interest in normalising the situation?

H.T.: Of course Russia has an interest in normalising the situation but, as I said, it’s not so easy. The Olympics are only two years away and as long as there’s no upsurge in violence, no return to war, it’s unlikely much is going to happen. For the time being, everyone’s concentrating on getting the infrastructure ready, which is already a massive project in itself and which appears to be happening completely unconnected to the problems posed by this conflict. You worked in Georgia from 1998 to 2008 for the UN, OSCE and the EU. Since 2008, however, nothing’s changed.

H.T.: Even back in 1998 it was already hard to find a solution because the conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians is based on two incompatible claims: one to do with the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the other with the internationally recognised territorial integrity of Georgia.

Since coming to office in 2004, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has taken a clearly pro-West, pro-Nato stance, while Russia has been supporting, increasingly openly, separatism for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example by handing out Russian passports there. In our report on the conflict in Georgia, we described that as interference in Georgian affairs and thus as violation of international law. This overlapping complicated the process to such an extent that war broke out in South Ossetia in 2008…

H.T.: … but it could have broken out in Abkhazia just as easily. This conflict has certainly traumatised the four parties profoundly. It’s a red line which should never have been crossed because ever since then the climate has become so much more emotional that any form of discussion appears impossible.

After the war in 2008, all peace-keeping missions in the region were halted. All that’s left are the Geneva talks which take place at regular intervals and which at least enable people to discuss concrete issues on which the parties disagree: the general security of the population and the return of refugees and displaced people. It’s not much, but at least it lets the sides keep in touch. In a way, your career personifies the Swiss policy of good offices and neutrality, which are nevertheless regularly criticised in Switzerland.  

H.T.: It’s true that in the 1990s neutrality was really questioned. But I can say that in every conflict I’ve always been perceived as coming from a neutral country which doesn’t have a hidden agenda and which has been at peace for 150 years. That  gives us a credibility boost that it’s good to use.

Obviously our history has some dubious chapters, but one has to differentiate them because our good offices are still in demand and are often useful. The fact that after the 2008 war Georgia and Russia both asked Switzerland to represent their interests is more proof of that.

Born in Basel in 1950, Tagliavini studied Russian literature at Geneva University before she joined the Swiss foreign ministry at the age 32.

She was a member of the first Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Assistance Group to Chechnya in 1995.

From 1988 to 1999, Tagliavini was deputy head of the UN observer mission to Georgia (Unomig).

After a stint as personal representative of the Austrian president of the OSCE mission in the Caucasus in 2000, she served as Swiss ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2001/2002.

In 2002 she was appointed special representative to the UN Secretary-General for Unomig in Georgia and served in that position until 2006.

Mandated by the Council of the European Unioon, Tagliavini led an international investigation into the conflict in Georgia in 2008 and presented a report a year later.

In 2010 and 2012 she led observer missions to monitor presidential elections in Ukraine and Russia respectively.

Tagliavini was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Basel and Bern in 2010.

She published a photo book on Chechnya, Zeichen der Zerstörung (Signs of Destruction) in 1997, and is a co-author of The Caucasus – Defence of the Future (2001).

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of the end for the eastern European regimes allied with the Soviet Union as well as for the regime in Albania, which had severed ties with the Soviets.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, its 15 republics became independent at the end of 1991. Eleven of them founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); Georgia joined later but left in 2009.

Armed conflicts between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke out in August 2008. When Moscow recognised the independence of the two breakaway republics after 18 days of warfare Georgia suspended its diplomatic relations with Russia.

As part of its policy of good offices, Switzerland has been representing Moscow’s interests in Georgia and Tbilisi’s interests in Russia since 2009.

Switzerland’s development aid agency has been active in the southern Caucasus region since the 1988 earthquake in northern Armenia. In the 1990s the Swiss increased their efforts notably to help victims of the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh where about 1.5 million people had been forced to flee their homes.

(Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens)

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