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Swiss push OSCE ‘contact group’ to defuse crisis

Ukrainian soldiers keep a lookout for the Russians Keystone

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who holds the rotating presidency the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), says an international contact group may help defuse the tensions in Ukraine. But the plan still needs approval.

This content was published on March 3, 2014 - 18:47
Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Burkhalter said the contact group would support Ukraine during its transition and coordinate aid; it could also discuss sending observers to monitor the rights of national minorities.

“Recent events unfolding before our eyes in Ukraine have shown us that peace, security and human rights are no longer a given in Europe,” he told the council.

The idea of an international contact group purportedly has the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin – who Merkel persuaded during a telephone discussion, as her office declared on Sunday.

Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann, who Burkhalter last week appointed as special OSCE envoy for Ukraine, was equally upbeat on Monday. After an OSCE Council meeting in Vienna, he told reporters that a contact group was “in the making” and that the OSCE was also developing plans for a possible international monitoring mission to Ukraine.

The US has been pushing for the OSCE – originally set up during the Cold War as a platform for dialogue between East and West – to send a mission of perhaps hundreds of people to take stock of human rights, to monitor treatment of minority populations and to evaluate security concerns raised by both sides of the conflict in Ukraine. But such a mission would require a consensus decision by the 57-nation body, meaning Russia’s support would be needed.

Moscow's ambassador to OSCE in Vienna was non-committal, saying some international missions may do more harm than good.

Burkhalter met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Monday and listened to his concerns to try to resolve positions, but said there was no definite outcome.

“I can’t say we got a definite result, but the meeting was very useful,” said the Swiss minister. “We are in a process and together with the OSCE we’ll continue to push and have other contacts in the next few hours to see if things can be unblocked. The aim of our efforts is to manage to convince all essential partners to enter this contact group.”

Justified

Earlier on Monday in his address at the opening of the month-long session of the UN council in Geneva, Lavrov justified the use of Russian troops streaming into Ukraine's southern Crimea peninsula as essential protection for his country's citizens living there.

The use of Russian troops is necessary “until the normalisation of the political situation” in Ukraine…this is a question of defending our citizens and compatriots and ensuring human rights, especially the right to life,” Lavrov said.

Burkhalter admitted that developments in Crimea had added to the difficulties, but made the need for an international platform for dialogue all the more necessary. He said it would nonetheless remain up to Crimea to clarify its future during a planned referendum on March 30 and eventual extension of its autonomy.

“We must see how the vote will change things and closely follow the exact intentions of this region,” he added.

Western outcry

Tension between Ukraine and Moscow rose after Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed out last month by a protest movement among people who wanted closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych fled to Russia after more than 80 demonstrators were killed near Kiev's central square. He says he is still president.

Since then, troops that Ukraine says are Russian soldiers have effectively taken control of the Crimea peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority and hosts a Russian naval base, causing an outcry in the West and among Ukraine's new, pro-European leaders in Kiev.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is set to travel to Ukraine on Tuesday, has called on Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression”. On top of economic sanctions, visa bans, the freezing of Russian assets, as well as trade and investment penalties, Kerry said Moscow risks being kicked out of the G8 group of world industrial powers.

But the Russian president has rejected calls to pull back his troops, insisting that Moscow has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The country’s 46 million people have divided loyalties: while much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the EU, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.

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