Press Availability by Ambassador Baer at the 2016 OSCE Ministerial Council

A TV camera positioned in front of a backdrop with OSCE logos prior to a news conference at the Hofburg in Vienna. (OSCE, Mikhail Evstafiev)

Press Availability by U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer
following the Closing Session of the 2016 OSCE Ministerial Council

Hamburg Messe Und Congress
Hamburg, Germany
December 9, 2016

AMBASSADOR BAER: Hi everyone, thank you for coming. I know that five-thirty on a Friday is the time that you give a press conference when you want to make absolutely no news. I appreciate you being here. Let me give a few comments at the top and then I’m happy to take your questions.‎

First of all, we just had the closing session – the end of the closing session of the Ministerial, which officially is a two-day meeting, but it has been going on all week, so there are a lot of tired, hungry, slaphappy delegates meandering back to their offices now.

But the top issue on the Ministerial this year was, as it has been for the last three years, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s role in violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In fact, my delegation was listening carefully to the statements of all of the Heads of Delegation of the 57 OSCE participating States, and we counted at least 53 mentions of Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea, or Russian aggression against Ukraine, or both.

And it’s unsurprising that this remains at the top of ministers’ minds given both the fact that it remains the most glaring violation of OSCE principles and commitments and security concern in the OSCE area this year, and also because it’s the area where we have the largest, flagship OSCE operation right now, with over 700 monitors on the ground and over 1000 people totaling that mission, working every day to do reporting from the ground, most of them working in the conflict zone.

The second point I’d like to make is just to recap that Secretary Kerry, and I think his remarks revealed this yesterday, feels like this is a moment when the principles that underlie the OSCE are more important than ever, and our need to return to them and to use them as a foundation is particularly urgent. He spoke yesterday of the building blocks of the road to totalitarianism, and warned of a rise of authoritarian populism, accompanied by backsliding in the rule of law and democracy, accompanied by rising intolerance and hate crimes.

And I think the Secretary felt particularly strongly that this was a moment where we needed to seize the opportunity to try to turn the corner on some of these threats – which include not only the act of undermining of security that Russia has been doing in the OSCE region for several years, and in Ukraine in the last three, but also the more general rollback of democracy and human rights and rule of law trends that we see across the OSCE area.

You may have heard, or you may know, that OSCE Ministerials aren’t just about dialogue, but also usually about taking decisions, and that the OSCE makes decisions by consensus. And it would be unsurprising, given the state of the world right now, that in the year 2016 consensus is particularly difficult to come by. But I think it’s important to recognize that that is a reflection of the outside world, and certainly I can say on the part of my own team, about whom I’m very proud, it is not a reflection of their skill as negotiators. So we didn’t see as many decisions as there have been in years past, but I think that the enduring value of the OSCE as a platform for dialogue about the commitments that States have made – the promises that States have made to each other – continues, and I think that, as Secretary Kerry said, is more urgent and needed now that ever.

QUESTION: Minister Lavrov spoke about his, you know, sort of completely denied or rather refused to deny the charge that the German government has made, that they are interfering with elections. In Washington today, President Obama has talked about ordering a thorough investigation. Can you speak to what your understanding is of Russia’s role in fomenting that authoritarian populism that Secretary Kerry spoke about? Can you draw the links for us? And then if you could just quickly outline those areas where you think you did reach agreement, Minister Steinmeier said that he was altogether – given the state of the world – satisfied. Are you satisfied with what happened here?

BAER: Let me take those questions in turn. I think there’s been a lot reporting recently by a range of organizations, not just media but also civil society organizations, about the links between Russian government and political parties or organizations operating in Europe that would fall into the classification of those advocating for authoritarian populism. Obviously, there are links with some members of parliament, etcetera, as well, that are well-documented.

I think authoritarian populism only makes sense as something within the kind of worldview that Russian takes, which is regrettably a 19th Century worldview that is not actually about finding a mode of peaceful cooperation and collaboration among countries, but is about a power struggle. And I think that it holds no promise for the people of this region, and I think that is what Secretary Kerry was making the case for.

Again, you know, I think the principles that underlie the OSCE, particularly the human rights commitments and the commitments to rule of law that are the antithesis to of kind of authoritarian populism, they’ve been challenged politically by Russia and some of its collaborators. They’ve been challenged militarily by Russia, obviously. But they’ve never been challenged convincingly intellectually or morally. And I think it’s really important that in these difficult times we stay the course.

In terms of the outcomes of the Ministerial, we’re satisfied with the things that were adopted by consensus. We joined consensus on those. Many of them were weakened from their original state by the Russian Federation, and we regret that they were weakened during the course of negotiations. And a lot was left on the table. The German Chairmanship did an enormous amount of work over the course of the year preparing draft decisions on a range of topics and, most notably, there were at least eight draft decisions in the Human Dimension – applying to human rights – that were all rejected in one way or another by Russia, and in a few cases, a few others.

So, it’s regrettable, and I’m not satisfied at all, with that outcome. Although as I said in my closing statement, I think we need to remember that, even though there are no new decisions on the Human Dimension this year, the OSCE has a great history of commitments that States have made, and that are obligations that States have to uphold in the Human Dimension, and the work goes forward in terms of holding States accountable for upholding those commitments, vis-a-vis their own people as well as across borders.

QUESTION: The question concerns the situation in Aleppo, Syria. There were talks also between Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov here in Hamburg about the situation and a possible ceasefire, and Mr. Lavrov, in the very same room a couple of hours earlier, said that the U.S. would have changed its position, especially from December 2nd on, would have withdrawn a written proposal, and would have changed its position, and that would be to blame for the outcome that there is no ceasefire reached so far. Could you comment on that, and can you tell us a little bit more about the influence the U.S. has on the situation in eastern Aleppo, especially on the situation – is it possible for the U.S. to tell the rebels there to go out of the city?

BAER: Obviously, Secretary Kerry has invested an enormous amount of time and has been working almost literally around the clock on this issue, including working very intensively to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov to find a workable way forward. The UN had put forward a plan, the rebels have agreed to it, it’s for Russia and the regime that Russia sponsors and supports in Syria – the Asad regime –to get on board with that plan. Obviously, we saw last week Russia veto once again a Security Council Resolution, and the humanitarian situation on the ground in Aleppo continues to be a disaster. And we are working as hard as we can to find a way forward that will get the needed humanitarian assistance into Aleppo. Obviously, Syria is not my primary responsibility, but certainly Secretary Kerry was working on that line of work, even as he was here in Hamburg participating in the Ministerial, and he continues to do that.

QUESTION: Hello –please give more details about a police mission to the Donbas?

BAER: Sure. There have been a number of questions for context about the idea of a police mission or an election security presence in eastern Ukraine. Our view is that the Special Monitoring Mission, which is already on the ground in Ukraine, is a civilian, unarmed mission, and should remain that way. It has a mandate, it is doing its work, that’s important work, and that work needs to be ongoing.

We have said that, the first priority now remains disengagement at the disengagement spots along the line of contact and – finally, at long last, we hope – achieving a genuine ceasefire, one that is sustainable, that has a weapons pullback, and that can last, and part of that ceasefire will be having visibility into what’s going on the border so that people can have confidence that if there are weapons crossing the border, they’re going home to Russia, not from Russia into Ukraine, same thing with fighters.

If there’s a genuine and sustained ceasefire achieved, that will open the door for other steps in implementation of the Minsk Agreements. And if there is a need for additional tools or support from the international community to facilitate the further implementation of the Minsk Agreements, we remain open-minded about what that looks like, and having that discussion at that time, when that need can be identified.

And I think you heard a similar line from the High Representative of the EU yesterday, Federica Mogherini, who said the EU was prepared to think constructively about what else might be needed. But I think it’s important to specify that the SMM is a civilian, unarmed mission, and that it will carry on its work, and then, when we get to that later bridge, we’ll cross it and consider what else might be needed.

QUESTION: I’m from a newspaper, Russian Pravda, from Moscow, and I want to ask you, what do you think about practice of demolishing of monuments of heroes of World War II in Poland, and two questions: what needs to be made in order that practice of sanctions has gone to OSCE past, for example, American sanctions to Belarus? Thank you.

BAER: I’m not sure I understood both of the questions, but let me give it a shot. First in terms of monuments, etcetera, that issue has been raised by the Russian Federation in the OSCE and Poland has given an answer to that statement. I believe that those are publically available, and I would refer you to that.

I will say that one of the things that we see increasingly, at least at the OSCE, is the instrumentalization of the history of the Second World War – in which there was undoubtedly a great amount of heroism shown by Soviet troops – to prop up the current regime. And I think that is something that is work looking at more critically, and I think that’s an area of discussion that we’ll be engaged in going forward as Russia continues to raise issues like this.

In terms of the continuation of sanctions, first of all, it’s important to recognize that nobody likes sanctions on their own. Sanctions are a policy tool that are used when, when they are an appropriate policy tool. And I think the United States, for instance, in the situation of the attempted annexation of Crimea, or the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine, the United States has made very clear what the conditions are for us to begin to talk about lifting those sanctions, and I think we apply similar conditions and criteria where other sanctions apply as well.

QUESTION: I have a question concerning the future of the OSCE. You mentioned that quite a few declarations were softened due to the Russian position, and we see that [inaudible] every [inaudible] declaration on Ukraine or other conflict issues would not be adopted in any way. So, do we need the OSCE [inaudible]? Probably there should be some kind of reform with, I don’t know, a no consensus rule, because some issues that are [inaudible] that are discussed. So what should we do with the OSCE to maybe, to make it more functional?

And if I may ask a different question, probably you have heard the main news, I would say, among journalists that is discussed now and broadcast over German television from the OSCE Ministerial is obscene lexic (sic) of Mister Lavrov, he refer to cameraman that he is the dumbest, so, have you heard of it? Maybe you have?

BAER: I haven’t seen that story yet, but as to the question about the OSCE, I think two things – one, the OSCE remains both a political organization – and obviously, we meet every week at a political level as Ambassadors to discuss the issues of the day – as well as an operational one, with field missions and institutions that are doing work 365 days a year.

You’re quite right that what we’ve found is that consensus, certainly in operational decisions, can be a really great way to identify common standards that we all commit to live by. It’s a terrible way to decide a budget.

So, you know, the consensus rule was adopted at a time when – at the time of the organization’s founding, when, after the Charter of Paris – we believed in good faith that this was going to be the beginning of a long period of growing closer together. And as Russia has drifted, along with a few, a small number of others, farther apart that the rest, that has made reaching consensus more difficult.

But coming to the political level, I think it’s really important to recognize that on most things in the OSCE today, there is still consensus among 55 or 56 of the 57 participating States. And, for example, with the declaration on Ukraine – there was a draft declaration on the crisis in and around Ukraine on the table this week in Hamburg – the Russian Federation was the only State that couldn’t accept it.

And while that means that we did not have a consensus declaration that came out of this Ministerial on that, it still sends a political signal – that Russia is isolated. They are the only ones who continue to perpetrate these myths about how this crisis came about. Everyone else recognizes Russia’s hand in this crisis, and the fact that the solution ultimately lies in the Kremlin deciding to take the steps necessary in order to de-escalate the situation on the ground.

So I think that even in cases when consensus isn’t reached, there is still value to this kind of political discourse and dialogue, and it can still expose the positions of participating States in a way that can hopefully make progress more possible. And obviously, progress through dialogue is always a long-term commitment that lasts more than a calendar year. And the OSCE works on a calendar year basis, but history doesn’t. So, I think we have to recognize the ongoing value of a platform for dialogue for the long term.

Thank you all, and thanks again for coming out late on a Friday. I know it’s been a long few days.