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Case #165

Title:
Discreet shuttle diplomacy defuses inter-ethnic tensions over treatment of minority

Summary:

The High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe was instrumental in dissolving an increasingly dangerous 1993 standoff between the government of Estonia and ethnic minority Russians living in the former Soviet territory. Following Estonian independence in 1991 a nationalist government came to power and introduced a law that restricted Estonian citizenship to the descendents of only those people who lived in the country before Soviet occupation in 1940. This was soon followed by the introduction of a Law on Aliens, which many Russian speakers feared was a prelude to the mass expulsion of all non citizens. The combined effect of both laws significantly raised tensions not only between Estonia and Russia but also between Estonians and the large Russian speaking minority in the country. Russia, incensed by the new laws, cut off its gas supply to Estonia and declared that the welfare of these disenfranchised people was a Russian national interest. At the same time the continued presence of ex-Soviet troops in Estonia exacerbated already heightened tensions between the two countries.

With tensions running dangerously high, the Estonian government quietly contacted the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to request their urgent assistance. The OSCE is Europe's most comprehensive intergovernmental instrument for security, conflict prevention and post-conflict rehabilitation. In early 1992, in response to the number of ethnic conflicts that were erupting in places such as the Balkans and the Caucasus, the OSCE decided to establish the post of High Commissioner on National Minorities. The function of the HCNM -- best be summarised by paragraph three of its mandate -- is to 'provide 'early warning 'and, as appropriate, 'early action' at the earliest possible stage in regard to tensions involving national minority issues." The OSCE dispatched the HCNM, Max Van der Stoel, to the region in at attempt to defuse the situation.

As a result of intense discussions with the HCNM, President Meri of Estonia issued a communique in which he declared that he was officially requesting the expert opinion of the OSCE in the case of the new Law on Aliens. He also announced that he would set up a 'Round Table of non citizens and ethnic minorities', which would deliberate on the key issues facing these communities, and then present the conclusions to the OSCE for comment.

Through the quiet -- sometimes confidential -- shuttle diplomacy of the HCNM the situation in the north eastern region of Estonia did not erupt into conflict, despite the predictions of many western observers. The Law on Aliens and the Citizenship Law were both subject to the scrutiny of the HCNM and after a lengthy consultation process, both laws were amended to incorporate his recommendations.

Comments:

As Rob Zaagman of the European Centre for Minority Issues argues, 'the involvement of the High Commissioner was instrumental in dissolving a potentially dangerous standoff and preventing an escalation with unforeseeable consequences." Such achievements have been replicated elsewhere, on a range of minority issues across Europe. 'Mr. Van Der Stoel has achieved something remarkable' the Economist Magazine recently said, 'a modicum of trust between would be warring parties on many of the ragged edges of Europe."
Location: Estonia
Action: Direct
Setting: Developed World
Extent of Action: Multi-Country
Issues: Peace/Conflict Resolution
Year(s): 1993
Outcome successful
Source: War Prevention Works: 50 Stories of people resolving conflict, Oxford Research Group

Contacts:

For more information:
See www.osce.org/hcnm.html for the official web site of the HCNM. Also see the excellent reports written by the European Centre for Minority Issues on the work of the HCNM -- available online at www.ecmi.de and the Foundation for Inter Ethnic Relations (email: fier@euronet.nl) which was set up to support the work of the HCNM.
Prepared By: rja, 10/01
Rating: 1
 
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