Toespraak minister Koenders tijdens een bijeenkomst over 40 jaar Helsinki-akkoorden

Toespraak van minister Koenders (BZ) tijdens een bijeenkomst over 40 jaar Helsinki-akkoorden op 12 september 2015 in Amsterdam. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

I'd like to thank the Labour Party’s EP delegation for organising this event. And a special welcome to our guests from abroad: [Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, Knut Fleckenstein, Štefan Füle, Ioan Paşcu, Hannes Swoboda and Karsten Voigt]. In the Netherlands, we like to talk about Europe and we do it a lot. And any exchange of ideas about Europe is better when we engage with fellow Europeans who can give depth and texture to the discussion.

Most of you are probably familiar with the film trilogy Back to the Future - from which this symposium takes its name. The films tell the story of Marty McFly and Emmett 'Doc' Brown, who travel back and forth in time in a converted DeLorean. In part 1 they start out in 1985 and go back 30 years. In part 2, they leap ahead thirty years to 2015. And in part 3 they go back a 100 years.

Here, today, we'll be going back 40 years instead of 30.

40 years ago - at the signing of the Helsinki Final Act - Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl, like so many others at the time, compared the Conference with the Congress of Vienna of 1815. In his speech to the Conference he said, and I quote: 'In Vienna in 1815, general principles for the relations between states were formulated but Europe did not succeed in avoiding war. Will it succeed this time? This is the most fundamental question the states present here [in Helsinki] have to answer. For Europe cannot afford another war.' End quote.

40 years after the Congress of Vienna - in 1855 - the Crimean War was at its height. I don't have to remind you of what's happening in the same part of Europe today, 40 years after the Helsinki Final Act.

The fundamental question that Joop den Uyl posed in 1975 can now be answered: we have managed to avoid war on the scale feared at the time and even on the scale of the 19th-century Crimean War. But the difference in scale is no comfort to the survivors of recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, in Armenia or Azerbaijan, in Chechnya or Georgia and now in eastern Ukraine, or any other conflict zone. So, it is legitimate to ask: have we failed the test? Is Helsinki a failure?

It is worth emphasising that, at the time, we didn’t sign the Helsinki Final Act in the conviction that it would immediately produce the results that the West - or the Netherlands - was aiming for. Now, 40 years later, the measured, almost reserved tone of Den Uyl’s speech is striking. 'Some optimism' was justified, he said, but he didn’t want to 'overemphasise the importance of the results of the Conference'. The end of Helsinki was 'just a new beginning'. Only 3 years later his tone was more pessimistic, describing Helsinki as 'more the conclusion of a development than the beginning of a new era'.

Without denying the importance of every one of the ten Helsinki principles, Den Uyl underscored 2 off them: self-determination and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. This won't surprise Dutch listeners familiar with Joop den Uyl's manner of discourse.

Friends and foes alike knew that '2 things!' was a favourite rhetorical flourish of his.

And in these '2 things', Europe - and with it Helsinki - has succeeded in spectacular fashion. Admittedly, in the 40 years since Helsinki we haven't managed to prevent bloodshed. Yet, 15 years after Helsinki the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet satellites were free to choose the path of self-determination and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. And in that same year - 1990 - the Soviet Union itself began to disintegrate into its constituent parts. Starting with Lithuania, each pursued its own path to self-determination and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

I would like to stress that the current crisis was not created by the West. After 1989, the new EU and NATO member states themselves chose to join, and in doing so they were putting the Helsinki principles into practice. Accession to the EU and NATO energised their economic and political development. They are valuable members of the Euro-Atlantic family. The concerns voiced by Max van der Stoel - my predecessor 40 years ago - about the systematic persecution of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain are a thing of the past: today the citizens of Central Europe are free to make their own sovereign choices without bowing to pressure from Moscow.

They can rely on their own legal order, backed up by the EU and the Council of Europe. I consider this the greatest achievement of the EU and NATO enlargements. To me, it is the best expression of the spirit of Helsinki.

So, we can break down Den Uyl’s fundamental question into two parts: the objective and the means. The objective was to prevent war and our preferred means of achieving it was to promote self-determination and respect for human rights. The experience of the past 40 years compels us to draw at least 1 conclusion: the chosen means has not been sufficient to secure the objective.

This begs the question: is Helsinki - and with it, Europe's security architecture - lacking something? I'd like to address this question with you, by examining current developments in the eastern and southern regions of our continent, in Crimea and Donbass, and in relations between Russia and Ukraine.

Helsinki and Russia

30 years after the Second World War ended, Helsinki 1975 was the high point of East-West détente - or peaceful coexistence, as the Soviets liked to call it. Helsinki underlined Europe’s desire for cooperation instead of confrontation, despite differences of political opinion.

Of course, the phrase 'differences of opinion' is a euphemism. We mustn't forget that we are talking about systems and ways of life characterised by fundamentally different notions of freedom and justice, of democracy and human rights, and of the rights and obligations of citizens and states. And while coexistence may have been peaceful in Europe, this wasn't necessarily the case in Africa and Asia.

Helsinki led to more contact between East and West, but relations were not exactly warm. Despite major differences of interpretation between East and West, the Final Act undeniably gave an important impulse to the human rights movement in the Eastern Bloc and provided support for dissidents. Ultimately, it led to the establishment of the OSCE and pan-European cooperation on security.

Helsinki 1975 has another important legacy. It established that Europe cannot be secure unless we adhere to the rules we agree on. And that there are certain 'red lines' we cannot cross if we want to live together peacefully in Europe. Moral boundaries, like the right of self-determination, but also physical ones: the signatory states reaffirmed their recognition of each other’s borders and sovereignty.

As I said in my introduction, we find ourselves in a very different and very complex situation today. Boundaries, both moral and physical, have been violated. What’s more, we have a different relationship with Russia than we had with the Soviet Union.

The status quo with Russia is not 'Cold War 2.0'. Of course, we need to remember the lessons of the past. But if we pour everything involving Russia into a Cold War mould, we will surely misjudge the challenges we face today and fail to find the right solutions.

Over the past few decades, Russia has changed, Europe has changed and the world has changed. Striking the right balance with Russia is still a major strategic challenge. But it is precisely this changing context that makes this a new problem for which we need new solutions. During the Cold War, there were 2 ideological power blocs, holding each other in balance, backed by nuclear weapons. Today we face complex, hybrid threats: like terrorism, proliferation of nuclear weapons and other WMDs, new pandemics and the impact of climate change. Russia clearly has a stake, too, in managing these threats.

But that doesn't exonerate Moscow from putting the 'golden rules' of Helsinki on the line, with the annexation of Crimea and its open interference in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has long wanted a new security architecture in Europe. Paradoxically, though, its conduct is making Europe much less stable, not safer.

Helsinki and Ukraine

The pursuit of freedom and a life of dignity, of self-determination and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms doesn't stop at the eastern borders of the EU and NATO. We've seen this in Georgia, Moldova and last year in Kyiv's Independence Square. A direct line runs from Budapest 1956, through Prague 1968, Gdańsk 1980 and Dresden 1989, to Kyiv 2014. The Euromaidan protests were an expression of the Ukrainian people’s desire for a society free of corruption and abuse of power, and for a fair distribution of prosperity. The elections that followed the demonstrations proved that there is broad popular support for progress in that direction. This endeavour has our support and should have Russia’s support too. Even if it isn’t a path that Russia would choose itself, it is the express sovereign will of the people of a country which – like Russia – endorses the Helsinki principles. This is a basic tenet of international law. If we stop respecting it, we'll return to the power politics of the nineteenth century, of the years following the Congress of Vienna (a topic I'll come back to later).

A prosperous, stable and democratic Ukraine is vital to Europe. Not a single European country would benefit from having a failing state at the heart of the Eurasian continent. Certainly not one the size of Germany and the UK put together. A power and legal vacuum on that scale would only lead to serious instability. Everyone - and Ukraine’s neighbours most of all - stands to gain if the Ukrainian government’s reform efforts succeed. I've visited Kyiv a couple of times. I was impressed by the will to reform and the tireless efforts of Ukraine's civil society. The country has enormous economic potential, from which the people of Ukraine can benefit. And so can we, especially when the free trade agreement with the EU takes effect. We should look on this agreement as an opportunity for the Ukrainians to modernise their economy and increase their prosperity. And for our companies to enter into new trade and investment relationships.

At the same time, we have to be realistic. The country faces massive challenges. The dead weight of 70 years of Soviet rule and 20 years of oligarchy won't be shed in a few years and maybe not even within a generation. Government is not transparent and effective enough, and it will take a lot of work to overhaul the system. So, reform in Ukraine is a long-term project. And no doubt, there will be setbacks. But the people of Ukraine cannot afford failure, and neither can we.

If Ukraine slides back into a situation like the one under the Yanukovych regime, where a small elite determined the future of the entire population, if Ukrainian society fails to embrace the European values it aspires to, we’ll all have a problem. Not only because Ukraine will then be a source of instability. But also - and especially - because every one of Russia’s neighbours will know they are not free to make their own choices. That their self-determination is limited. That their clocks are set back to the past, by 40 years. For this reason, it is of vital importance that Ukraine succeeds in safeguarding democratic processes, enabling free and fair elections to take place. The Netherlands will therefore support the coming local elections on 25th of October by sending election observers in the framework of the OSCE observer mission.

Ukraine and security

To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, this is not a 'quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing'. The illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support - military and otherwise - for the separatists in eastern Ukraine affect our security too. Donetsk and Luhansk are more than 2,000 kilometres east of here, but if we don’t draw the line now, Russia can go on destabilising its neighbours, and it is only a question of time before the next conflict erupts. The Netherlands and seventeen other countries experienced at first hand the dangers that this kind of conflict poses, when they lost 298 of their citizens when flight MH17 went down over eastern Ukraine.

I truly understand the concerns of our NATO allies in Central Europe and the Baltic. That's why it is important that we implement the agreements made at the NATO summit in Wales. Strengthening our allies’ military capability to defend the eastern flank of the Alliance is crucial. At the core of those efforts is the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), which will be able to deploy anywhere in the Alliance within 48 hours. And the Netherlands is making a major contribution to this capability.

This is a new phase for NATO, as the Alliance shifts from out-of-area operations to safeguarding the security of Europe itself. This is a multi-year process that won’t be complete by the NATO summit in Warsaw in July 2016. And the process of adapting to the new realities will continue long after.

Russia in 2015

Back to today: 1 of those new realities is the Russia of 2015: smaller than the USSR of 40 years ago, but with a strongly revived geopolitical and historical consciousness. Its power politics no longer focus on far-away countries in Indochina or Africa like they did in the 1960s and 70s. They are now concentrating on smaller circles, closer to home: the Arctic, Syria and the 'near abroad'.

But there are also more familiar signs: the weakening economic basis of this power doctrine, the tendency towards autocracy, and the waste caused by corruption.

But that’s no reason for complacency on our part. It is evident that Russia is prepared to use unorthodox means. In its new military doctrine of December 2014, Russia said it felt threatened by a possible information war, by political destabilisation and by the possibility of regime change. In the light of that doctrine, there is an irony in the methods Russia is using in Ukraine: agitation and propaganda, the deployment of special forces, the use of non-military means and the misuse of political protest - precisely the same elements of hybrid warfare it fears.

The West will not fight fire with fire. That should not be our ambition. What we will do is supporting civil society. The Netherlands recently contributed 72.000 euros to the EU-Russia civil society forum. In this forum, experts, activists and human rights defenders work on meaningful ways to strengthen societal dialogue. This way, we can help Russian fight against political indifference and inspire new a new generation.

The Netherlands has maintained close contacts with Russia and its people for many years. Previous Dutch governments have been criticised for their stance on past events.

The entering of the Arctic Sunrise, the treatment of the LGBTI community: these were stumbling blocks which overshadowed the celebration of our long-standing ties in the 2013 bilateral friendship year. The MH17 air disaster formed a watershed between past and present. Clearly, the disaster took place in the midst of a conflict that would not have escalated without Russia’s intensive and active support for the separatists.

Even if a lasting solution were to be found for eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the breach of trust would still need to be mended. Contacts with the people of Russia could help restore that trust. So I think it’s a pity that people-to-people contact is so difficult these days. It would be a good thing if Russia were to take the first step and lift the entry bans imposed on Dutch and other Western members of parliament.

And it’s not just contacts between politicians that are important. We must make sure Russia doesn’t retreat into a self-imposed social isolation. By enhancing our ties in areas like culture, science and innovation, we can ensure our societies don’t become alienated from each other. Even in the darkest hours of the Cold War, these kinds of contacts kept a spark of hope alive that change would come. By keeping up our broad and active outreach efforts, we can provide support to those parts of society that are having difficulties in the current political climate. That way we can keep the ideal alive of a democratic Russia, guided by the rule of law. And of course human rights activists and civil society in Russia will continue to receive our full support.

Russia as a partner: pros & cons 1

As long as Russia remains unwilling to implement the Minsk agreements, persists with its military aggression in Ukraine and continues to occupy Crimea, we can hardly consider them our partner. But I do think it’s important to keep a few lines of communication open, especially military contacts in order to prevent incidents in the air and at sea. The NATO-Russia Council could also be a valuable forum for dialogue, though I’m aware there is currently no consensus on its use. I hope that circumstances will eventually allow that channel to be reopened.

That brings me to the issue of whether there is any point in conducting a dialogue with Russia anymore. We cannot hide the fact that Russia has betrayed our trust in many ways. Russia has ceased to be a partner that feels responsible for the common goal of peace in Europe. Instead it has transformed into a source of insecurity. In addition, Russia has proved unwilling to seriously seek a political solution for the conflict in Ukraine, a conflict of its own making.

And anyone who claims the West fanned the flames is simply ignoring the fact that we didn’t rush to impose sanctions in the first few months after the annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, that didn’t encourage Russia to enter into serious dialogue with Ukraine and the West.

A crisis of this scale, with this opponent, and at this juncture can only be resolved by diplomatic means. We must keep the lines to Moscow open and keep voicing our concerns. But as a matter of urgency, Russia must take the initiative and put forward serious proposals to end this crisis. If that doesn’t happen, we have no reason to ease the pressure on Russia.

That pressure is needed in order to induce Russia to chart a different course. And it’s important for us to present a united front, both in the EU and in NATO. So this will be the Netherlands’ focus during our upcoming EU Presidency. Sanctions remain necessary while Russia refuses to implement the Minsk agreements to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. There is also a separate set of sanctions for Crimea, which will remain in place as long as Russia continues its illegal annexation.

Russia as a partner: pros & cons 2

As I said, since it has proved difficult to have a constructive dialogue with the Russian government, I think it’s very important to stay in touch with Russian civil society. Contacts with Russian journalists, scientists, human rights defenders and the world of art and culture remain of the utmost importance. These circles still foster critical minds and that is why many in these fields find themselves at loggerheads with increasingly repressive government authorities. They are in a difficult situation and deserve our support.

We won’t avoid contact in areas where the Netherlands and Russia have similar essential interests, but we won’t slip back into a ‘business as usual’ mode either. These shared interests lie, for instance, in the realms of counterterrorism, crime prevention, non-proliferation and climate change. We must try to keep talking about conventional and nuclear arms control. Our interests are certainly not identical, but Russia has nothing to gain either from a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, for instance.

Using the word 'dialogue' might actually be clouding the issue in this context. For the brutal reality is that we need Russia. And we must not make a secret of that. We need them for sustainable solutions in Syria, for effective counterterrorism, for our non-proliferation efforts, etc. And we know deals are possible: we've made them on Iran, North Korea and on Syria in UN Security Council resolution 2235 on chemical disarmament.

Russia and the OSCE

In terms of dialogue, as far as I'm concerned the OSCE still has an important role to play. It has the structures in place to facilitate talks between key players. Making practical use of the OSCE’s instruments is, to my mind, our main task right now. Until this crisis is over there’s no use ruminating on possible points on the horizon like a Helsinki II conference. That might be the epilogue of this crisis, but it’s not relevant right now.

So first of all I want to emphasise and enhance the practical value of the OSCE. First and foremost there is the important work being done by the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine. The SMM has proved a valuable source of information and in some cases has been able to limit further escalation. I’d also like to mention the assistance they gave us during the MH17 recovery mission. The Netherlands is grateful to the SMM and firmly in favour of its continuation.

I think it’s also important to maintain many of the OSCE’s practical achievements. In particular the ODIHR’s election monitoring missions, the OSCE’s human rights work, and their field missions in the Caucasus, the Balkans and Central Asia. And the invaluable work of the High Commissioner on National Minorities, a post held for many years by Max van der Stoel.

I believe in the OSCE because I believe in the power of diplomacy. There is no military solution for the conflict in Ukraine, and no military solution for the conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. All these conflicts require political solutions. Because only political solutions are sustainable. I have experienced this myself as UN Special Envoy in Ivory Coast and Mali. Words can be more effective than weapons. Diplomatic deals can be more powerful than drones. Yes, diplomacy produces results. Look at the nuclear deal with Iran. Look at the diplomatic breakthrough between the US and Cuba. Critics may argue that diplomacy is often slow. Sometimes excruciatingly slow. Even though that is absolutely true at times, I believe it is still the best way forward. That is why I fully support the Normandy format, which is meeting again in Berlin today at the level of the Foreign Ministers to discuss a way out of the Ukraine crisis. That is why I fully support Steffan De Mistura’s efforts on Syria and Bernardino Leon’s efforts on Libya. I believe in the power of diplomacy. That is why I believe in the OSCE. And that is why I announced yesterday that I will open up diplomatic representations in two more OSCE participating states, Belarus and Moldova.

Helsinki as a future prospect – back to today

The main question remains: how do we avoid war in Europe. Why haven’t we been able to answer Den Uyl’s fundamental question? What were we lacking, what did we miss? Perhaps we should continue Den Uyl’s comparison with the situation after the Congress of Vienna.

Until the outbreak of the Crimean War, the Congress System had proved to be quite successful in controlling tensions on the old continent. But still it failed, for a number of reasons. Its collapse coincided with the emergence of Germany as a new power at the heart of Europe, one which combined great industrial dynamics with a programme focused on political unification.

External competition for territory and markets between the great powers went hand in hand with internal struggles between haves and have-nots, between church and state, and between labour and capital. Europe became a turbulent continent and stayed that way until that extraordinary moment in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the end of a divide that had defined the world for so long.

Russia’s response to former satellite states and some of the former Soviet republics deciding to join the EU and NATO reflects a similar geopolitical pattern. Those countries elected to join the largest economic power on the continent, opting for a model of political unification in which they voluntarily ceded some of their recently gained sovereignty to an organisation at supranational level.

President Putin sees the dynamics of European unification as a threat. After all, what choices has Russia made under Putin? He regularly makes it quite clear what he wants: he thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. He wants Russia to exercise more influence abroad. He wants to have a bigger impact on the 'near abroad'. And he wants to go back to a nineteenth-century form of power diplomacy, in which the great powers decide what happens.

This too harks back to the Congress of Vienna. At the initiative of Czar Alexander I, Russia, Austria and Prussia formed the Holy Alliance, to counterbalance the secular and democratising ideas behind the French Revolution. It was eventually brought to an end by the Crimean War.

President Putin wants Russia to be treated as the country it once was, not as the country it is today. These phantom pains have brought us to where we are now: in a conflict that is dragging on despite a web of consultative structures.

Of course we don't know what day-to-day conclusions Putin is drawing from these strategic thoughts. But being the tactician that he is, he is making good use of his opponent's weaknesses and has an unerring sense of where the weak spots are. And the weakest spot at the moment is Europe’s relative inability to agree on common solutions to the many challenges we now face. And that will eventually tarnish the appeal of our European project. The crisis in Ukraine is not an isolated phenomenon. There is also Europe’s stagnant economy of the past few years, the ongoing crises in North Africa and the Middle East, and, not least, the resulting human tragedy culminating in the refugee crisis.

We should now stop to consider two things ('2 things!', that sounds familiar):

  1. The refugee crisis. It would seem to fall beyond the scope of this conference, but actually it doesn’t. We’ve all seen the terrible images, coming from places that we normally associate with summer holidays and all-inclusive resorts. The cynics among us would say that we’re not doing so badly after all in Europe, if these people are seeking shelter here rather than, for instance, in Russia. And it’s distressing to think that part of this refugee crisis is the result of Russia’s disastrous policy in Syria, where it is supporting Assad’s regime at all cost. But that cynical observation does not release us from our duty - Europe’s duty - to use our ingenuity and resources to help these people properly. When problems grow so large they can’t be managed by individual countries, the EU must step in. That too is what we mean by subsidiarity.
  2. Anyone who says that in many parts of Europe things were just as bad forty years ago is often shouted down. But let’s reflect for a moment on the context in which we were operating at the time of Helsinki.

Western Europe was ridding itself of the last vestiges of fascism and military dictatorship: Greece and Portugal had led the way in 1974 and in Spain Franco was on his deathbed. The effects of the first oil crisis were still being felt. One year later, an EEC member state had to ask the IMF for a bailout loan of four billion US dollars (around 17 billion dollars in today’s money). That country was the UK. The US was licking its wounds after Watergate and Vietnam. Terrorism was not confined to aircraft hijackings; it was an everyday reality in cities in Germany, the UK, Italy and the US.

We managed to find a way out then, and we can do it this time too. Together we will have to find a solution to our ineffectiveness. And the threat from Russia should stir us to action rather than slowing us down. Politics and the economy go hand in hand in this respect: if Europe can unite and find an answer to today’s political and economic challenges, it will be more difficult for Putin to pursue his power politics. Our fate lies in our own hands.

And that is how I view Karsten Voigt’s suggestions: our own actions determine the choices Putin makes. By specifically opting for mutually beneficial partnerships, without making concessions on our fundamental values and standards, we can steer Russia towards a policy that avoids confrontation and escalation.

This brings me back to the main question I asked at the beginning: we did not succeed in avoiding war. So has Helsinki failed?

My answer is no. All the principles of Helsinki are still relevant. Its full implementation will contribute to solutions to the territorial and political conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Helsinki’s success depends on the willingness of all parties to act in accordance with its principles. And since we cannot reach agreement ideologically with the current Russian political elite, we must concentrate on managing the situation:

  • not by taking the moral high ground but by shouldering our responsibility (in other words, concrete action instead of rhetoric);
  • not by persuading, but by compelling (through political and economic unity).

We will have to judge Russia by its actions. So Minsk must be implemented before any review of sanctions can be discussed. The same goes for Ukraine if it wants to keep our support.

Only then can there be an end to the bloodshed in Ukraine.