Slovenly crisis Ft. Borut Pahor, President of Slovenia
The escalation of the Ukraine crisis has galvanized the international community towards another major push for a political solution. And with the possibility of Kiev being armed by the the US, the conflict threatens to take on grander proportions. Can Slovenia's experience with secession and conflict resolution offer any lessons for dealing with Ukraine, and is there hope for a peaceful settlement? Oksana is joined by the President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor, to debate issues.
Oksana Boyko:Hello and welcome to Worlds Apart. The EU was founded on a vision of Europe as peaceful, whole and free. But the return of war to the continent has shaken up the order that stood for more than half a century. What is the cost of keeping that vision alive and can Europe’s smaller nations afford it? Well, to discuss that, I'm now joined by the President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor. Mr President, it's such an honour to talk to you.
Borut Pahor: Thank you for having me.
OB:Now, we are sitting here on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference where leaders and policy makers gather to discuss the most pressing security challenges. And I think we both would agree that the conflict in Ukraine represents such a challenge. But there are very, very sharp divisions about what precipitated that conflict. How do you see it, what is the conflict in Ukraine all about, in your view?
BP: Well unfortunately, it seems we are facing a war there. And as somebody who dedicated [his] entire political career and my life to peaceful solution of the conflict, I'm still of the strong conviction that if there is a small room for negotiation, let's try our best to get a solution out of a dialogue. So, I would say today, I do welcome very much the mission by President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to talk to President Putin, and I hope very much that out of this dialogue or meeting, or next one, we will seek for peaceful solution to the problem.
OB:Well, but I think what's interesting about Slovenia's own experience is that you went through some of that. I mean, many people in the West believe that the whole crisis started with the referendum in Crimea, and Slovenia for one also had its own referendum back in the 1990s, with people voting in favour of independence. Are there any lessons that Ukraine or the world could learn from Slovenian or Yugoslav experience? Because many would argue that that Slovenian referendum in which people voted in favour of independence also kick-started the whole war in Yugoslavia. So, any insight that Slovenian people, Slovenian history can offer us here?
BP: Well, number one, we seek for a peaceful solution of crisis in former Yugoslavia. And we've been, at that time, occupied by Yugoslav Army. And we defended for our freedom, and we won it. I think it's no direct comparison with Ukrainian issue, unfortunately, it's a wrong perception. I think Crimea has been occupied by Russian forces. I think, sorry to say - and I'm saying this as a president of a country which is trying to have friendly relations with the Russian Federation – I think Russia is doing a wrong job to support separatists on the eastern side of the border. I think it's up to Ukrainian people to decide for the future. And I hope very strongly that at the end of this day, there will be a political solution to this issue, not a military one. But as I said at the beginning of our debate, I do define facts on the ground as a war. And if there will be no political solution to this, somebody, sometimes in the future will seek for military war. And I will try to do my best to avoid this. But, you know, we started with this rhetoric of war. The previous year was awful, and this year started awful as well. So let us focus on a political dialogue.
OB:Well, absolutely, I think we have to focus on that. But I want to mention what you just said a couple of minutes ago about Russia occupying Crimea. And obviously the Crimean people held a referendum. We can talk about the legality of that referendum, but people went to the polls in very large numbers. And when we compare Slovenia and Crimea, they actually have a lot in common. The population is similar, roughly 2 million, the territory is similar, around 20,000 square kilometres. You just said that you were fighting for your freedom. Do you think the people of Crimea didn't have that right to decide on their own destiny?
BP: It's not up to Russian Federation to get involved-
OB: (crosstalk) But it's not Russian Federation that went to the polls, it's the people of Crimea that did that.
BP: The fact is that the army of Russian Federation occupied Crimea, and -
OB: (crosstalk) Do you think that the army of the Russian Federation actually forced people to go to the polls? Or they had an opportunity to express their will?
BP: Well they expressed their will, but the other thing is what Russia has done. And [it] has done a wrong thing.
OB:What do you mean by that?
BP: Well, occupied Crimea.
OB:But there were many elections in the very recent history in your own homeland, well former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, where foreign military...
BP: (crosstalk) Well, Slovenia has not occupied anybody.
OB:Well, I'm not making a direct comparison. Because obviously nothing is perfect.
BP: And that is exactly what I wanted to suggest you, not to make comparison between Slovenia and Crimea.
OB:But we can, what I'm saying is that we can learn from the past experience of other international crises. And there were many experiences when foreign troops were present on the ground, and yet neither in Afghanistan nor in Iraq, the results of the elections were called into question. You see what I mean here?
BP: Absolutely. But I stated my view. It is a little bit different from yours. And I do respect your position, but I would like to invite you to respect mine. There is no direct comparison between a status of affair back in 1991 in Slovenia and 2014 in Crimea or Ukraine better.
OB:Now, you mentioned people in Slovenia back then fighting for their freedom. There was a 10-day war. You don't see any similarity with Donbass, but I do see. I think people there are also fighting for what they see as their rights. Now, that fighting has been going on for much longer than 10 days...
BP: (crosstalk) But let me tell you one thing. Using force is one of main difference between two issues. We didn't use force to implement our freedom. We've been attacked by Yugoslav Army. We just defended. We didn't occupied anybody.
OB: (crosstalk) But this is what people in Eastern Ukraine also argue.
BP: This is the most important difference between two issues.
OB:But I mean, you just said about the use of force. And you know that one of the proposals put on the table on how to solve this issue is to provide lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government. Do you think, given the experience, and not comparing those two crises directly – do you think that could be helpful, can you fight fire with fire?
BP: Well, I think nobody would even think about this option if Russian Federation would not be involved in Eastern Ukraine, also helping people there, supplying with weapon. So obviously, somebody in the Western hemisphere started to think the similar way. Before that decision, I would like to see, as said before – if there still space for compromise, if it is there, let's go for a compromise solution. And I do support this diplomatic effort made by France and Germany today. So let us hope that it's gonna be a successful one. It is not necessary that today will be the definitive answer to the whole issue. But I do support this political dialogue between European Union and Russian Federation.
OB:I certainly want to ask you about that, but if I may, I also would like to ask you a question about the hybrid warfare. We hear that at this Munich Conference all the time. And you just said about Russia's alleged support, military support, for the separatists. But we see that in so many conflicts. We saw that in Syria as well, the West, Arab countries, Turkey, openly providing military support to the rebels to unseat internationally recognised government. Is it fair to blame Russia, even if you believe that Russia is using, let's say, dirty tactics – is it fair to blame that only on Russia, or are we actually dealing with the international system as a whole here? Shouldn't we perhaps redefine the rules of engagement, the rules of dealing with major crises?
BP: Well, you know, I recently addressed a diplomatic corps back in Slovenia. And I said that, sadly, the international community today is less safe than it used to be yesterday. And the main question is, are we still capable to maintain the international order by peaceful means? I do still believe that it is possible to avoid a larger military conflict, world-wide. But we have to be persistent in a political dialogue, that is one – again, I would like to support a political dialogue.
OB: (crosstalk) Let's talk about...
BP: Also with Russian Federation, you know. Yes?
OB: I just recently watched your speech at the Columbia Leaders Forum, and you spoke there about the advantages and disadvantages of federalisation as far as the European Union is concerned. And I thought it was a very compelling speech. You made it clear there are no easy solutions one way or another. And this is a question that Ukraine will have to address, if it wants to put that question behind it. What do you think the European position, the European advice to Ukraine should be on that front, especially given that Ukraine hopes to join the European Union some day?
BP: Well listen, let me tell you one thing straight, and this is my personal opinion. There is no need that it does reflect a formal position of my country, this is my personal answer to your question. There is a question to be answered by European Union: do we want Ukraine near or within European Union, or not? This should be answered straight. This is important for Ukrainian people and leadership. I think, if this answer would be much more clear than it is at the moment, I think that the leadership back in Kiev would then take some decisions more offensively than they are ready to do it at the moment. It is not the question only that would concern Ukraine. It is also the question concerns Western Balkans. Does European Union want to have Western Balkans within EU, or we will underestimate security and political and social challenges back there, and we will make maybe one other problem out of a opportunity that it is there. So, I would support those in European Union who would deal with much more straight answer to this question -
OB: (crosstalk) You're calling for honesty here.
BP: Absolutely. Do we want Ukraine within EU, or very close to, and do we want Western Balkans countries within, or very close to European Union? If so, then we should make some promises, and we should take some responsibilities.
OB:But Mr President, regardless of how you answer that question, Ukraine will still be part of Europe. Even if it's not part of the European Union, it is there on your border. So, I'm sure the European Union, just as Russia, have a great stake in security and well-being of that country. So, I bring you back to my question about federalisation. Do you think that...
BP: (crosstalk) It is internal issue for the Ukraine people to decide -
OB:Absolutely, but we...
BP: (crosstalk) … with the help...
OB: (crosstalk) Yeah, but we're here at the Munich Security Conference discussing Ukraine, so everybody has his or her opinion on that. And you were talking about political solution. Do you think this is one of the political solutions that perhaps could be discussed and could be encouraged in that country, to solve the crisis?
BP: Could be. It's not up to me to decide finally. It is to be on the agenda. And if Ukrainian people, the leadership there, which has been elected to lead the country, would invite the international community to be part of this dialogue, I think European Union and Russian Federation, or maybe somebody else, would take their seats around a round table and to debate the issue, to find a peaceful and good solution for the prosperity of Ukrainian people.
OB:Well, President Pahor, we have to take a very, very short break now, but when we come back – more Europe, or less? How is the European project evolving, and what does it hold for the future of global security? That's coming up in a second, so stay tuned.
OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart where we are discussing the European project with the President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor. Mr President, before we go to discussing the European project, I would like to ask you a couple of questions about Russia, Russia and NATO. I know that Slovenia is a proud member of NATO, and I think we could agree that one of the reasons this conflict is so difficult is because it's also burdened by somewhat testy relationship between Russia, my country, and the NATO. And I don't want to debate who is right and who is wrong, but I it's clear that the current arrangement, where both sides see each other as a threat, where they keep ramping up their military spending, is not sustainable. It's highly dangerous.
BP: Finally we do agree on...
OB:Do you agree on that?
BP: Absolutely. I agree with you. I think that frank relations between NATO and Russian Federation would be deserved, very much.
OB:Do you see any framework in which that frank relationship could be achieved?
BP: Absolutely. I think with a peaceful solution to Ukrainian crisis, to work together on other issues world-wide, security issues. I think there is a space for NATO-Russian Federation close partnership. I think there is a space. But we have to work for it. I mean, [it] will not come for granted. We have to try to seek for a frank dialogue between Moscow and -
OB: (crosstalk) But we've been having dialogue for more than a decade. I mean, that dialogue resulted in a conflict in...
BP: - I mean on the Ukrainian issue. I mean, this is the most important issue that should be resolved in a manner that Russian Federation would think that it's a good solution, and that European Union would think it's a fair solution. And basically, that Ukrainian people and the leadership there would think it's a fair solution. And then, I think, Russian Federation – NATO could once again try to be frank partners.
OB: Speaking of one such possible solution, I know that as a student you wrote a dissertation on the non-aligned movement. Do you think something from your dissertation...
BP: (crosstalk) Peaceful solution. Peaceful solution of crisis among Non-Aligned Movement.
OB:Do you think that framework of Non-Alignment, neutrality could offer any ideas on this front?
BP: Well, basically at the end of my thesis, I discovered that there is no difference in the nature of the position of the country. What it is matter, it is a basically political will to seek for a peaceful solution. This is a basic condition for a peaceful solution. Listen, I've been a prime minister back in 2008 and 2009, in a very difficult solution regarding a border issue with Croatia. And with dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. At the end of the day, we resolved the issue. So, that is why I am so much committed with my own experience, that it is possible. But at the very beginning of the issue is a political will to do it. And I think we are now once again watching once more attempt to finally get a peaceful solution with a dialogue, and that is why I support this initiative by Hollande and Merkel.
OB:While we are continuing this dialogue, both sides, both Russia and NATO countries, continue ramping up their military spending. And your own country Slovenia is doing the same. You committed to doubling your military spending over the course of the next decade to 2% of the GDP. And given that both Slovenian and European economies haven't fully recovered from the crisis, given that 14% of your people live below the poverty line – do you think that is money well spent? Is Russia really such a huge threat for Slovenia to prioritise military spending before, let's say, job creation?
BP: You know what, if there will be a space for a peaceful solution, as a President of the Republic of Slovenia, I would be very pleased. I would support such an attempt. I would do what is in my capacity for a peaceful solution of all problems, also this crucial one. But in case this will not happen, I will do my best to defend my country. No doubt about it. No doubt about it. So, let us seek for a peaceful solution. If not, then I have to protect. This is task number one for me and for my office, to protect my people -
OB: (crosstalk) And you're the commander in chief of your country...
BP: (crosstalk) And I will do it with my partners within NATO. No doubt about it.
OB: But there [are] many other aspects to the problem that we...
BP: (crosstalk) You know, just a moment. You've mentioned social problems, unemployment rates, all that stuff. Absolutely. I would like to focus on those issues. If, and in case of peaceful solution, I could focus on that problems. That is why I do support peaceful solution to the problems. But no doubt about our commitment to NATO in case world would go wrong way.
OB: Well, Mr President, unlike you I don't speak for my country, but something tells me there's no will or intention on the part of the leadership in Russia to attack Slovenia. Moreover, I think Russia is very interested in keeping up its trade ties, both with Slovenia and other countries in the region. I know that the trade between our countries decreased by 20% last year. Isn't there a sense in Slovenia and perhaps other European countries that you are being asked to bankroll ambitions, political ambitions, geopolitical ambitions of other countries? Because you seem to be, both Russia and countries like Slovenia, seem to be losing quite a lot in economic terms from all this confrontation that, I think, neither of them wants.
BP: This is true, and I am very sorry for it. But we have to see why this is happening. Basically, I do support economic sanctions. This is basically better than using force before trying to convince partner on the other side that it is wrong what Russian Federation is doing in Ukraine. Okay, let us hope for the best, that wise dialogue will prevail at the end of the day. And I'm speaking this as the President of a country which has very good relations with Russian Federation. Political dialogue is very good. Okay, now it's damaged by this Ukrainian crisis. We have very good economic relations with Russian Federation. And we would like to go on with this good relations with Moscow. But there is one problem in the middle of this road which creates an obstacle.
OB:Mr President, I appreciate your honesty and your frankness in this interview, and let me ask you a question, also a direct question here. You talked about political dialogue, and back in February when that crisis was still developing, there was political dialogue. Russia was involved in the political dialogue. Europe was involved in the political dialogue. Americans were involved in the political dialogue. There was a power transition deal that sides seemed to have agreed on. But then, all of a sudden, that deal was off, and there was a change of power in Kiev that was not in compliance with the Ukrainian constitution. And I think Moscow now feels very betrayed, it felt committed to political dialogue, but in the end it felt cheated because of what happened. If this dialogue, held by Chancellor Merkel, by President Hollande now continues, is there any guarantee that all sides to this conflict will abide by this dialogue? Is there insurance on your part, any confidence on your part, that the American colleagues of yours will stick with political dialogue, rather than pushing the Ukrainian authorities in the direction that they deem necessary?
BP: Well, let me answer this way. Up to my experiences, my personal experiences dealing with the issue of borderline between Slovenia and Croatia, for example. Number one task at the moment is rebuild the confidence between Moscow and Brussels, and Moscow and Washington. This is number one task. The confidence that everybody is working for everybody, not against somebody. This is task number one. I think this visit today is mostly, I think, in this direction. It is too, it would be too much to call now, that this is the final trip to Moscow, or our colleagues from Moscow to Brussels. But I think this is a confidence building project. I think this task number one. And then, task number two to find a proper answer to the whole arrangement of questions. It's too complicated now imagine what could be the final result. But at the end of the day, there is one who should be satisfied most by this compromise solution, and this is Ukrainian people.
OB:Mr President, let me ask you one final question. I think this whole discussion that we've been having today ultimately comes down to one question, and this is a question about who should call the shots on the issues of security and foreign policy in Europe. Should it be advised, let me put it mildly, from across the ocean, or should Europe, the continent, step up to the plate and take matters into its own hands? Do you think Europe, at this point of time, capable of ensuring its own security or arranging its own foreign policy in amicable way?
BP: Not so much as I would like to see, but the things are moving in right direction. As you referred before, I am very much in favour of United States of Europe. So this would mean also that European Union would have military capability to defend itself. But nevertheless, should not underestimate, not now, not even maybe in the future, the NATO is here. And I have to say, thanks God it's here, because if not – listen, maybe Slovenia, you're right, is not threatened directly as you said by Russian Federation. But talking to my colleagues in Baltics states, or Poland – I have a feeling that they are afraid, that really, some days Russian Federation could pose a direct threat to their national security. And, listen, you should not underestimate these feelings, you know.
OB: Well, President Pahor, I really hope that your expertise will be helpful in the search for that political solution, but in the meantime I have to thank you for being on our show. And to our viewers, please leave your comments on our Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages, and I hope to see you again, same place, same time, here on Worlds Apart.