Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the OSCE foreign ministers meeting held in Hamburg. Broadcast during the “Tagesthemen” programme (8 December 2016).
You yourself said that there wasn’t much time for melancholy at a meeting such as this, but didn’t you find that it had something of a valedictory note?
Well, the thought never once crossed my mind, if I’m honest. These are extremely challenging and controversial debates, and that requires the utmost concentration. After all, we assumed responsibility for this Organization with its 57 participating States, which is why I’m really not thinking about what might happen next year.
This is a meeting that you organised right down to the last detail. Some 10,000 police officers have been deployed here, costing many millions of euros. If you consider what came out of this meeting – was it all worth it? The meeting didn’t achieve all that much, for all of the effort that was put into it.
Well, that’s easy to say from the point of view of a journalist, because you can’t imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t hold such meetings. No, I believe that you have to pick out individual examples in order to see how valuable organisations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe are.
If this organisation didn’t exist, then an ancient conflict that no one talks about any more, Nagorno-Karabakh – hardly anyone knows terribly much about this territory disposed between Armenia and Azerbaijan – would have degenerated into a veritable war. There were 200 deaths there in April, and thanks to the OSCE, it was possible to rein in this conflict again relatively quickly.
If the OSCE didn’t exist, it’s probable that many more people would be dying today along the line of confrontation in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region, than is the case at the present. While the ceasefire is still being violated, the level of violence has been considerably reduced, thank goodness.
But has rapprochement become possible particularly in the conflict that you mention – if you say that it was so important?
We have just had a meeting at foreign minister level in Minsk attended by the four Foreign Ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany – the so-called Normandy format. In this format, we are attempting to calm and hopefully to resolve the conflict in the long term.
But that’s what you’ve been doing for the last two years.
Yes, yes, we will stick at it, even when journalists say it’s all pointless. We have to keep on doing this, holding such meetings, as when we realise that there are ever more violations of the ceasefire, then we must bring the parties to the conflict back to the negotiating table, to reason, and develop mechanisms for reducing the level of violence once again. And you keep the door open, as it were, to achieving a political solution at some point in the future.
However, at the meeting in Minsk we saw that both sides, both Kyiv and Moscow, are currently waiting to see what happens in the US and are therefore not budging on the decisive points.
Nobody doubts that it is important to continue to talk to each other about this and to keep the channels of communication open. But do you not find it sometimes frustrating when you talk to your Russian and Ukrainian colleague and nothing happens?
I am frustrated, annoyed and outraged about meetings where nothing is achieved. But I have a duty of responsibility, which is why I always say that giving up is not an option! If we give up, then people will suffer who otherwise could survive in such conflicts. This is why you must, despite the disappointments that there are, despite the setbacks that you suffer, try to stay on the ball and prevent things from getting worse.
Do you believe that Germany has a special role here? Should it player a greater role than it is already doing?
That was a decision that we didn’t make lightly.
Yes, in the world, I mean.
Yes, at the beginning of this year when we assumed the Chairmanship of the OSCE – this is not an easy field, one with many crises and conflicts, Syria, Libya, Yemen and indeed Ukraine. On the other hand, I said that if a stable country with a relatively healthy economy such as Germany doesn’t take responsibility, then who should? Who should we ask to take responsibility? This is why we did this, and this is indeed part of our increased responsibility.
Despite this, a major conflict like Syria – which you mentioned just now – appears impossible to resolve, especially now... What is putting the brakes on here? Why isn’t any progress being made?
It is terrible and isn’t just a humanitarian disaster, which of course it is. However, also from far away – and although I have studied it intensely – it appears to be one of those new conflicts of the 21st century that always have to do with power, but where there is so much religious, ethnic and ideological overlap, where all neighbouring states are involved somehow, that you need to get an incredible number of people around the negotiating table in order to pacify a conflict such as this.
We are trying first of all to broker ceasefires once again during which the population can receive humanitarian relief. It’s not just the fact that there’s fighting, but also that the International Red Cross and all the other organisations can’t get through to treat the injured. We are attempting to achieve this right now and this is key.
But whose fault is it that this isn’t working?
Secondly, we must ensure that the responsible parties are held accountable. And if we achieve a ceasefire – we discussed this here today with my counterpart John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and I also held lengthy talks about this with the Russian Foreign Minister last evening – then the path towards a political solution must be opened up once again. There are many people who carry blame – above all those who supported Assad in recent months, of course, also with respect to aerial bombardments, and this includes Iran and Russia.
The Russians aren’t the only ones to blame though, are they?
No. I said just now that there are many neighbours, as we say, regional actors, who keep a very close eye on who wins the power game in Syria. The power game that has become a period of suffering and dying for most people. The neighbours are all paying very close attention to who could win this power game and are supporting various parties – combatants and non-combatants. This makes it so utterly difficult to reach a solution around the negotiating table at last.
But here too, I say that there’s no alternative. Even if it’s difficult, even if it takes a long time, we must finally ensure that there is an end to the dying, that the hostilities are ended and humanitarian assistance is provided beforehand.
Are you not personally a little bit relieved that you probably won’t have to worry about this any more next year?
No. I mean, you shouldn’t conflate these two things. Remember that frustration is part of the responsibility that I have. You have to learn to deal with that. I’ve been doing this for almost eight years. I find this work important. This is why I won’t feel a sense of liberation when I can’t carry on doing the same.
Besides which, whether I do something different depends on an election. It is part and parcel of good democratic tradition to await the results of the election in the Federal Convention on 12 February.
We will be providing coverage of this. Many thanks, Foreign Minister Steinmeier.
Interviewer: Ingo Zamperoni. You can also watch the interview at