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A Tribute to Max van der Stoel

A Speech by Prof. Dr. Stefan Troebst, Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany on the occasion of the "HCNM 20 Years On"-conference in Flensburg on 6 July 2012

Flensburg, 6 July 2012

A tribute to Max van der Stoel, and that in fifteen minutes, is not an easy task. Also, although I have met the first OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities on several occasions during the years 1993 to 2001, I never had direct collaboration with him. Quite a number of other people in this room worked much more closer with him. I had, however, the chance to observe his mode of operation in a number of instances at rather remote places in Europe, like Comrat and Tighina in Moldova or Gostivar and Tetovo in Macedonia. By the way, the trilingual South East European University in the latter Western Macedonian town, founded in 2001 with considerable support from the US, EU, OSCE and Max van der Stoel personally is called by Macedonian-speakers colloquially stuloviot univerzitet. Stulov in Macedonian is the adjective form of “Stoel”—with the “Van der” omitted for the sake of convenience—and the ending -iot is the definite article. So stuloviot univerzitet means nothing else than “The Van der Stoel University”. As you see, in the perceptions of the citizens of Macedonia, Macedonians and Albanians alike, Max van der Stoel was in 2001 to the South East European University in Tetovo what John Harvard was in 1638 to the university named after him in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is because it was Van der Stoel who did the fundraising for “his” university and ultimately collected the incredible amount of €35 million. He managed to do so due to a convincing twofold message: “Capital invested in conflict prevention is capital well spent.” And: In the medium and long term, it is education that can defuse inter-ethnic tension.

Max van der Stoel’s other recipe for conflict prevention was quiet diplomacy via a permanent as well as confidential dialogue with all parties involved in an ethnopolitical conflict and, if need be, early warning to the international community—a mode of operation that required frequent travel from the Hague to places like Riga and Skopje, Bratislava and Zagreb, Simferopol and Bishkek. Let me give you an example: In early December 1994, the High Commissioner paid a visit to Comrat, the capital of what today is the Autonomous Territorial Unit Gagauzia within the Republic of Moldova. It took place at a time when a self-proclaimed radical—and armed—regional Gagauz leadership with close connection to the split-away Dniester Republic as well as to Moscow was still in charge. Van der Stoel made two things very clear to his interlocutors: First, territorial autonomy is much more than other minorities in Europe get, and second, democracy—not nationalism—is the solution to the demands of the Gagauz. At the same time, he encouraged the central government of Moldova in the capital Chişinău to bring about a compromise with the Gagauz movement. Two weeks later, the Moldovan parliament in the presence of the Gagauz leadership passed the law on territorial autonomy—the way to a referendum on which towns and villages should be part of Gagauzia and ultimately to free elections in the newly autonomous territory was paved. Since then, the Gagauz-Moldovan conflict has no longer been heard of.

The international community as well as the community of experts in international studies today remember Max van der Stoel primarily as an eminent OSCE diplomat and proponent of minority rights, particularly in his function as HCNM, furthermore also as the untiring UN rapporteur for the human rights situation in Iraq in the 1990s. And the elder among us may even recall his two terms as minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands in the mid-1970s and again in the early 1980s. In doing so, we tend to forget, however, that in a number of places in Eastern and Southeastern Europe he is first of all remembered as a courageous opponent of dictatorship. This goes for Greece as well as for the Czech Republic: It was Max van der Stoel, who as Dutch foreign minister in 1973, opened his country for political refugees from Greece, where from 1967 to 1974 a rightist military junta ruled and mercilessly repressed the opposition. And I know that it was particularly bitter for him to find out in the 1990s that quite a number of those Greek intellectuals and politicians who had found temporary refuge in the Netherlands now strongly resisted the international recognition of Macedonia as well as Van der Stoel dealing with the difficult situation of national minorities in Greece. Moreover, it was him who in 1977, again in the capacity as Dutch foreign minister, risked an open conflict with the government of Communist Czechoslovakia for meeting in Prague the philosopher Jan Patočka, then speaker of the newly founded civil rights movement Charter 77. One has difficulties of imagining a European foreign minister of today acting in a similar way in, say, China, Belarus or Uzbekistan.

Please allow me also a personal word: When I had the privilege to work here in Flensburg as the ECMI’s first director in the second half of the 1990s, Max van der Stoel’s support for the new centre was of utmost significance. He helped us to gain the support of OSCE and the Council of Europe—at a time when the European Union was rather suspicious of an institution dealing with national minorities in all of Europe. Yet once Vienna and Strasbourg were on board, Brussels soon followed suit. Thus, it was a natural choice that Van der Stoel should deliver the ECMI’s first Kompagnietor Lecture shortly after the centre’s opening. (You will find the text on the centre’s website.) On our behalf we were glad to pay back by coordinating our activities closely with him and his office—and this particularly by initiatives in regions outside the HCNM’s geographical mandate, like in Corsica or Northern Ireland. Of particular importance at that time was for our work, of course, was Kosovo—then still a part of Milošević’s rump-Yugoslavia whose authorities prevented Van der Stoel from going there. To sum up: To work with Max van der Stoel was a unique experience: His diplomatic skills were impressive, his courage in human rights matters was admirable, and his personal discipline made him on the one hand a role model for others, on the other it caused occasionally stress to his staff, colleagues, partners and interlocutors. I remember that a memo by his office to the OSCE Mission to Moldova that was tasked with organizing a four-day trip of the High Commissioner to this country read: “Working breakfasts during the trip should begin at 6:30 a.m., working dinners at 9:00 p.m.” So you easily can imagine that this made a pretty long working day.

Max van der Stoel, as I remember him, was not only a sensitive and creative diplomat and a politician promoting democracy, but also an impressive intellectual whose world view was decisively shaped by the catastrophes of the 20th century. As a youngster, he experienced the occupation of his home country by Nazi Germany; he started his professional career at the beginning of the Cold War and of global nuclear threat; as foreign minister he had to deal with Europe’s many dictatorships, rightists and communists alike; and as High Commissioner he became deeply involved in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction in post-communist Europe. It is this biography that explains his restless engagement for human rights and democracy until the very day he died in 2011 at the biblical age of 86.

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Prof. Stefan Troebst about starting ECMI

Stefan Troebst - Professor of East European Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig and Acting Director of the Leipzig Centre for East Central Europe (GWZO) ECMI Director 1996-1998

A Tribute to Max van der Stoel

Speech by Prof. Dr. Stefan Troebst (6 July 2012)

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