Starting ECMI in the memorable summer of 1996 was quite an adventure: There was no office space, no cash, no staff and no legal basis. Thanks to the Centre’s first chairman of the board Professor Bent Rold Andersen the first three obstacles were removed within record time: In the Kompagnietor Building, then under heavy reconstruction work, a combined phone and fax machine was installed in a closet full of dusty antique furniture; with the help of the Danish Consul General in Flensburg Professor Lorenz Rerup a director was searched for and hired within little more than two months; the new director immediately contracted an office manager; and the two of them succeed in talking a local bank into opening an account for a legally non-existent institution. To solve problem no. 4, it is true, took the three founding governments a bit longer, but on 29 January 1998 the act of foundation solemnly took place.
In the meantime, the Centre had been turned fully operational: In August 1996, the board and the director agreed on ECMI’s actual shape, on its profile, tasks and range of activities; in November, a polyglott secretary was employed; on 4 December 1996, a lavish opening ceremony was held; and in the spring of 1997, an academic staff of three plus a librarian were hired. Thus, the Centre was able to start its first public activities: In April, the 1997 “ECMI Kompagnietor Lecture” was delivered by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel, and in May the first ECMI conference, organized in cooperation with the Baltic Academy, took place in Lübeck-Travemünde, Germany. The topic was “Minorities in the Ukraine,” and it triggered off what became a long-standing interest in multi-ethnic Transcarpathia in Western Ukraine.
With the academic staff firmly in place, the pace of activities soon increased: In September 1997, ECMI’s first conflict workshop “From Ethnopolitical Conflict to Inter-Ethnic Accord in Moldova” was held in Flensburg and in Bjerremark on the Danish side of the border. It was attended by representatives of the central government of Moldova, of the autonomous region Gagausia, and of the separatist authorities on the left bank of river Dniestr. It was a first success for ECMI when the final document of the seminar was introduced into the five-sided international negotiations on the future status of Trans-Dniester (OSCE, Russian Federation Ukraine, Moldova and Trans-Dniester).
Also in the fall of 1997, ECMI held its first scholarly conference entitled “Ethnoradicalism and Centralist Rule: Western and Eastern Europe at the End of the Twentieth Century”. On Sandbjerg Estate in Denmark, political scientists, historians, sociologists and international lawyers discussed the question why in some instances majority-minority relations turn violent while the do not in others. In addition, the Centre together with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy of the University of Hamburg and the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Humanities at Essen co-organized a conference “Evaluation the State of the OSCE: Interlocking Institutions, Longterm Missions, Internal Structure” in Bonn, Germany, which took stock of the achievements and failures of this international organization in the 1990s.
These initial activities during the Centre’s annus unus were accompanied by a further institutional build-up. In the fall of 1997, an Advisory Council of some twenty personalities from Eastern and Western Europe was set up, and in 1998 the ECMI Board was enlarged by two more members nominated on behalf of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Also, the renovation of the Kompagnietor Building with library premises, office space and above all the Seeamtssaal – formerly the court room of the Flensburg Naval Court — was finalized.
With the official act of foundation in January of 1998, the Centre’s build-up phase was completed. Thus, 1998 became ECMI’s first “regular” year. This was marked by the first ECMI publications, among them an extended working paper on the failed prevention of the Kosovo conflict and a report on ECMI’s seminar on Moldova. Another sign of the Centre’s new “normality” was the launching of a series of ECMI Baltic Seminars and, in particular, the Centre‘s first large-scale international conference “Implementing the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”, which was held in Flensburg in June 1998 and was attended by some 50 experts, diplomats and policy-makers. Also the second half of 1998 was an extremely busy time for ECMI. Next to a seminar on interethnic relations in the Transcarpathian part of Ukraine, held in the region’s capital Uzhhorod, the daring task of tackling the Corsican Question was undertaken. For this purpose, a group of politicians and officials from Corsica as well as from Paris were invited by ECMI and the Åland Islands Peace Institute to visit the autonomous and Swedish-speaking Åland Islands in Finland. That the experiment was successful was proven by the fact that the participants themselves undertook the initiative to publish the proceeding of this seminar on “Insular Regions and European Integration: Corsica and the Åland Islands Compared” in French in Corsica.
It was, however, exactly the success of ECMI’s activities in 1997 and 1998 which clearly demonstrated the limitations of the Centre: Almost every idea promoted by its tiny staff was so well received that it immediately turned into an avalanche of work. Thus, for the sake of sustainability and continuity a concentration on several core tasks and regions had to be undertaken which meant that other proposals and project could not be pursued.
In the midst of its feverish activities, ECMI suffered a series of tragic losses and setbacks. In December 1996—a few days after the official opening of the Centre—its spiritus rector Professor Lorenz Rerup died; in May 1997, after only nine months in office, the energetic Chairman of the Board Professor Bent Rold Andersen resigned from his position due to endless quarrels with the German co-founders over Teutonic budget regulations; and in April 1998, Professor Hans Peter Clausen, untiring member of the ECMI Board and Professor Rerup’s successor as Danish Consul General in Flensburg, deceased. Thus, still during the decisive build-up phase, the three most important brains behind ECMI were gone. It was primarily due to the diplomatic professionality and active sympathy of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Centre managed to get out of these heavy waters. Looking back, getting ECMI flying was a fascinating challenge. It was a rewarding experience to work together with a brilliant international staff, with a highly competent Advisory Council and with a Board of seasoned professionals. In addition, it was particularly encouraging to get the full support of international organisations like the Council of Europe or OSCE, but also of a large number of NGOs. In comparison with this support, the headwind caused by the diplomacy of a single EU member state was insignificant. In the fall of 1998, when I moved on to my new assignments in Leipzig, I did so in the conviction that by then ECMI was firmly established and had put its name on the map.
- Professor of East European Cultural Studies at the University of Leipzig
- Acting Director of the Leipzig Centre for East Central Europe (GWZO)
- ECMI Director 1996-1998