The discussions in these annual conferences are always informal, and should not be cited elsewhere. In that way, an open and constructive channel for debate is created. This is most appreciated by the participants:
“It’s not just the sessions, but also the discussions during the breaks and dinners” explains Dag Hartelius, Swedish Ambassador in Warsaw. Joining the seminar for the fifth time, Hartelius was one of the close to 50 participants participating in the seminar.
Several participants were enthusiastic about the network which has been built up during previous conferences. The appointment of Andrius Kubilius and Rasa Jukneviciene, both frequent visitors to previous conferences, as the Lithuanian Prime Minister and Minister for Defense, was seen by many as a positive sign.
The list of participants this year includes several ambassadors, party chairmen and ministers from Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, the US and Sweden. The delegation from Georgia, which included the minister of reintegration, Temuri Yakobashvili, found its home country to be the topic of debate at several occasions during the conference. During an intermission, he asked for increased political pressure on Russia to live up to signed treaties regarding the occupied areas in Georgia. Without foreign pressure, he claimed, this will never come true.
The visa issue is also of major importance to Mr. Yakobashvili, and a priority shared by most countries neighbouring the EU. Gerald Knaus, the Austrian chairman of the European Stability Initiative, explained that the Balkan countries, which have fought for an increased freedom of visas to the union, will be able to travel freely into the EU member states within a year. For some of the countries, this might come true already at the start of the new year.
“Previously, the Interior Ministers in the EU countries used to block visa reform, referring to security measures, while the Ministers for Foreign Affairs used to argue in favour of it. However, two years ago, the EU decided to state certain criteria for countries aiming for visa freedom. This has been a success. Today, three out of six Balkan countries have already implemented the EU-criteria – Macedonia has fulfilled all the criteria whereas Serbia and Montenegro have managed to realize most of them, according to Knaus.
In his view, countries like Georgia and Turkey should try to get permission to start the same process, which he considers “strict but fair”.
Within the frame work of historical events falls the visit of the Ukrainian Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Visby seminar. Petro Poroshenko had been Minister for a mere seven days when arriving in Visby. Due to the unstable situation and the conflicts between President Viktor Yushenko and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, the seat as Minister for Foreign Affairs had been vacant for eight months.
“I have been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Prime Minister” Petro Poroshenko explains during a coffee break in Visby.
He views his appointment as a sign of good luck for the future political climate – and for the Presidential election in the beginning of next year. It is his ambition to be able to present his country with one voice in the important EU-Ukraine conference, held in Kiev on December 4, 2009.
Energy policy was one of the topics discussed during the Visby conference. In this area, Petro Poroshenko has a straight forward position: Ukraine should be added to the EU energy policy “based on a memorandum dating March 23 2009”. This reflects on an energy agreement between the European Parliament and the EU members striving for more efficient energy markets.
Such an increased efficiency is of utmost importance for Ukraine. The idea is to modernize, thereby significantly decreasing the need for energy, Petro Poroshenko explains. In essence, this could imply complete energy independence for Ukraine. The most important aspect is not, says Mr Poroshenko, independence from Russian gas but “an increased efficiency in the Ukrainian industry”.
The neighbouring countries’ relations to Russia were of great concern for the participants. “Where is Russia heading?” being the primary question, a question with multi dimensional answers.
For Rasa Jukneviciene, Lithuanian Defence Minister, the issue of Kaliningrad, is of national interest. While being formally part of Russia, the Kaliningrad region is geographically severed from Russia and is situated by the Baltic Sea, bordering Poland and Lithuania. According to Jukneviciene, the smuggling of tobacco and oil products from the region into Lithuania is a problem. In addition, the Russian military personnel and equipment stationed in Kaliningrad is being upgraded. For the neighbourhood, the common military Belarus-Russia exercises, which are being held in Kaliningrad and Belarus, are also of major concern. Putin’s ascent to power has also altered the situation.
“Previously, Kaliningrad enjoyed some independence, and people could travel more,” Rasa Jukneviciene explains.
Nowadays, decisions are to a larger extent taken in Moscow. A concern is also the anti- European views which are spreading in Russia. “As a result of propaganda, many Russians find Lithuania, Georgia and other neighbouring countries to be main threats to Russia”.
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, Deputy Defence Minister, responsible for international security, joined the conference from Washington DC. He assured the participants that the Obama administration has Europe in mind – the whole of Europe. “However”, he added on the topic of Russia’s neighbours, “I understand how worried they are”. Vershbow argued that “the interest of minor states should not be negotiated away”, while dealing with Russia. Moral support is important, he claims. As is the possibility for common Russians to visit western countries.
”It is important to provide visa and financial support so that i.e. Russian doctors and local politicians may visit the US to see the available alternatives to politics in their home country.
Foreign minister Carl Bildt participates in the conference for top politicians arranged by JHS 16-18 October, 2009.