THE troubles of Transdniester or the concerns over Nagorno-Karabakh have rarely made it on to the political agenda here but that could change if jitters in either region escalate over the coming year.
The new chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Ireland will be expected to take charge of the organisation’s response if problems flare up in either of these places. Not to mention any in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which also belong on a list of potential hotspots where conflict has simmered since the Cold War thawed.
Even if all remains calm across these largely unfamiliar territories, we’ll be expected to work towards permanent peaceful solutions to the squabbles that divide them.
Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore, the new chairman-in-office, is expected to make that commitment when he delivers his inaugural address to the OSCE at its Vienna headquarters today.
He is also likely to tell the representatives of the other 55 countries that make up the organisation that Ireland will seek to use its term to promote internet and media freedom.
But how much of this will go over the heads of the average Irish citizen and how much can the Tánaiste, and Ireland, really be expected to achieve?
There was a telling moment at a meeting of the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs before Christmas when Labour TD Eric Byrne, while declaring himself a “huge fan and supporter” of the OSCE and the ODIHR [the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights — an arm of the OSCE which focuses on democracy, election monitoring and human rights], wondered if the fan base was perhaps a little narrow.
“It strikes me that the OSCE is not well known in the West. People often think one is talking about the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] and adding ODIHR makes one wonder where in the world we are.”
His party colleague, Michael McNamara can sympathise with that view. The Clare TD is a lawyer by training and worked with the OSCE prior to entering politics.
He recalls the difficulty he had at times when travelling around former Soviet states in the early part of the last decade, trying to convince even US soldiers that he was not part of some secretive spy agency.
That would be funny only that the US is a member of the organisation — in fact, the OSCE was set up during the Cold War to provide a forum for discussion between the US and Russia, which is also a member.
The conflicts most often in the frame in recent times are those of countries like Moldova and its breakaway state, Transdniester; Armenia and Azerbaijan and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh; and Georgia and its secession states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In addition to these so-called “frozen conflicts”, there is also a lot of work remaining to be done between Kosovo and Serbia, within Bosnia-Herzegovina, and with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
However, much of the region is also fast-changing as oil and mineral wealth and strategic importance are giving many of these countries a prominence they could never have imagined when they were bit-part players in the giant Soviet project.
While many of the countries in the east-west buffer zone are increasingly looking west, however, it is questionable how many Irish are looking east.
“It’s not an area we are strategically or emotionally involved with,” says Mr McNamara, who has concerns about the timing of Ireland’s chairmanship given the scale of crises to be dealt with at home and in the EU, and the financial constraints the Department of Foreign Affairs is under.
“The timing is awkward,” says Professor Ray Murphy, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. “The focus of all our attention is on the crisis in Europe.”
He, like Mr McNamara, hopes the year goes well, both for the sake of the OSCE and Ireland’s international reputation.
“We have responsibilities as part of this organisation to give it our best and we are quite good at leading this type of group and at negotiations and dispute resolution.
“And I do think involvement in this kind of thing brings dividends in terms of international appreciation and in terms of us looking outwards.”