Seminar Report: Regional Flashpoints and Transatlantic Policies

The 2008 Halki International Seminar organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) for the 19th consecutive year, took place on 25-29 June 2008. Participants this year arrived to Halki from all over the world, including India, China, Russia, the USA, various Middle Eastern countries and Europe. The focus of the seminar was on “Regional Flashpoints and Transatlantic Policies” and was organised in co-operation with the Balkan Trust for Democracy in Belgrade and supported by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the National Bank of Greece, the Hellenic Aid-Ministry of Foreign Affairs, OTE SA, the General Secretariat for Youth, the Dodecanese Prefecture, Rhodes and NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, Brussels.

This year’s Halki International Seminar commenced by examining the transatlantic alliance in context, and in particular, “high” politics, policies and priorities. The first session was devoted to the assessment of past policies and the definition of future priorities of the Transatlantic Partners while the second session focused on the external perceptions of the EU and NATO, questioning the extent to which the transatlantic alliance contributes today to regional and global security. A common point that emerged from the comments of several speakers during both sessions was on one hand the perceived U.S. dominance of NATO and the importance of the US forthcoming elections for the policy agenda. A common theme as to the past and future of the transatlantic alliance was the transition from an East-West approach of international politics to that of a pluralist approach of the global scene. This transition has been a challenge for NATO which has yet to define its policies in relation to the emergence of new economic (and, increasingly, political) powers such as China and India. Finally, a commonly shared point was that the European defense and security policy should be strengthened while it was underlined that the EU is the only actor with a truly multilateral potential.

The main part of the 2008 Halki International Seminar was devoted on regional challenges and the role of the transatlantic alliance, starting with the situation in Kosovo and the Western Balkans in the light of developments that have taken place since the beginning of the year. A shared point was that the stability and future development of countries in the region depends both on their European perspective and NATO membership, as well as the internal strengthening of their institutions and their democratic legitimacy. Russia’s influence was also referred to as a crucial factor for the future shape of the Western Balkans due to its economic investments and energy supplies, as well as its position on the Kosovo issue.

The question of Kosovo’s independence was a key issue that dominated discussions not only on the first day but in later stages of the seminar as well. As the participants came from different countries and different backgrounds, they had the opportunity to listen and analyze different point of views, such as the position of Russia, the policies of Serbia as well as the role of international actors like NATO and the UN, and to compare and contrast the challenges in the area with developments taking place in other regions.

Discussions during the second day focused on (a) the “frozen conflicts” in the Black Sea Region and the Caucasus and (b) the regional challenges in the Middle East, in relation to the Kurdish question and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding the question of “frozen conflicts” it was interesting to discuss the parallel lines that are drawn between the situation in Kosovo as it stands at the moment and the geopolitical conditions in the Black Sea and Caucasus. It was asserted that the later region has a special character that derives from the fact that -depending on one’s perspective-, at the same time it represents the next transatlantic challenge, is part of the European neighborhood, is viewed as the common neighborhood between Russia and the EU, or it is perceived as part of Russia’s historical and contemporary sphere of influence. The impact of Russian policies was also discussed in both panels, as well as Turkey’s position regarding the Kurdish question. In this light it was asserted that the area could function as the barometer for the relationship between all the above actors.

In discussing the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prospects for “peace in our time” all participants held a rather pessimistic view as to the prospect of a solution in the forthcoming future. However, most of them shared similar views as to the factors that currently affect the development of events and the steps that should be taken towards the gradual resolution of the conflict. Naturally, as the sensitive nature of the subject suggests, the views that were expressed varied in character and intensity. Characteristically, all participants agreed on the fact that the international community has to be actively engaged in order for a peaceful resolution to be plausible, while in the regional context it was expressed that both sides have to focus on their internal problems in order to find common grounds of rapprochement.

The final day of the seminar started by focusing on Iraq, Iran and the Gulf region, discussing the need for a regional security architecture. A common theme that emerged was that the Iraq war has affected the regional balance of power, enabling Iran to considerably strengthen its position. Nevertheless, it was also argued that Iran itself is heading towards a period of change in its internal balance of power, with a new, transitional, generation of politicians that will bring a change in the system, unknown to which direction, however; this forthcoming process of change, while crucial, is not largely understood and appreciated outside Iran. Once again the question of the forthcoming American elections was put forward as a significant factor to consider when analyzing the future of Iraq and the Gulf region, while interestingly it was pointed out that Iran has succeeded where the USA has largely failed, in influencing Iraq.

The “young leaders’ forum” took place in two parallel sessions, focusing on Southeastern Europe and Black Sea and Caucasus respectively. On the first session discussions turned mainly around the question of Kosovo as well as the name issue of FYR Macedonia, as the two issues currently dominate the politics of SE Europe. Direct lines were drawn between the question of Kosovo’s recognition by the international community, Albanian’s position and the alleged Albanian irredentism. On the latter it was pointed out that idea of “Great Albania” has reemerged not by Albanians themselves but out of the fears of their neighboring countries. During the second session, on Black Sea and Caucasus, participants discussed Russia’s position and influence in the region, the question of the “frozen conflicts” and the prospects for conflict resolution in relation to the prospects of EU enlargement in the region. Characteristically it was argued by a number of participants that in contrast to other international players, the EU is viewed by Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and other countries in the region as an ‘honest broker’, an element that strengthens the influence the EU can have in conflict resolution. It was asserted, however, that the challenge today is to define the nature of the conflicts in the region, drawing the line between ethnic and political.

The final session of 2008 Halki International seminars was devoted on revisiting the transatlantic initiatives in the regional conflicts discussed during the seminars, including views and perceptions from both Brussels and the regions. An overview of current and future policies was thus provided from the perspective of the EU, the Middle East and the Black Sea, including remarks on the future challenges NATO will be called to address. While the success of certain projects such as the EU initiative “Union for the Mediterranean” remains to be seen, it was asserted that any prospects for conflict resolution in the Middle East depend both on the adoption of common initiatives by Europe and the United States, as well as the adoption of the idea of political liberalization by regimes in the Middle East. From a Black Sea perspective it was also asserted that, similarly to the Middle East, NATO does not have a positive image in the Black Sea region as it is regarded that its activities go beyond its stated mission.

While the seminars were rigorous and took over an important part of the day, Halki International Seminars is not only about presentations and debate. The “spirit of Halki” as often referred too, once again overtook participants and organizers alike. Relaxation by the sea alternated with discussions around tables filled with Halki delicacies and concluded with night partying and swimming. In any case, exchanging views and ideas cannot be limited inside a conference room and indeed it is hard to find a place more picturesque and beautiful than the island of Halki, to make new contacts, create lasting friendships and gather experiences commonly shared and remembered by all Halki participants.