Black Sea Economic Cooperation seeks to adapt to a changing world

After 25 years of activities, the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) is looking to adapt better to a changing world, the organization’s secretary-general, Michael B. Christides, has said.

“We want to be more project-oriented and we want to become more efficient because the added value of this organization for all these 25 years has been that it managed to establish a culture of dialogue and cooperation,” he said.

Tell us about the summit and your analysis of the 25 years of the organization.

The summit is a very special event. It takes place every five years, during which we take stock of what has been achieved so far and what we should we be looking for in the future.

Twenty-five years in the life of an international organization is quite a long period of time. We have to adapt to the changing world.

We want to be more project-oriented and we want to become more efficient because the added value of this organization for all these 25 years has been that it managed to establish a culture of dialogue and cooperation. Whatever the problems are at many times, we are sitting around a table all together, discussing various projects of common interest.

We are sometimes successful in the implementation of these projects; sometimes it takes a greater amount of time to reach success; at other times, we are not successful. But the added value is the mere existence and functioning of this organization. With the latest developments in the region, where we even have a growing military buildup and confrontation around frozen bilateral tension among some of our member states, there is no doubt that this situation casts its shadow on our effectiveness and the quality of our work, but this should not make us forget the fact that, for instance, Russian-Turkish rapprochement officially started during a ministerial meeting of the BSEC.

The idea in 1992 to bring together [the region] to promote economic cooperation among all these member states coming from such different backgrounds was a stroke of genius.

Slowly, this aura has been blurred, perhaps because we over-expanded the spectrum of our interest in the sense that today, our organization is interested and deals with every possible sector of public life: We promote cooperation in trade, in transport, in health, in tourism – you name it. We here in the international secretariat are very burdened with preparing these meetings and taking stock of the conclusions of these meetings.

How are you planning to adapt?

One solution that we are proposing to our member states would be to prolong the period of the chairmanship. Every six months there is a new country taking up the chairmanship and every country wants to include as many events as possible in its calendar of events, and this makes it very difficult. If we could extend the chair period to one year, then we would be able to distribute the events in a more rational way, prepare these events better, take stock of the results of these events and oversee that the conclusions are implemented, which we do not have time to do now.

Some are complaining that the organization has failed to fulfill the objectives of the founding fathers and that we have been unable to form a regionalism in the area. I don’t agree with this view, not only because you see the involvement of our organization in various projects; even other organizations are seeking partnership with us.

As they say, the biggest room of all is the room of improvement. We hope the summit will mark a new chapter in our life.

Tell us about the BSEC’s projects; the public know so little about them.

We should be more energetic on trade and transport connectivity. One of the projects is the establishment of a Black Sea ring highway which would be at European standards surrounding the Black Sea. At the same time, it would have connections to the capitals of all member states.

This is not a new highway; in reality, it would be the upgrading of existing roads to European standards.

We are progressing slowly in this no doubt, but we are progressing. Some parts are ready especially in Greece and Turkey; some [parts are ready] in Romania and others in parts in Georgia. What is lacking is that when we have ready parts of this highway, we forget that these are parts of the Black Sea highway. Let us put up a sign for instance; this sense of ownership is very important. Another project is called the motorways of the sea. It is a project to upgrade the infrastructure of the ports of member states.

There is a need to facilitate the movement of people and goods. Another project is the facilitation of the movement of persons to diminish red tape through coordination and having one certificate that will be accepted by all member states.

We have achieved a lot there; we have a BSEC certificate for trucks.

We have projects on energy conservation and on alternative energy sources. We came up with legislation and good practices for conserving energy in old buildings; this could be interesting for member states.

In tourism, we are preparing an initiative and we have attracted the attention of the world tourism organization and we have Turkey on board. In November, we will be hosting this conference about attracting cruise tourism on the Black Sea.

The one road, one belt project and the concept of the modern Silk Road is something in which we are present everywhere. There are no roads or railways connecting Asia and Europe that do not pass through BSEC territory. We are in touch with China.

The idea of the founding fathers was that economic cooperation would improve political relations. Some would say this has not been the case.

Yes and no. No doubt due to recent events, with Georgia, Crimea and Armenia-Azerbaijan tensions, some might think so. But security and stability has a very distinct economic dimension.  This is what this organization is cementing by having cooperation in all sectors. Of course, this will not save us from conflict or confrontation if it is so decided. But solving these issues is not our mission.

But we could have been more successful on inter-BSEC trade which is still low.

The effectiveness of an international organization depends on the will of member states.

Indeed with Russia endorsing a more assertive position politically and militarily, some suggest Moscow will be less interested in multilateral platforms.

But Russia, for instance, expressed its interest in the organization by very recently putting up a fund of 1 million U.S. dollars. This is the first money given to the organization for the implementation of a concrete project. The only countries that have given extra money so far are Greece and Turkey.

I would not like to go into the political dimension. The situation is there; we all know it. We have to function and be active in this environment.

The problem with the BSEC is that even when it was formed, we had divisions and differences, and this was the reason the organization was put up with too many security valves for everybody. All members wanted their security valve. I said we need to be more efficient and take decisions faster, but we can’t do that because we have to respect the sensitivities of our member countries.

At the beginning, we have put into our statutory documents a lot of safety valves in order to get out of problems and in order to keep member states happy. They would not have been happy if they did not have those security valves. This is the inherent issue of BSEC; this is not an issue we can solve today, because differences do exist today.

With this growing military buildup between NATO on one side and Russia on the other, you have the impression that the Black Sea is ultimately a line that is not uniting but dividing. This is bad; we don’t like it.
But I would say that the difficulties we are facing today are difficulties which are faced by all international organizations. The ones that have solved the problems promoting economic cooperation are only the ones that have depoliticized themselves; and there are very few examples like this.