The unsung heroine of Minsk talks


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Just two women were at the table as the cease-fire between Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine and the government in Kiev was hammered out. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one. The other was Heidi Tagliavini.
The discreet, 65-year-old Swiss diplomat worked alongside Merkel, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, France’s Francois Hollande and Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko on the deal to stem the conflict that has devastated eastern Ukraine.
In the “Green Room” of the vast marble-and-glass Independence Palace in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, Tagliavini helped stave off a collapse late in the talks, according to officials who were there. As someone Putin has long felt he could trust, diplomats say, she was able to silence a contingent of separatists who wanted to see the whole deal reworked.
“She is very smart,” Alexander Surikov, Russia’s ambassador in Belarus, said on the sidelines at the Independence Palace as talks stretched into the night. “She really works for security. She helps to keep these talks on the right path.”
A special envoy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tagliavini is known among other diplomats as “the facilitator.” She is the only woman in the six-member Trilateral Contact Group that has brought together the Ukrainians, Russians and separatists.
Night and day
Tagliavini declined an interview request for this story. It is based on conversations with more than a half-dozen diplomats from Switzerland, Ukraine, Russia, and France -- most of whom declined to be identified, citing diplomatic protocol.
Tagliavini has spent much of the past three decades in postings across eastern Europe brokering peace and monitoring wars and elections for the OSCE, the European Union, and the United Nations. She has served at the Swiss embassy in Moscow and on missions in Chechnya, Ukraine and Georgia, always employing a quiet style and Helvetic neutrality that has helped her win the confidence of leaders from all sides.
On Tuesday around 6 p.m., Tagliavini and the Contact Group sequestered themselves in Dipservice Hall, a Soviet-era villa surrounded by an iron fence on Minsk’s tony Frunze Street. They worked night and day, taking only short breaks, drilling into details such as the caliber of weaponry that might be allowed and who would oversee the 400 kilometers of border between Russia and rebel-held land in Ukraine.
Russian trust
As the group reached possible common ground on each issue, the points of agreement were sent to leaders’ entourages gathering about three miles away in the Independence Palace. By Thursday morning, they had a structure for the cease-fire and rushed to the Palace to present it to the leaders. When the rebels balked at the last minute, Tagliavini shuttled between the various groups to prevent the talks from collapsing. At noon, Putin emerged from the conference room and confirmed the cease-fire to reporters.
“We really appreciate her work,” said Oleksii Makeiev, director for policy and communications at Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry. “She not only has our trust, but what is very important is that she has the Russians’ trust as well. And she has all that trust because she is very professional and experienced.”
Switzerland in January handed over the rotating presidency of the OSCE to Serbia, but Tagliavini kept her role at the head of the Contact Group -- a sign of the confidence members of the group have in her, according to a senior European diplomat.
Chechnya photos
Tagliavini’s “role in maintaining contact between all sides and thereby paving the way to an agreement has proven to be indispensable,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in an e-mail after the deal.
Tagliavini had her first posting in Moscow in the 1980s. In 1995, she served on an OSCE mission that sought to stabilize the situation in Chechnya. An avid photographer, she took hundreds of photos in the region, and later published a book detailing her time there.
In 2009, she oversaw a 1,000-page report for the European Union analyzing the roots of the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Her conclusion: Georgia initiated the conflict -- which helped her win Putin’s confidence. Officials from Georgia, other European nations and the U.S. criticized the report’s conclusions, saying Russia’s allies in South Ossetia provoked the conflict.
‘The link’
With close-cropped blond hair, rimless glasses, and always wearing a brightly-colored scarf around her neck, Tagliavini is known by politicians across eastern Europe as “the link,” for her ability to keep parties in talks when tensions start to rise, a Swiss diplomat said.
In July, when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held territory in Ukraine, Tagliavini was already in Kiev. She immediately began work on a deal between Ukraine and the separatists to allow international investigators into the area to collect remains and wreckage. Exhausted and frustrated after marathon negotiating sessions, she would sometimes set off on walks across the city to find a few moments of peace, according to a fellow Swiss diplomat.
While Tagliavini didn’t craft the so-called Minsk Protocol reached by the rebels and the Kiev government in September, she was key in keeping the parties at the table, according to a French diplomat with knowledge of the discussions. That document served as the basis for this round of talks.
‘Good offices’
Born in Basel in 1950, Tagliavini’s mother tongue is German and she speaks seven other languages, including Russian and Italian. She has a PhD in philology, the study of language from historical sources. It’s her ability to understand languages and the cultural background of people in the region that has helped her navigate the tricky world of east European politics, a French diplomat said.
In a rare interview, with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Tagliavini described her work as “offering warring parties a space to discuss a possible peace agreement, seeing to it that they talk to each other, trying to re-establish an element of trust, making proposals, monitoring human rights and rights of refuges and the state of law.” If she has had success, she said, it’s not due as much to her efforts as it is to “Switzerland’s good offices.”

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