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Sat 27 Jun 2009 04:00 AM

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The optimist

Veteran diplomat and Nobel Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari makes the case for peace in the Middle East.

The optimist
The optimist
Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland, is optimistic about the Middle East peace process following the emergence of President Barack Obama and the new US administration.

The former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari is the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and has been dubbed the ‘David Beckham of Diplomacy'. He tells Arabian Business why the case for peace in the Middle East has never been stronger.

Every morning i get up as though it is the first day of my life: you maintain the intellectual curiosity, and in the morning you start by thinking ‘what can I do?'" says Martti Ahtisaari softly, leaning forward to open a bottle of water. "You don't know how nice it is to wake up next to your wife, and look at the day ahead and still be enormously curious about it. At least, it still keeps me going."

History is what it is; it doesn’t serve any purpose to dwell on what went wrong.

Was it not for the discreet secret service team keeping a watchful eye on passersby, you might not pick Martti Ahtisaari as one of the most distinguished powerbrokers in the room, let alone of European politics.

Pushing 72-years-old, with grey hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a quiet voice, it is a leap to imagine this man staring down Kosovan warlords, Namibian militia leaders and Iraqi hardline insurgents. It dawns on me that perhaps his voice is quiet because he rarely has to raise it.

Polite and self-deprecating, the former president of Finland is also the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a renowned United Nations diplomat and mediator. When he talks, people listen, and his peacemaking skills have helped to resolve conflicts in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, among other regions.

That Ahtisaari has made a career of war is perhaps partly explained by the fact that he was born into one.

"I was two-years-old when the Soviet Union attacked my country. I and some 400,000 people had to be relocated, so I became an eternally displaced person," he recalls. "I have no ill feelings towards Russia today. History is what it is; it doesn't serve any purpose to dwell on what went wrong.

"It was very tough on my parents' generation, but for me it is much more important to move forward and to cooperate with everyone.

"With the end of the Cold War, I don't see so many external threats to any country today, but the problems are internal, and if we don't recognise that then we are embarking on the wrong path," he emphasises. "That is very important: we must teach people how to deal with corruption, and how to get the rule of law established so that everyone can feel comfortable."

Ahtisaari was a UN Special Envoy at the Kosovo status process negotiations, aimed at resolving a long-running dispute in Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. A week after we meet, he is due to address a ceremonial session of the Kosovo assembly, marking the first anniversary since the proclamation of the country's constitution.

In Kosovo, as in many other former trouble spots, he is hailed as a returning hero.

"My tendency is that every time there are problems in the world, I sit and I think ‘what is the best that could come out of this?'" reveals Ahtisaari.

"Look at the world: the Chinese need the American markets and they need the European markets; the US needs the Chinese market; while Russia needs foreign investment and technology and money to broaden the economic base in the country," he continues. "In general, we need each other much more, and that has created the possibility to solve the eternal conflicts that we have faced.

"I said in my Oslo [Nobel Peace Prize acceptance] speech that every conflict in the world can be solved, and if we can't with this political constellation we have at the moment, then I think we have failed miserably as an international community."

Ahtisaari's confidence has been bolstered by the emergence of Barack Obama, and the new US administration. The Finn is clearly a fan, and he is enthusiastic as he reflects on Obama's first speech in the Middle East, delivered at Cairo University on June 4.

"I was in Singapore and I had the opportunity to listen to the whole speech," recalls Ahtisaari. "In my mind it marks a new beginning, and I was very pleased.

"Obama was very clear about a two-state solution, and I thought [the speech] was a useful declaration of intent," he continues. "I am fully aware that the expectations are extremely high, but I hope that during the first term of office of president Obama, that the issue of Israel-Palestine will be solved, because it serves both parties.

"We have to get a Middle East settlement and now I think we have never had a better chance to find a solution to Israel-Palestine, and also the Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan situations."

The new US administration notwithstanding, Ahtisaari isn't planning to retire anytime soon."I got an honorary doctorate from University College London last year, and I was introduced to the audience over dinner, and the representative of the university introduced me as the ‘David Beckham of diplomacy'," he laughs. "I'm a football fan, so I was very pleased with that. When the evening was over I went to thank the gentleman who had introduced me this way, and I told him how right he had been with the comparison. After all, both Beckham and I have the same problem - how to retire gracefully."

Ahtisaari's enthusiasm is undimmed, and today he is in Doha to address the second annual Silatech summit, dedicated to education and job creation across the Arab world.

"One hundred million people in the Middle East are out of work," he points out. "You have to analyse how the economies of different countries in this region are developing, and where the jobs are coming, and then train people for those jobs and rally the support of the business community to work with them.

Every conflict in the world can be solved, and if we can’t with this political constellation we have at the moment, then we have failed miserably” as an international community.

"The onus is on both governments and the private sector; it varies from one country to another," Ahtisaari says. "There are huge differences - in some cases it takes more than a year to set up a new company, in others it takes a few days.

"You have to speed that up because who can wait a year to start a small enterprise? How enthusiastic can you be? You kill the enthusiasm if you don't simplify the process, and that has been a disadvantage in the Arab world," he adds.

Ahtisaari argues that the private and public sectors in the region should join forces to ensure that required training is available, and then that the jobs are there to be taken.

"When you speak to some people you hear that they have been through half a dozen training courses, and are still unemployed. So training is offered for the sake of training, and that must change," he says.

Governments must support research and development work, and enable the fast-tracking of entrepreneurs looking to establish small businesses, he adds.

While Ahtisaari accepts that it will be a "tough job" to provide employment for 100 million people, there are basic changes that must be implemented in order for the region's youth to have even a chance of fulfilling their potential.

"We must look also for financial institutions that are prepared to become entrepreneurs - it's not all about migrant workers," he adds. "It makes such a difference when you want to start a company and there is actually money available. In my experience, in my country, the sector that employs most people is small and medium-sized companies, not big companies."

The road to EuropeMiddle East peace aside, Martti Ahtisaari has brought his considerable diplomatic skills to bear on an issue closer to home: Turkey's bid to enter the European Union (EU).

Despite talks beginning in 2005, the Muslim country is still no closer to becoming a member and entry negotiations have been dogged by vocal opposition from key EU states, including Germany and France.

A member of the Independent Commission on Turkey, a think tank tasked with weighing up the thorny issue of Turkey's EU bid, Ahtisaari is firmly backing renewed talks.

"I have long been urging the EU to start the membership process with Turkey," he says. "I am not at all pleased, because there are groups on both sides that are trying to block the process. That is wrong. Now both sides must work better together."

Ahtisaari sees Turkey as a key pawn in Europe's efforts to build closer ties with the Middle East, and to broker Israel-Palestine peace.

"They were the ones who were the middle man between Hamas and the Egyptians in ceasefire talks, they are a very useful country for Europe, and a secular state, which is very important," he argues.

Now, European states must do more to smooth the path if Turkey's entry bid is to be resurrected, Ahtisaari believes. Should that fail, the EU will isolate a vital negotiation partner in its attempts to bring stability to the Middle East.

"Other EU countries are preventing progress, and it doesn't make the Turks any more interested in joining," he says. "There is a responsibility on both sides, and with Turkey there is... an important role to play with the Middle East."