What future for the OSCE?

What future for the OSCE?

The re-emergence of a political East and West is just one issue that the OSCE must tackle or else render itself irrelevant. From EurasiaNet.

By Jean-Christophe Peuch for EurasiaNet (15/02/08)

Finland‘s foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva, who took the helm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 1 January, believes the time has come to build what he calls “a new spirit of Helsinki.”

“We cannot afford to let this organization, with its more than 30 years of history, fade away,” Kanerva told reporters in Vienna in January, shortly after briefing the OSCE’s Permanent Council on the priorities of his 12 month-chairmanship.

In other words, the world’s largest regional security organization must reverse to the fundamental principles of the Helsinki Final Act, which, at the height of the Cold War, gave birth to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

For nearly 15 years, the CSCE served as an important multilateral forum for dialog and cooperation between East and West during the last years of the Cold War. When it became the OSCE three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were widespread expectations that the European continent would soon become “whole and free.”

Yet, this dream never came true and a number of OSCE participating states are still ruled by authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In addition, old divisions are now re-emerging, raising the specter of renewed confrontation between the former Cold War enemies and threatening the very foundations of the OSCE.

Mounting disagreements among the organization’s 56 participating states have made it impossible for OSCE annual ministerial councils to adopt final declarations since 2002. Last year saw those divergences further deepen and, despite a last-minute agreement to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship of the organization in 2010, all other divisive issues remain.

In Kanerva’s view, what the OSCE needs most at the moment is “a new injection of optimism and positive spirit.”

Indeed, one would hardly find reasons to be optimistic in the working paper the Hamburg-based Center for OSCE Research (CORE) released in mid-January.

Called “Identifying the Cutting Edge: The Future Impact of the OSCE,” this report – which was commissioned by the Finnish Foreign Ministry in anticipation of its upcoming chairmanship – says the organization is experiencing “a crisis of both political substance and moral legitimacy” that may take years to rectify.

“The best that can be hoped for the OSCE in 2008 is that the damage resulting from current and forthcoming disputes will be minimized, while, at the same time, conditions for a more ambitious effort to reframe the basic consensus among the participating states are fostered,” the report says.

In the view of European, American and Russian experts who helped draft this 38-page document, the OSCE’s core values – common and cooperative security, shared norms and commitments, and inclusive dialog – are “in acute danger.”

“When key norms such as cooperative security and democracy and human rights are ignored or challenged, the OSCE’s legitimacy is in danger,” those experts say.

Among factors that are undermining the organization is what the report identifies as “the re-emergence of a political East and West” and “the resurgence of unilateral military thinking” in both the United States and Russia.

Citing the potential danger posed by Iran and other so-called rogue states suspected of seeking to develop nuclear arsenals, the United States has been pressing plans to deploy missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. In parallel, it is considering establishing military bases in Bulgaria and Romania, while mulling further eastward expansion by NATO.

Russia, which believes those US initiatives represent a threat to its security and a violation of international disarmament pacts, in December suspended its participation to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. OSCE officials are now concerned other CFE states – Armenia and Azerbaijan, in particular – might follow suit and in turn freeze their treaty commitments. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In recent days, Russian leader Vladimir Putin indulged in some neo-Cold War behavior, threatening to aim Russian nuclear-armed missiles at Ukraine and other Central European nations if they embrace NATO too tightly. Appearing at a US congressional hearing, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Putin’s rhetoric “reprehensible.”

In his recent address to the OSCE’s Permanent Council, Kanerva vowed to help Russia and other CFE states resolve their differences through dialog in order to save what is commonly described as the cornerstone of European security. “The future of the [CFE] Treaty should be secured. An erosion of the Treaty regime should be avoided at all costs,” he told reporters afterwards.

The OSCE’s politico-military dimension is not the only one that is being challenged. Its so-called human dimension is also under serious pressure.

Moscow has been increasingly critical of the work of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which it accuses of political bias and holds responsible for ushering in new, Western-oriented governments in Georgia and Ukraine in the wake of disputed elections held in 2003 and 2004, respectively.

ODIHR is an autonomous institution that reports directly to the OSCE’s chairman-in-office. Russia and another six CIS countries last year drafted a series of proposals which seek to bring ODIHR under the control of participating states and reduce both the scope and size of its election-observation missions in former Soviet republics.

The United States and Western European countries object to the proposed Russian-sponsored reform, saying it aims to weaken the OSCE’s election-monitoring activities.

The dispute culminated when ODIHR, citing delays in the issuing of Russian entry visas to its observers, refused to monitor the December 2007 State Duma election. This, in turn, prompted the Kremlin to threaten to further cut its contribution to the OSCE budget. In yet another dramatic twist, ODIHR last week said restrictions imposed by the Kremlin would not allow it to observe the March 2 presidential ballot.

At his annual news conference 14 February, Putin had derisive words for ODIHR. “I don’t think anyone is tempted to deliver any ultimatums to Russia today, especially an organization with an acronym sounding so bad to the Russian ear as ODIHR,” Putin said.

“We invited 100 people [OSCE monitors]… [They think] it’s too few for them,” Putin continued, referring to the March election monitor-dispute. In a departure from the infamous saying often attributed to Marie Antionette – “Let them eat cake” – Putin told ODIHR that instead of offering lessons in democratization, it should “teach [their] wives how to make shchi [the Russian word for barley soup].”

The ODIHR controversy is just the tip of the iceberg. It stems from much deeper divergences among participating states about what the organization’s agenda should be. Reconciling those conflicting visions is perhaps the greatest challenge that is awaiting Finland and its designated successors – Greece, Kazakhstan, and Lithuania – in the years to come.

While accusing the OSCE of neglecting arms control issues, Russia claims the United States and other Western countries are using the organization as a vehicle to promote their own pro-democracy agenda. Washington, in turn, believes issues related to Europe‘s security should be dealt with in forums where Russia has no say – such as NATO – and that the OSCE should focus more on the promotion of human rights and democracy.

“For a number of Western states, the OSCE is primarily a human dimension organization that is expected to be active primarily South and East of Vienna, whereas arms control is seen as peripheral at best and dangerous at worst,” the CORE report says. It adds: “The test for Western states, particularly for the [United States], will be whether their interest in the human dimension and ODIHR is greater than their current distaste for multilateral arms control.”

The CORE experts believe Moscow‘s intentions remain similarly ambiguous. “Does Russia‘s renewed interest in [the] field [of arms control] reflect genuine concerns? Or does it rather represent an effort to introduce a political currency more to Russia‘s liking than the human dimension? Or is it even an effort to divert attention from attempts to weaken ODIHR?” they ask.

They further argue that only serious consultations among participating states can help answer those questions and find a “new basic consensus” on the substance of the OSCE’s politico-military and human dimensions.

They also recommend that, for the sake of preserving the unity of the OSCE “as a community of shared values, norms, and commitments,” high-level discussions be held within the organization on the meaning and different forms of democracy. This, they say, will help “keep the democratic option open for all participating states.”

While acknowledging that such an undertaking involves considerable political risks, the CORE experts argue that failure to address those issues “might involve even greater risks” for the OSCE.



Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.

EurasiaNet provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. The website presents a variety of perspectives on contemporary developments, utilizing a network of correspondents based both in the West and in the region. The aim of EurasiaNet is to promote informed decision making among policy makers, as well as broadening interest in the region among the general public. EurasiaNet is operated by the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.



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