“Today, the OSCE is not the organization over which foreign ministers are racking their brains when they wake up early in the morning.” This was how Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore characterized the state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the end of Ireland’s presidency in 2012. A year later, however, the OSCE for once finds itself in the headlines. Just a few days before a routine meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Kyiv, the Ukrainian government – which holds the 2013 OSCE presidency – decided to move the country closer to Russia by breaking off trade negotiations with the European Union. In the run-up to the meeting, police violence against peaceful protesters and the biggest street demonstrations since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” dominated the scene in Kyiv.
In response to Ukraine’s actions, only half of the 57 OSCE members sent their top personnel to Kyiv. US Secretary of State John Kerry deliberately boycotted the event, and Britain and France sent deputies in lieu of their foreign ministers. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, decided to meet with Serbian and Kosovar leaders in Brussels instead. By not attending this year’s ministerial meeting, Kerry and others did the OSCE a disservice. For 40 years the organization has been a powerful symbol of dialogue and the search for consensus and compromise between East and West. Boycotts and deliberate snubs may be useful for alliance-building and zero-sum games, but they are not in keeping with the “spirit of Helsinki” or the principles of cooperative security.
Criticizing the Host Country
Many Western countries used the Kyiv Ministerial to criticize the Ukraine for its use of force against pro-Western protesters and even for its pro-Russian policy. Acting as Catherine Ashton’s deputy, Helga Schmid lectured her Ukrainian hosts, reminding them that “all civil rights and liberties, in particular the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly, need to be respected.“ German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle warned the Ukrainian government that “how it responds to pro-European rallies is an indicator of how serious the Ukrainian presidency is about the principles and shared values enshrined in the OSCE.“ In the same breath, Westerwelle also sharply criticized Russia for “building up a threatening posture and exerting economic pressure,“ calling both “simply unacceptable“. His Swiss colleague Didier Burkhalter emphasized that “neither Ukraine nor any other state should have to decide between East and West” and called for “dialogue and restraint from force”.
The British Minister for European Affairs, David Lidington, drew a line under these remarks, warning that “the eyes of the world are on Ukraine now, and that will continue to be the case after the close of this Ministerial meeting.” For her part, Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, clearly sided with the protesters. “There should be no doubt,” she said, “about where the United States stands on this. We stand with the people of Ukraine who see their future in Europe and want to bring their country back to economic health and unity.”
Assessing the Ukrainian Chairmanship
With the Kyiv Ministerial, the Ukrainian OSCE presidency ends with a ‘bang.’ But the presidency was controversial from the beginning. In 2012, the OSCE reprimanded the Ukraine for the lack of transparency and impartiality in its parliamentary elections. The country has also been criticized for its imprisonment of opposition leaders. In particular, the case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in prison since 2011, has provoked international protest. As a result, many EU leaders boycotted the European Football Championships in the Ukraine in 2012. On the whole, censorship, control by the intelligence services, and the encroachment of state power have all increased since President Victor Yanukovych took office in 2010.
By consensus, the Kyiv Ministerial meeting made decisions and declarations on the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion, on fighting human trafficking, on innovative measures to build confidence in cyberspace, on improving the living conditions of the Roma and Sinti, and on the protection of energy networks in the event of disasters. Notably, this was the first time in three years that the OSCE had passed resolutions in the area of human rights protection.
Nevertheless, despite Ukraine’s best efforts and some progress in the “5+2” talks, no breakthrough was possible in the search for a solution to the “frozen” territorial conflicts in the Southern Caucasus. Similarly, all activities in the realm of historical reconciliation were overshadowed by the “new cold war” between Russia and the West and growing mutual mistrust.
Swiss Priorities for 2014
On 1 January 2014, Switzerland will assume the presidency of the OSCE, with Didier Burkhalter serving as Chairman-in-Office. In a recent interview, Burkhalter mentioned that the “political environment in the Western Balkans is more favorable than it once was.” Because of this, he felt that the OSCE could “significantly contribute” to a détente between Belgrade and Pristina. Other focal points of the Swiss presidency will be mediation in the Southern Caucasus and modernizing conventional arms control in Europe. In these areas, however, “progress is much more difficult to achieve”, Burkhalter said, dampening expectations. “The conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria,” he pointed out, “have been unresolved for 20 years, and it would be presumptuous to expect big breakthroughs in 2014.” In terms of modernizing the OSCE arms control regime, Switzerland aims to substantially update the Vienna Document to meet the demands of the 21st century.
Switzerland also plans to focus on the fight against terrorism and against the phenomenon of kidnapping for ransom as a source of terrorism financing. Switzerland will host an OSCE conference on this topic in April 2014 in Interlaken.
In Kyiv, Switzerland together with Ukraine and Serbia, presented a roadmap for the OSCE reform process called “Helsinki+40“. Ahead of the OSCE’s 40th anniversary in 2015, reforms are planned in eight areas that will strengthen the organization. Didier Burkhalter also asked the 56 other OSCE members for high-level political engagement in three areas:
- First, the OSCE should intensify its work on non-traditional threats, such as terrorism and environmental challenges.
- Second, the consecutive chairmanship model should be institutionalized and ministers should be involved in more regular strategic dialogue in addition to regular thematic summits.
- Third, an eventual OSCE summit in Serbia should not take place automatically but be made contingent on enough progress being made in the Helsinki+40 reform process.
Independently, Burkhalter also urged the OSCE to think about mid-term planning beyond the 40th anniversary.
Recent developments between Russia and the West do not augur well for the OSCE and the Swiss chairmanship in 2014. Indeed, for the next 12 months, Didier Burkhalter will have to think quite a lot about the OSCE when he gets up in the morning. While the 2014 OSCE presidency represents a huge challenge, it is also a unique opportunity for neutral Switzerland.
Christian Nünlist is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. He is the co-editor of Origins of the European Security System: The Helsinki Process Revisited, 1965-75 (London: Routledge, 2009) and the author of Die Schweiz ist eine Mini-OSZE: Perspektiven auf das Schweizer OSZE-Vorsitzjahr 2014 (Zürich: CSS, 2013).
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