Austria’s 2017 OSCE Chairmanship concentrated on improving the situation of civilians in conflicts, countering the danger of radicalization and rebuilding trust within the OSCE. Yet, deteriorating US-Russian relations prevented substantial successes of an engaged Chairmanship.
The OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, held in Belgrade from 3 to 4 December 2015, was the final highlight of the Serbian OSCE Chairmanship of 2015. With the fading Serbian OSCE presidency, the direct co-responsibility of Swiss diplomacy for the OSCE ends as well. It needs to be recalled that in the fall of 2011, Switzerland and Serbia had teamed up and successfully campaigned for a “double chairmanship” of the OSCE for the years 2014 (Switzerland) and 2015 (Serbia).
Yet, at that time, more than four years ago, Switzerland and Serbia could not have imagined that under their tandem chairmanship, the OSCE would play a central role in the biggest geopolitical crisis in Europe since 1990. In the Ukraine Crisis, the OSCE suddenly played a leading role after having almost lapsed into irrelevance in the years before.
The Swiss presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was dominated by the escalating Ukraine Crisis. Dealing with one of the worst crises in the Euro-Atlantic area since the end of the Cold War was a huge challenge for Swiss diplomacy. Switzerland emerged as an innovative, impartial, and effective crisis manager, but the Ukraine Crisis also clearly demonstrated the limits of the consensus rule within the OSCE. In the end, it led to a serious erosion of trust in the security architecture designed in 1975 and fully implemented after 1990.
With the conclusion of the 21st Ministerial Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – held in Basel on 4-5 December – Switzerland’s 2014 Chairmanship of the organization can now be assessed. As Swiss Ambassador to the OSCE Thomas Greminger has argued since April of this year, the Ukraine Crisis has been both a curse and an opportunity for the OSCE.
“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.