Bridgebuilding without Foundations: Reflections on the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship in 2017

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Image courtesy of M. Rodgers/OSCE/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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.

OSCE Chairman-in-Office (CiO) Sebastian Kurz frequently used the metaphor of “bridgebuilding” to describe Austria’s main goal for its 2017 OSCE Chairmanship.[1] Building on the historical legacy of Austria’s constructive third-party mediation between East and West during the Helsinki Process in the Cold War, Austria wished to play a similar role in the current Cold War-type conflict between Russia and the West. During the Cold War, Vienna was a neutral space for summits and arms control negotiations, facilitating dialogue and rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union.[2]

Austria thus hoped to revive the OSCE in 2017 as a platform for East-West dialogue and to build greater trust to overcome the fundamental crisis of confidence between OSCE participating States. The Austrian Chairmanship planned to build bridges between Russia and the West and to find common solutions for common challenges. Vienna desired to extend the remarkable comeback of the OSCE since 2014 as an indispensable organization for dealing with the Ukraine Crisis and the crisis in European security.

A Bad Year for Multilateral Diplomacy

Unfortunately, the year of 2017 was not a good year for multilateral diplomacy or for the art of compromise. After a brief period of uncertainty about the course of US-Russian relations after the unexpected outcome of the US presidential elections in November 2016, US-Russian relations soon deteriorated again in 2017. There was no new “reset” in US-Russian relations, no détente, and no “Yalta II” deal between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Throughout its history, the bilateral relationship between Russia and the US has always been crucial for the CSCE/OSCE. By mid-2017, the relationship hit a new low. Cooperative efforts in the OSCE will be seriously hampered as long as the current hostility continues.[3] Or simply put: Currently, there are no foundations on which to build a bridge between Russia and the West.

Where is Today’s Gorbachev?

History hints at one crucial factor for facilitating détente and overcoming enemy images and mistrust at elite and societal level: political leadership. Gorbachev’s new thinking in the final years of the Cold War critically explains the peaceful transformation of Europe after 1989. Currently, neither Putin nor Trump seem poised to invest political capital in facilitating a return to diplomacy and building mutual trust.

Since 2014, Germany has assumed the lead as a bridge-builder between Russia and the West, emphasizing that a sound Western strategy needs to combine deterrence with a readiness for dialogue (“Harmel II”). Germany’s efforts have been assisted in the OSCE by the active chairmanships of Switzerland (2014), Serbia (2015), and Austria (2017), which have helped avoid a slide into a “Cold War II”. In August 2016, German Foreign Minister and then OSCE CiO Frank-Walter Steinmeier launched the OSCE Structured Dialogue. A year later, during a big OSCE conference on conventional arms control in Berlin, his successor Sigmar Gabriel invoked John F. Kennedy’s famous peace speech of June 1963 and Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik (“change through rapprochement”) to again argue for a Western policy of movement and détente.

Return to Dialogue

Austria tried hard to carry on Germany’s legacy as an active OSCE chair into 2017. The Structured Dialogue was officially launched in April 2017 outside Vienna, implementing the “Hamburg mandate” of the OSCE Ministerial Council in December 2016. While the Structured Dialogue has at times been misused for political propaganda and Cold War-type rhetorical battles (as, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained in his opening statement at the Ministerial Council in Vienna), it still stands as a first real step taken to re-launch a strategic dialogue with Russia. For Vienna-based OSCE expert Stephanie Liechtenstein, web editor-in-chief of the Security and Human Rights Monitor, the Austrian Chairmanship – together with Germany’s OSCE Ambassador Eberhard Pohl, who chairs the working group – successfully launched the Structured Dialogue and contributed to depoliticizing the atmosphere. “It helped to bring together Russia and the West to work on concrete issues of common concerns, such as the mapping study on military postures and exercises”, Liechtenstein emphasizes.[4]

That such a dialogue could take place while the Ukraine crisis was still unresolved and the status of Crimea contested represents a small victory for the voices who had been arguing for dialogue against the voices who warned against business as usual with Russia. At the Vienna Ministerial Council meeting, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson again emphasized that “we cannot seriously discuss new arrangements, at a time when existing arms-control arrangements are being violated”.

The Structured Dialogue empowers the OSCE to play its traditional role as a platform for dialogue. Dialogue requires listening and trying to better understand the other side – it does not equal appeasement or uncritical agreement with the other side. Dialogue is a fundamental element of diplomacy, and it is necessary to avoid miscalculation and unintended escalation, particularly in confrontational times like those we see today. OSCE Secretary-General Thomas Greminger urged all OSCE participating States in his opening remarks at the Vienna Ministerial Council to revive the impulse that drove the Helsinki Process: “Security begins with trust – and trust begins with dialogue.”

Small Steps in Ukraine and Transnistria

In 2017, the top priority of the OSCE and thus also the Austrian Chairmanship remained the Ukraine crisis. The security situation in Eastern Ukraine did not improve. Military activity intensified again and the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine worsened. In April 2017, the US paramedic Joseph Stone was killed while on patrol for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine. Despite all of this, the Austrian chairmanship succeeded in achieving a few small practical steps. For example, the budget and mandate of the SMM was substantially expanded to 105.5 million euros in the spring of 2017, which will allow for round-the-clock monitoring by the SMM with the latest technology, once the security situation has improved. More SMM patrols would make life easier for the local population.

Similarly, progress was reached in the protracted conflict between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transdniestria in 2017. A bridge between Gura Bicului and Bychok, which had been closed for 25 years, was opened, and university qualifications will be recognized. The so-called “Vienna Protocol” signed between chief negotiators from Moldova and Transdniestria on 28 November 2017 noted the progress achieved by both sides since the last “5+2 meeting” in Berlin in June 2016 and committed both sides to solve outstanding issues in the near future.[5] Stephanie Liechtenstein thinks it is fair to say that the reopening of the bridge across the Dniestr river, which serves as a key transportation corridor between Moldova and Transdniestria, can be considered a “groundbreaking decision”. According to her, it created “an overall positive atmosphere on the negotiations”, which led to the signing of four additional protocols on important areas, some of which had been unresolved for over ten years.[6]

In a Ministerial Declaration adopted in Vienna, OSCE foreign ministers applauded “the political will of the sides to resolve long-standing issues as well as the unified and active approach by the mediators and observers” in the “5+2 format” in 2017. Despite such encouraging steps, there is still no low-hanging fruit in the protracted conflicts in the OSCE space. Instead, such steps take form of the famous “golden millimeters” of progress, an expression coined by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis during the Lithuanian OSCE Chairmanship in 2011.

No Consensus on Fighting Radicalization

From the outset, Sebastian Kurz defined the threat posed by jihadist radicalization and terrorism as a top priority of Austria’s OSCE Chairmanship. He appointed the well-respected terrorism expert Professor Peter Neumann as his Special Representative on Countering Radicalisation and Violent Extremism. In late September 2017, Neumann presented his 80-page report with ideas, recommendations, and good practices on how the OSCE could sharpen its focus and improve cooperation.

At the Ministerial Council in Vienna, however, no consensus could be found for a Ministerial decision on this topic. This was rather surprising, as dealing with transnational threats in general and terrorism in particular has been one of the few topics of common concern.[7] That no decision could be adopted on one of Austria’s top priorities for its chairmanship was a severe blow to Kurz and the Austrian chairmanship. Austria has pledged to support the publication in 2018 of an OSCE manual on prevention of radicalization, a follow-up publication of the Neumann report, with 250,000 euros, and published a Chairmanship’s statement.

The Vienna Ministerial Council meeting could not find consensus language for a political Ministerial Declaration on OSCE action addressing the crisis in and around Ukraine either – the last such political Ministerial Council declaration was adopted in Porto in 2002. Also, it was not possible to adopt a statement on the conflict in Georgia or declarations on promoting military stability and security and the 25th Anniversary of the Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC). Nor could draft decisions on strengthening the participation of women in the security sector and on preventing and combatting violence against women be adopted in Vienna. For the third year in a row, no consensus could be found in the human dimension, even if draft decisions enjoyed the support of a vast majority of OSCE participating States.

In the end, only five substantial decisions could be adopted in addition to the Ministerial Declaration on Transdniestria. Agreement could be reached on Ministerial Council decisions on Small Arms and Light Weapons and Stockpiles of Conventional Ammunition (MC.DEC/10/17), on Promoting Economic Particpiation in the OSCE Area (MC.DEC/8/17), on Strengthening the Efforts to Prevent Trafficking in Human Beings (MC.DEC/6.17) and Strengthening Efforts to Combat All Forms of Child Trafficking (MC.DEC/7/17), and on Enhancing OSCE Efforts to Reduce the Risks of Conflict Stemming from the Use of Information and Communication Technologies (MC.DEC/5.17). The last decision confirms the pioneering role of the OSCE in adopting and implementing confidence-building measures to address cyber security challenges.

Ending the OSCE’s Leadership Crisis

In the end, the major achievement of Austria’s OSCE Chairmanship might have been the role it played in ending a leadership vacuum in the OSCE in mid-2017. On 1 July 2017, the OSCE experienced an institutional crisis of historic proportions. For the very first time in its history, the organization was without leadership. The four top jobs of the OSCE had not been re-appointed in time. It was only on 11 July 2017 that political agreement was reached on the vacancies, including the OSCE Secretary General. Skillfully, Sebastian Kurz convinced Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov not to continue to block agreement on a package deal on all four top positions. After compromise was reached, Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazachstan still criticized the fact that all four top jobs in the OSCE had been awarded to Western representatives – not respecting the geographical and regional balance within the OSCE. Still, Stephanie Liechtenstein agrees that the role Vienna played in helping to forge consensus to fill the four vacant leadership positions in July 2017 at an informal foreign minister meeting in Auerbach has been “the biggest success for the Austrian Chairmanship”.[8]

An Opportunity for Reforms

As argued elsewhere, the beginning of an era under a new OSCE Secretary General always generates momentum and fresh perspectives. The arrival of Thomas Greminger opened a window of opportunity to launch reform processes, in particular to increase the OSCE’s strategic multi-year planning and to strengthen the strategic capacity of the OSCE Secretariat. However, the time for reforms is now. In the course of 2018, the momentum for the new Secretary General to introduce innovative ideas will dissipate.[9]

2018 will probably remain a difficult year for cooperative security and the consensus-based OSCE. Italy will focus its 2018 Chairmanship on shared security concerns on both shores of the Mediterranean, dealing with migration and jihadist radicalization. Ukraine will remain a top priority and a huge challenge for the organization in 2018 and beyond. In the Transdniestria conflict, further “golden millimeters” of progress should be encouraged next year. Finally, the OSCE should make best use of its unique “convening power” and serve as a dialogue platform during the new “cold peace” between Russia and the West. The Structured Dialogue – which OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger in Vienna praised as the OSCE’s new “flagship dialogue initiative” – should again be used as a dialogue forum to reconcile differences and improve cooperation between Russia and the West. This could include potentially reviving talks on conventional arms control in Europe and the launch of an OSCE summit project, which for example would celebrate 30 years of the Charter of Paris in 2020 and re-establish a vision of a value-based security community from Vancouver to Vladivostok.


[1] See e.g. «Die schwierige Brücke nach Russland», in: Der Kurier (9 December 2016); «10’000 sind aufgebrochen, um zu vergewaltigen und zu morden», in: Die Welt (12 January 2017); «Österreich versucht den Brückenschlag», in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung (19 January 2017); «Kurz vermittelt im Kalten Krieg», in: (8 December 2017). See also Christian Nünlist, «The OSCE and the Future of European Security», in: CSS Analyses in Security Policy no. 202 (2017).

[2] See Benjamin Gilde, Österreich im KSZE-Prozess 1969-1983: Neutraler Vermittler in humanitärer Mission (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2013); Christian Nünlist, «Aktiv neutral in der KSZE», in: Zeitreise Österreich 1 (2016), pp. 64-65.

[3] See Christian Nünlist, Reviving Dialogue and Trust in the OSCE in 2018 (Zurich: CSS/ETH, 2017), p. 7.

[4] Interview with Stephanie Liechtenstein, Web Editor-in-chief, Security and Human Rights Monitor, 18 December 2017.

[5] See Stephanie Liechtenstein, „Vienna International Talks on Transdniestria Achieve Significant Progress“, in: Security and Human Rights Monitor, 29 November 2017.

[6] Interview with Stephanie Liechtenstein, 18 December 2017.

[7] According to background talks with several OSCE insiders, Turkey refused to agree with the draft decision. Two reasons were given for Ankara’s refusal. First, Kurz has repeatedly made clear that Turkey had no place in the EU after the failed 2016 coup and tried to convince the other EU capitals to stop accession negotiations with Turkey. Second, Turkey had vehemently protested the inclusion of a Turkish NGO (the Journalists’ and Writers’ Foundation, JWF) with ties to an organization led by US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey blames for masterminding the failed July 2016 coup d’état. Turkey had attempted to ban JWF from the OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in September in Warsaw and walked out of the meeting.

[8] Interview with Stephanie Liechtenstein, 18 December 2017.

[9] See Christian Nünlist, Reviving Dialogue and Trust in the OSCE in 2018 (Zurich: CSS/ETH, 2017), p. 7.

About the Author

Dr. Christian Nünlist is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zürich and leads the CSS Think Tank team “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security”. Since 2016, he has also been a member of the steering committee of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions. He is the author of The Road to the Charter of Paris: Historical Narratives and Lessons for the OSCE Today (2017, with Juhana Aunesluoma and Benno Zogg); Reviving Dialogue and Trust in the OSCE in 2018 (2017); Contested History: Rebuilding Trust in European Security (2017), The OSCE and the Future of European Security (2017).

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit the CSS website.

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