Addressing a recent gathering of war veterans in Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the short conflict that pitted his country against Georgia last summer once again demonstrated the expediency of developing "new, truly reliable approaches to ensuring international security."
"We agree with Russia that the existing security architecture needs improvement," Georgian Foreign Ministry official Sergi Kapanadze commented in response to Medvedev's remarks. However, he said that in Tbilisi's view it is unthinkable that a country that "is violating all international documents and agreements" should initiate a new security system.
The exchange epitomizes the debate that has been stirring the international community ever since Medvedev first outlined plans for a new, legally binding European security treaty -- one that would replace the politically binding 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe and 1999 Istanbul Charter for European Security.
In a speech he delivered in Berlin last June, Medvedev suggested that an "all-European summit" be convened to draft a new security arrangement to govern relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community. He indicated that the new pact should attempt to build on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. If final product, under Medvedev's scenario, would be a "Helsinki Plus" agreement that created new guidelines for inter-state relations.
At the time of Medvedev's Berlin speech, ties between Russia and the West had already been damaged by NATO's continued eastward expansion, Washington's missile defense plans, Moscow's decision to suspend its participation to the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, and Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence. The August 2008 Russian-Georgian war and the subsequent Russian-Ukrainian natural gas dispute further strained those relations.
Despite recent improvements in Russia-EU and Russia-NATO relations, Georgia, Ukraine, the three Baltic States and most Central and Eastern European countries -- all states that view NATO as the main pillar of Europe's security -- remain either openly hostile to, or extremely wary of the Russian security proposal.
By contrast, Azerbaijan and members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization -- a Russian-led regional body that brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- support Medvedev's plan.
While neither rejecting, nor adhering entirely to Russia's views, western European nations say the Russian proposal deserves consideration, despite the fact that it contains "more questions than answers."
In a joint editorial published in France's Le Monde daily on February 3, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they were "ready to debate" Medvedev's proposal "with [their] allies and with [their] European partners, and to consider everyone's point of view." At the same time, they implicitly cautioned against undermining existing international security agreements and structures.
"We shall reiterate our confidence and commitment to the E[uropean] U[nion], NATO, and the O[rganization for] S[ecurity and] C[ooperation in] E[urope], to the tried and tested European standards underpinning our security, to the arms control and disarmament regime, and to trans-Atlantic cooperation," the two European leaders said.
Critics of Medvedev's proposal say they fear it seeks to weaken the OSCE and the EU, and to eliminate the CFE Treaty. While dismissing those claims, Russia makes no secret that it wants to put an end to what it calls NATO's supremacy over European security.
"NATO's eastward expansion plans are reproducing the outdated logics according to which one can achieve one's own security without taking the security of others into account and thus, instead of helping solve the problem, they [NATO members] become part of it," Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko told the annual Vienna winter meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on February 20.
"As a result, Europe's dividing lines continue to multiply instead of disappearing," he added.
In Grushko's words, Russia's "western partners" have nothing to fear from Medvedev's offer. "There is neither a false bottom, nor a hidden agenda in the Russian proposal; there is a willingness to step by step restore confidence, whose erosion is the source of many problems," he said.
If Russia and the West seem to agree on the nature of the disease, they disagree on the remedy.
Russian participants to the OSCE PA meeting maintained that a new treaty would be the best way to allay mutual suspicions and fears. European representatives, in turn, said that restoring mutual trust would require Moscow to resume its obligations under the CFE Treaty and to demonstrate its commitment to OSCE democracy standards. "What we need is more political goodwill, not a new treaty," Latvia's right-wing parliamentarian Janis Eglitis said in response to Grushko's address.
In a bid to dismiss those concerns, the Russian diplomat said Moscow supported a German proposal to hold consultations on the CFE Treaty in June. Grushko also rejected claims that Russia is seeking to water down its OSCE commitments to election monitoring, media freedom and other international human rights standards. "We do not question the agreed mandate of the OSCE, which rests on a comprehensive approach to security, including on its human component," he told the assembly.
Yet, he reiterated Moscow's longtime claim that the OSCE is paying too much attention to human rights issues to the detriment of the political and military dimensions of security. "Therefore we propose to focus our attention on the most problematic spheres of hard security, where we've been further falling behind year after year, and where, unfortunately, the role of the OSCE as an organization that could really strengthen the security of all its participants is obviously weakening," Grushko said.
While Western participants to the OSCE PA meeting said they viewed the OSCE as "the most appropriate" forum to discuss Europe's security, Grushko made it clear that Moscow views the Vienna-headquartered organization as just one possible forum. He added that discussions at the OSCE should focus on arms control issues and other aspects of political-military security.
Despite persisting reservations in Central Europe, there seems to be a general understanding that discussions with Russia should be continued. However, there is still no consensus on the format for future consultations.
Sarkozy's suggestion that a summit of OSCE heads of states and governments take place in mid-2009 to inaugurate consultations on the Russian plan has so far met limited acceptance. The Greek chairmanship of the OSCE remains non-committal on that issue, saying that it is ready to host meetings "at any level" to facilitate further dialogue.
"[Let us] make haste slowly," Greece's Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said during the February OSCE PA meeting. Bakoyannis pointed out that it took more than 2,400 meetings and deliberations on more than 4,600 proposals to reach consensus on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.
OSCE officials say they believe no decision on a possible high-level meeting to discuss the Russian plan is likely to be made until the Russian and US presidents hold their first meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in London on April 2.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.