US and European Union diplomats will be looking to reinvigorate the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe when a Ministerial Council meeting convenes in Vilnius, Lithuania, on December 6-7. High on the meeting agenda is a proposal to create a diplomatic rapid reaction team.
During the past few years the OSCE has seen its reputation as Europe’s foremost democratization organization slip significantly. A sub-grouping of member states, at the center of which is Russia, has pushed to neutralize the OSCE’s human rights and election monitoring capabilities. The OSCE also has been exposed as ineffectual as a vehicle for conflict resolution, underscored by its tentative performance in response to Kyrgyzstan’s social upheaval in 2010, as well as by the stalemated Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The organization is likely to face new challenges in the coming years, especially those arising out of the planned withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014. US and EU diplomats see the creation of a team of diplomatic trouble-shooters as a possible way to keep the potential for fresh upheaval to a minimum. But, as is often the case when it comes to the OSCE, Russia is seen as an obstacle to innovation.
“I anticipate some problems with this,” a senior OSCE official told EurasiaNet.org, speaking on background.
“We want this kind of rapid deployment. We have to empower the chair-in-office and the CPC,” the OSCE official added, referring to the Conflict Prevention Centre, the sometimes timid Vienna-based office charged with responding to crises.
Russia is reportedly opposed to the rapid-response initiative because it doesn’t want to see any new, outside meddling in the situations in Georgia or Trans-Dniester. But it’s important to note that Moscow is not alone in its opposition to the rapid-reaction idea. Turkey, for one, doesn’t like it due to concerns about how it might impact Ankara’s long-running disputes with Cypress or Greece. Thus, to secure approval, the proposal would have to avoid naming any specific existing conflict. One possible workaround is to target only new crises going forward.
Even if the OSCE can forge the consensus needed to give life to the rapid-reaction diplomatic team, it is uncertain how effective such trouble-shooters can be. Recent experience doesn’t inspire confidence.
Amid the violence and displacement in southern Kyrgyzstan during the summer of 2010, then-interim president Roza Otunbayeva begged the international community to take action to protect civilians. But OSCE officials found the mood on the ground to be unreceptive, even hostile. “There was a lot of suspicion in the south about Westerners coming in,” said the OSCE official. “We can’t go where we’re not wanted.”
Otunbayeva also asked the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to intervene, but Moscow declined. Even if Russia would have agreed to deploy CSTO peacekeepers, “the Uzbeks would not have consented,” said the OSCE official.
The OSCE belatedly attempted to send a 52-person Police Advisory Group to Osh, but local authorities resisted accepting even unarmed advisors on the ground. In the end, the effort crumbled into a series of training visits.
Despite its flaws, the OSCE is still seen as the go-to venue for advancing both democratization and security goals. There are indications that quiet diplomacy conducted under OSCE auspices still yields results, such as the recent release of Turkmen journalist Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev from official custody. Rights activists contend that Yazkuliyev’s jailing was politically motivated.
The United States has not given up on the OSCE’s ability to promote and protect individual rights, evidenced by the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to participate in the Vilnius gathering. In addition to pressing for the diplomatic rapid-reaction mechanism, US diplomats plan to unveil an Internet freedom proposal that is designed to broaden web access for citizens in the OSCE’s 56 member states. The plan reportedly has the support of 20 states. The OSCE’s Ministerial Council is the group’s main decision-making body.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick writes about human rights issues in Central Asia. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona and Sifting the Karakum blogs.