Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 137

Russian President Vladimir Putin engages in political and diplomatic battles over Ukraine as if it is his personal Stalingrad. Many liberal or just moderately independent commentators in Moscow argue that there was no need for him to take such a one-sided position and that the role of an even-handed arbiter could have brought Putin plenty of dividends (Ekho Moskvy, November 26, 27;, November 26;, November 24). Other experts point out that some lessons should have been drawn from the unnecessary and clearly counter-productive interference in presidential elections in Abkhazia (Moskovskie novosti, October 8). It is clear, however, that the very idea of competitive elections is so incompatible with Putin’s model of “managed democracy” that the space for political maneuvering narrows down to a straightforward and often clumsy backing for the “right” candidate.

Russia’s massive push for the “pro-Russia” candidate in Ukraine, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was thus pre-determined, but it has brought a far sharper conflict with the West than Putin has expected (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 26). Facing a united and clearly articulated position from the United States and the EU, Moscow has struck back in a rather unexpected direction — against the OSCE. The first punch was delivered by Putin at a press conference in Portugal, where he accused some anonymous actors of exploiting this organization for “tactical aims” and indicated that it would “continue to miss authority at the international arena and lose its very reason for existence” (Kommersant, October 24). In its first statement on the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized, in the best Soviet traditions, “some European capitals” for rejecting the results of the elections and for advancing the “thesis” that Ukraine “should be with the West” (, November 26). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov soon shifted away from this anonymity and made a frontal assault on the OSCE, accusing it of “double standards” and “intrusive mentorship” in an article published in the Financial Times (November 29).

It might appear puzzling that Moscow has decided to focus its criticism on this particular organization, which indeed produced well-documented reports on both rounds of the Ukrainian elections but remained firmly in line with other Western institutions. Despite the very tense Russia-EU summit in The Hague, presidential adviser Sergei Yastrzhembsky insisted that relations remained on track and the impression about their worsening was entirely wrong and influenced by the attitudes of some new members of the Union (Interfax Diplomatic Panorama, November 29). Despite several firm and unambiguous statements from the United States, including first-hand impressions by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) in a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lavrov made every effort to find a common ground (,, November 30). Indeed, the EU is too important a partner for Russia to pick a quarrel with, and Moscow might hope to settle every disagreement with an offer that President George W. Bush would not be able to reject: sending Russian troops to Iraq (Kommersant-Vlast, November 15). As for the OSCE, it appears to be an ideal scapegoat.

Russia has been dissatisfied with the trajectory of this organization for quite a long time, perhaps since it took a pro-active role in trying to bring the first Chechen War to an end in summer 1996. It tried half-heartedly to present plans for strengthening the OSCE as an alternative to NATO enlargement, knowing that the chances were less than slim. In fact, the most cherished Russian idea about this widest of European institutions that will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year has always been to create a top executive body modeled on the UN Security Council, with a few privileged permanent members and veto rights. This idea remains unattractive for most and unacceptable for a good half of the 55 member-states, who see no good reason for granting Russia such an opportunity to advance its interests. Moscow, acknowledging this dead end, takes very little interest in the activities of such key organs as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights or the High Commissioner on National Minorities, seeing them as practically useless minor irritants. What might have been a source of deeper anger is the OSCE report on the March 2004 presidential elections in Russia, which “did not adequately reflect principles necessary for a healthy democratic election” (the report is available at the OSCE website at

Russia has had no particular problems with the current Bulgarian OSCE chairmanship, but it has no reason to look forward to the annual Ministerial Council in the first week of December. Lavrov is professional enough to understand that such exercises in hair-splitting as the request to delete the mention of discussions about Ukraine from the Joint Statement from the EU-Russia summit would not suffice to cover his rear in Sofia (Interfax Diplomatic Panorama, November 29). Hence his “pre-emptive strike” against the OSCE with accusations of “working towards dividing countries” and hints that the very survival of this organization cannot be taken for granted.

It may be interesting to note that even firm Russian allies do not quite share this point of view. For example, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev expressed gratitude to the OSCE for the help in strengthening the Kyrgyzstan’s law enforcement system on the same day that Lavrov’s article appeared in the Financial Times (Interfax Presidential Bulletin, November 29). Scape-goating the OSCE might turn out to be not such a great maneuver after all — and it will definitely not help Russia to pull itself out of the self-made trap of self-isolation.