Priority High, Expectations Low: Lithuanian Chairmanship Tackles Protracted Conflicts in the OSCE

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 23

Lithuanian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Audronius Azubalis.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Audronius Azubalis, outlined the chairmanship’s priorities in the Permanent Council’s September 13 and subsequent meetings, as well as statements and introductory visits by his special representatives (BNS, Delfi, January 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, February 1).

The protracted conflicts cumulatively are a top priority of the Lithuanian chairmanship, not in terms of bringing solutions, but of advancing negotiation processes or ameliorating the situation on the ground. This chairmanship’s overall goal is to promote conflict-resolution in a peaceful and negotiated manner, within existing negotiation formats, and in full compliance with international law. Lithuania regards this as a “main obligation” of the OSCE. Indeed, the organization has held mandates during almost two decades to handle the conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Karabakh, as well as a minor role in Abkhazia (where the UN held the mandate). However, Russia’s veto power inside the OSCE paralyzed the organization all along, as evidenced again at the December 2010 Astana summit.

Azubalis has appointed Ambassador Giedrius Cekuolis as the Chair’s special envoy to deal with the protracted conflicts. From the outset Cekuolis cautioned that the Lithuanian chairmanship would be far from “revolutionary.” The OSCE “measures progress in millimeters. However, each millimeter is as good as gold…This chairmanship’s main goal is to create stable conditions for peaceful negotiations” (BNS, January 4).

International involvement is shifting increasingly from conflict-resolution goals toward confidence-building attempts with Tiraspol, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. This shift implicitly acknowledges chronic failure to dislodge Russia’s forces and proxies from Moldova’s and Georgia’s territories. Russia’s invasion of Georgia and repudiation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, narrowed Western options, setting the stage for engagement with secessionist authorities. The underlying logic presupposes reaching out directly to these authorities over Moscow’s head, though short of any recognition, in hopes of laying groundwork for some long-term solution. The EU with its superior resources is leading this process, while an under-resourced OSCE has relegated itself to a back seat on Transnistria, and has been evicted from Russian-occupied South Ossetia (a fate shared by the UN in Abkhazia).

The conflict in two territories of Georgia is finally acknowledged internationally as a Russia-Georgia conflict, after 17 years of pretending that Russia was peacekeeper and mediator in a pair of local conflicts. In Moldova, however, the same fiction about Russia’s role is still accepted internationally after 19 years. Chisinau and Tiraspol are being defined as the “parties to the conflict,” obscuring the actual inter-state conflict between Russia and Moldova.

In Georgia, the OSCE’s Lithuanian chairmanship will support confidence-building through the Geneva process, in which the OSCE participates despite having been forced out from the country. The chairmanship proposes to “restore a meaningful OSCE presence in Georgia,” to deal with both the security situation and humanitarian issues. This clearly implies an effective presence in Russian-occupied South Ossetia, as part of a mission with a Georgia-wide mandate. Moscow, Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, however, want any international presence to be negotiated directly with Tskhinvali and Sukhumi authorities, so as to look like quasi-recognition. The OSCE’s presence in Georgia was always hostage to Russia’s veto power at the organization’s Vienna headquarters. Moscow paralyzed and micro-managed that field mission for many years, before dictating the termination of OSCE’s Border Monitoring Operation in 2005 and removing the field presence from South Ossetia in 2008.

In Moldova, the chairmanship will work for re-launching official negotiations on the Transnistria conflict after five years of inactivity in the 5+2 format (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, EU, US, Chisinau and Tiraspol). That format operated for only four months until Moscow and Tiraspol scuttled it in March 2006, protesting against the EU’s border assistance mission for Moldova (which Moscow and Tiraspol have by now learned to accept). The 5+2 format has only operated as unofficial consultations in the last five years. Since Moldova’s internal political crisis erupted almost two years ago, Russia has argued that negotiations would be pointless in the absence of a credible and predictable government in Chisinau. Once that situation is conclusively resolved, however, Moscow will run out of excuses for blocking the resumption of official international negotiations.

On the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the Lithuanian chairmanship intends to help re-energize the negotiations within the “Minsk Group” of 11 mediating countries, operating since 1992 under OSCE’s aegis. In practice, the group’s triple chairmanship of Russia, United States, and France drives the process, with Russia clearly leading in terms of frequency and high level of meetings with the parties to the conflict. With this, Moscow seeks to strengthen its leverage on Armenia even further while gaining a degree of leverage on Azerbaijan. The US looks far less engaged than Russia with this issue. Washington handles the process at ambassadorial level, versus Russia at the presidential level. During 2009-2010 Washington almost derailed the process by breaking the linkage between Armenian troop withdrawal from Azerbaijani districts adjoining Upper Karabakh and a reopening of the Turkey-Armenia border. France, acting in a national capacity in this process, holds a co-chairman’s seat that could be the EU’s, particularly since the Lisbon Treaty and the EU’s common foreign and security policy went into effect.

Strengthening the OSCE’s early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and resolution capabilities may be a noble-sounding endeavor, but counter-productive in practice. Russia’s veto has time and again blocked or scuttled such initiatives in the OSCE. Moscow strongly defended its veto power on OSCE decisions during the Astana summit in December 2010. As long as Russia’s right of veto persists, the OSCE will continue failing as a security actor. Endowing the OSCE with such functions could suggest that those needs are met when this would not be the case in Europe’s East.