The agonizing organization has not been able to hold a summit since 1999 due to its diminishing relevance and has not managed to adopt a joint political declaration since 2002 due to Russian vetoes. The Helsinki conference at this year’s end is unlikely to do any better.
Russia, however, is offering the OSCE a Faustian bargain. It wants an OSCE summit to create a new, Euro-Atlantic-Eurasian security framework that would override NATO and give Russia—on a par with NATO, the United States, and the European Union—a decision-making role in the new, overarching framework. This would result in an OSCE-like system, with Russia as a veto-wielding party.
The OSCE’s 2008 chair, Finland, is willing at least to entertain that idea: short-term, in order to rescue the Helsinki conference from its annual ritualized collapse; and medium-term, to recapture Finland’s 1975-1990 international role as host and symbol of a “Helsinki process.” Finland’s state presidency and some politicians may even leap at this chance to cement Finland’s neutral status against growing public support in the country for ending this Soviet-bequeathed anachronism and joining NATO. Thus, the OSCE’s Finnish chairmanship is calling for a start to discussions of the Russian initiative at the Helsinki year-end meeting, referring to it as a Franco-Russian initiative after France seconded the Russian concept (OSCE’s Finnish Chairmanship, letter to the ministerial meeting participants, November 26).
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the EU’s presiding country until the end of this year, has blindsided his NATO and EU allies, almost certainly baffled his own diplomats, and clearly pleased the Kremlin by endorsing the mega-summit initiative of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during the EU-Russia talks in Nice on November 14. Sarkozy seemed to act on impulse on that occasion, as he has often done as national leader and during his agitated presidency of the EU. Eager to play facilitator between the West and Russia and to prolong its international prominence after the end of its EU presidency, France is now claiming co-sponsorship of Medvedev’s proposal within the OSCE.
Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council’s final session preparatory to the year-end ministerial conference, France called for an OSCE summit in 2009 on the security of Europe, portraying it as a Franco-Russian initiative. France submitted this proposal to the OSCE in its own name, not on the EU’s behalf. Indeed the EU has had no chance to debate, let alone form a consensus, on this issue. France did not mention it when speaking on the EU’s collective behalf at the same session (Permanent Council documents, November 14).
Russia’s invasion of Georgia is overshadowing the OSCE despite the organizers’ efforts to push that issue into the background. The EU’s collective stance as presented by the French is phrased in general terms that do not even hint that a war has just taken place and a military occupation is continuing. The situation in Georgia figures only indirectly, as number three among three operational priorities, listed in the Finnish chairmanship’s letter to ministerial meeting participants. Those three priorities are listed as: promotion of democracy and human rights, political-military security cooperation among OSCE countries, and finally “settling unresolved conflicts in the OSCE area.”
In the same document, however, Finland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Stubb, the OSCE’s 2008 chairman-in-office, acknowledged as a personal note:
The armed conflict in Georgia shook us all. We had for too long failed in our prime task of finding a peaceful and lasting political solution to unresolved conflicts. Our omission turned into an armed conflict. We can not let this happen again. The task in Helsinki will be to recommit our states to OSCE principles and redouble efforts that threaten our common security.
Since the Russian invasion, Stubb has spared no effort for securing the return of the OSCE’s Georgia mission to its area of responsibility in South Ossetia. The Russians, however, have stonewalled Stubb’s efforts and those of his Finnish compatriot, OSCE Mission Chief Terhi Hakkala. Finnish diplomats intend to pursue the issue directly with Moscow after the year-end conference but, lest Russia spoil the show again, are trying in the meantime to downplay the Georgia situation at the Helsinki event for the sake of a “successful” or at least unperturbed conference.
Romania took the unusual step of speaking on its own behalf in the Permanent Council, after France had spoken on behalf of the collective EU. Romania added a call for the OSCE to insist that Russia fulfill its 1999 commitment to withdraw its forces from Moldova and Georgia, as part of its obligations under the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Romania cautioned participants in the year-end meeting that the “crisis in Georgia translated into diminishing the credit that the OSCE presence in the region had enjoyed” (Permanent Council documents, November 17).
This view is shared by many in the OSCE and EU who were, as Stubb noted, “shaken” by the Russia-Georgia conflict. But for almost two decades the OSCE has proven incapable of coping with the post-Soviet conflicts and other hard-security issues because of its structural weaknesses, including Russia’ s veto power within the organization. It would be a fatal error for publicity-seeking leaders to transfer the OSCE’s weaknesses and the Russian veto to some overarching security framework built on the OSCE’s foundations.