Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 216

Not since 1991 has an international conference entailed such high stakes for so many of the post-Soviet countries as does the current summit in Istanbul of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And it is symbolically appropriate–for it signifies a full turn of the wheel of history–that such a summit should be held in the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, dubbed “the sick man of Europe” during its inexorable decline. The European diplomacy of the time proved by and large unsuccessful in managing the empire’s turbulent disintegration, which gave rise to a number of nation-states, but also enabled Russia to make sweeping annexations in the South Caucasus and around the Black Sea. Later the Soviet Union expanded into the former Ottoman domain in the Balkans, rounding off its spoils from the “sick man’s” legacy.

The holding of the summit in Istanbul highlights the systemic transformations and reversal of roles which have taken place in the OSCE area. Turkey, an economic powerhouse and pillar of NATO, is also a valued and active political partner of the independent states which emerged from the ruins of the Russian and Soviet empire. Post-Soviet Russia has stepped into the role of sick–if blustering–man of Europe. Yet the OSCE’s record to date is hardly more impressive than that of the erstwhile “Concert of Europe” in dealing with the challenges of post-imperial reorganization.

The agenda of this summit is replete with chronic problems and crises, first and foremost in the sphere of regional security and conflict resolution, but also in the area of democracy and human rights. The problems have been allowed to fester for years as a result of the OSCE’s built-in limitations and weaknesses.


President Alyaksandr Lukashenka went to the summit in the unique posture of a head of state bent on extinguishing his country’s sovereignty by attaching it to another country. And, by the same token, President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia is the OSCE’s sole country to openly prepare to absorb another member country. Yeltsin and Lukashenka are due to sign a Treaty of Union of Russia and Belarus on November 26, barely one week after the OSCE’s summit. Although many expect that document to be largely declarative, Yeltsin and Lukashenka have made clear that the merger proceeds gradually and that the impending treaty represents a stage in a planned process of political unification. Moreover, Russia-Belarus military cooperation is developing on a parallel and faster track. The OSCE has been slow to turn its attention to this gathering crisis, and is currently handling one of its dimensions–that of the suppression of democracy and human rights in Belarus–while avoiding the other dimension which involves potential Russian re-expansion in Europe.

Lukashenka, whose presidential mandate legally expired in July of this year, disclosed three main goals for this summit: securing acceptance of his exclusive right to represent Belarus, raising the quota of weapons deployment in Belarus under the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, and supporting Russia’s position on “combating terrorism” in general and on the war in the Caucasus in particular. “Russia and Belarus are going to the summit with joint positions. The Foreign Affairs Ministries and the two presidents have fully coordinated their positions,” Lukashenka announced (Itar-Tass, Belapan, November 17-18).


On the eve of the summit, the Russian government took an initial step toward reducing its military presence in Moldova. The Russian command in Tiraspol loaded military equipment onto three railroad convoys [“echelons”] bound for Russia, and it pledged to dispatch another ten convoys until December 31, 1999. Concurrently, the Russian command in Moldova announced that it has completed the destruction of untransportable ammunition and explosives, and began scrapping surplus combat hardware in the presence of the staff of OSCE’ Mission to Moldova and in the limelight of the media. These measures, taken hurriedly just ahead of the OSCE summit, seek to preempt the adoption of a strongly worded resolution that would require Russia to remove the equipment and withdraw the troops by an early date. Yet as the American head of the OSCE mission in Chisinau, William Hill, pointed out, these are first steps in the right direction.

Previous meetings of the OSCE had adopted resolutions which called for an “early, orderly, unconditional, monitored”–the adjectives multiplied from one meeting to the next–removal of Russian forces from Moldova. The Russian side largely ignored these resolutions while the OSCE did not seem to treat the problem as a priority. The current summit, however, promises to be different in this respect. Moldova seeks the removal of Russian forces within two years, through December 2001; Russia proposes a withdrawal calendar of five-and-a-half years; and the summit seems likely to result in a compromise which would at least have the merit of committing Russia to a clear and specific withdrawal schedule. No fewer than eleven OSCE member countries have announced their readiness to monitor the withdrawal and share some of its financial costs (Flux, Basapress, November 15-18).

Azerbaijan and Armenia

The assassination of key Armenian leaders on October 27 dealt a severe setback to the U.S.-promoted negotiations between Presidents Haidar Aliev and Robert Kocharian toward settling of the Karabakh conflict. The much-anticipated framework document on the principles of a settlement will not be signed at this summit. Only a general declaration of intent to continue the negotiations is now expected to be issued by the two presidents. Yet their pre-summit statements sound encouraging in that they seem to reflect a fresh approach to the problem.

For the first time, Aliev is being quoted as saying that the resolution should be based not solely on the principle of territorial integrity of states, but must also to some degree accommodate the principle of national self-determination, leading in practice to a high level of autonomy for Karabakh in some form of association with Azerbaijan. Kocharian for his part is cited as renouncing the demand for the full independence of Karabakh and as accepting the logic of his predecessor as president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosian, who had argued that Armenia’s economic development imperatively requires an accommodation with Azerbaijan and with Turkey. The two presidents are expected to continue their direct negotiations during the summit in Istanbul and to make quiet progress, which will not be codified in a formal document but will spur follow-up negotiations.

The promising development of these unmediated negotiations highlights the failure of the OSCE’s mediation effort. Undertaken by the “Minsk Group,” which is co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France, that effort has led nowhere in the last five years because of Russia’s ability to manipulate the process in its own interest. That, in a nutshell, reflects one of the OSCE’s main built-in weaknesses. It was the American intercession for unmediated Armenian-Azerbaijani talks, outside the framework of the OSCE–yet to be ultimately blessed by it–which rescued these negotiations from impasse (Turan, Noyan-Tapan, November 15-18).

It is this accumulation of unresolved problems which raises the stakes of this OSCE summit, both for the newly independent countries directly affected and for the great powers involved.