OSCE REVIEW : European Security vol 15, numero 1/2008
Sinikukka Saari

Riven by disagreement and mistrust, the OSCE needs to regain its political and moral clout, argues Sinikukka Saari. But how?

At the Helsinki Summit in 1975, President Urho Kekkonen stated that
’security is not gained by erecting fences; security is won by opening
fences’. The OSCE is founded on the principle of comprehensive and
cooperative security. Comprehensiveness means that alongside
traditional politico-military issues human rights, democratic rule and
good governance, the environment and the economy are seen as important
components in building a secure and safe Europe.

Cooperativeness means that cooperation on all of these issues is
encouraged between the now 56 participating states. Cooperation is
believed to strengthen confidence and trust among the participating
states, which enhances common security in the OSCE area. Cooperation
has been further strengthened by an ambitious set of common values,
norms and related commitments after the collapse of communism in
Central and Eastern Europe.

However, now the OSCE is in deep crisis. Trust among the participating
states is dwindling away and new dividing lines are emerging. Both the
concept of cooperative security and common values seem to be out of
fashion, and this reflects directly on the OSCE’s capacity to carry out
its tasks.

Hard security under duress

In recent years, new politico-military tensions have risen between the
US/NATO and Russia. The US has preferred unilateral action to
complicated and time-consuming multilateral consultations on hard
security issues. The US withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty
in 2001 and now plans a missile defence system with interceptors
located in Poland and radar in Czech Republic. This has angered Russia.
Russia sees US plans as a strategy of containment that is hostile
towards Russia. Russia has responded by a threat to target Europe with
nuclear missiles if the US plan is taken further.

In 2007 Russia made international headlines by withdrawing from the CFE
treaty. The withdrawal was a response to the fact that no NATO states
have ratified the Adapted CFE treaty. The act may have severe
consequences: this may be the beginning of the end of the whole arms
control treaty regime closely associated with the OSCE.

Russia and the US also disagree on a number of other security issues:
the establishment of US bases in Romania and in Bulgaria and the
potential of NATO enlargement in the future to the states in the
Russian neighbourhood.

Russia feels betrayed by the western states with regard to military
security and arms control issues. It has now decided to take a
political offensive against western unilateralism. The Russian
disappointment at and anger towards the West is tangible. Trust and
good will between Russia and the western participating states have been

Values at odds

Trust has also evaporated in the OSCE’s human dimension. In many
post-Soviet participating states the liberal democratic euphoria of the
1990s has turned to bitter scepticism about common values and normative
commitments. The suspicion of democratic ideals and practices has
reflected directly to the cooperation within the OSCE’s human
dimension. Russia, Belarus and many Central Asian participating states
have called the once-agreed common values and norms into question.

In particular, the standards and practices of international election
observation developed within the Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights (ODIHR) has been under attack. Russia has accused the
office of blatant and politically motivated interference in the
internal affairs of participating states. According to the Russian
narrative, international election observers and democracy promoters
encouraged unconstitutional action in Ukraine and Georgia that brought
down democratically elected leaders in those countries. On the other
hand, many in the West and in the countries concerned saw these colour
revolutions as democratic uprisings against undemocratic practices,
corruption and election fraud. The political undertone of Russia’s
claims of double standards is apparent. In order to secure its material
interests, Russia supports semi-authoritarianism in the neighbouring

Russia and its supporters in the East have made concrete proposals on
how to reorganise the election observation within the OSCE. Election
observation should be restricted and downscaled, and the preparation
and publication of reports should be subjugated to the direct control
of all participating states. According to the proposal, any
participating state could block the publication of critical reports or
set tight limits to the duration and size of observation missions. In
practice Russia would like to lower the current standards – which are
said to reflect ideal practices – so that they would reflect the
average of election practices within the OSCE area. The ultimate goal
seems to be to shut down meaningful and professional assessments of
elections in the post-Soviet space.

New consensus needed

The OSCE is currently an organization torn by internal divisions,
suspicion and mistrust. Paradoxically perhaps, these rifts in
themselves demonstrate that a confidence-building security organization
would indeed be needed today. Unfortunately the OSCE is not able to
generate trust or inspire common security among its participating
states because it has lost basic consensus on its mission and its

The 2008 Finnish OSCE chairmanship has pledged to do all it can to
reinvigorate the organization and the idea of cooperative security it
is based on. Finland plans to achieve this by fostering
’result-oriented co-operation’. In practice this means increased
efforts to solve protracted regional conflicts in Moldova and in the
Caucasus, more efforts to the border management projects in Central
Asia, more attention to maritime and inland waterways cooperation
between the participating states and the promotion of tolerance and
non-discrimination as well as combating trafficking in human beings.

The issue of protracted conflicts is clearly the most ambitious item on
the Finnish chairmanship agenda. While progress on the settlement of
these conflicts would definitely improve OSCE’s image and the general
atmosphere within the organization, it would be a mistake to assume
that this would be enough to salvage the organization. As important as
conflict resolution and border security are, they won’t contribute
substantially to a new basic consensus within the organization.

What would be needed to save the OSCE is courage to address the
fundamental issues head-on, courage to admit that the crisis of
election observation is not just about ’bridging the gap of five days’
between the ODIHR and Russia, or some other technical matter. The
underlying problem is really about political substance and moral
legitimacy of the whole organization.

In a recent report director of the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE)
Wolfgang Zellner recommended that the OSCE should start open-ended
high-level consultations on a new consensus on the OSCE’s
politico-military and human dimensions. Although this would be a risky
strategy, it could save the organization by bridging the dividing lines
and mistrust that have paralyzed the organization.

See: http://www.osce.org/documents/cio/2008/01/29299_en.pdf