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OSCE: Blunt Russian Criticism Raises Specter Of Crisis

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Russia has sharply criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and has warned that it is considering withholding its budget contributions unless the OSCE overhauls its work methods. The Russian criticism came at a stormy foreign ministers' meeting in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and follows previous complaints by a number of former Soviet states. Does this herald a crisis of confidence in the 55-nation east-west security body?

Prague, 8 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not mince words when he heaped criticism on the OSCE at its annual ministerial meeting in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Lavrov told journalists yesterday that instead of bringing East and West together as it is supposed to do, the pan-European security body is creating divisions among its members.

"Everything must be done to prevent our organization from developing an identity crisis. And that danger does exist. Unfortunately, I have to note that the OSCE's comparative advantages are eroding. I believe we all know what double standards and imbalance we are talking about. The organization is ceasing to be a forum uniting nations and peoples. On the contrary, it is beginning to bring division among them," Lavrov said.

The thrust of Lavrov's remarks are clear when measured against an article he wrote in the "Financial Times" last month. Lavrov said in the piece that OSCE members are unfairly divided into "mentors" and "pupils."

He said the former -- Western countries -- are correct in everything while the latter -- former Soviet states -- are always wrong. The result, he said, is that the OSCE is losing credibility and dividing countries rather than uniting them.

Ukraine emerged as the divisive issue in Sofia. At a heated meeting of OSCE foreign ministers on 6 December, Russia objected to the OSCE's approach to the Ukraine crisis, calling it meddling. Moscow also blocked a Western-backed declaration that would have called on all parties in Ukraine to cooperate in a fair rerun of the country's disputed presidential elections.

Moscow supported pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine's 21 November vote, and was clearly irritated when Ukraine's Supreme Court annulled his victory on grounds of fraud after two weeks of street protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of playing "sphere of interest" politics in Ukraine -- a charge dismissed by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Sofia.

Lavrov pointed out what Moscow sees as the OSCE's way forward when he held out the prospect for what he called for less political meddling and more cooperation from OSCE member states.

"The OSCE is not a hopeless [organization]. There are things that need to be improved within OSCE, [things] that very seriously need improvement. But there are also some things which need to be strengthened and this is, as I already said, a depoliticized, professional approach when handling political spheres of cooperation," Lavrov said.

Ukraine was not meeting's the only point of contention.

The Russians also objected to the OSCE's election-monitoring operations and attitudes toward the question of Russian troops in Georgia and parts of Moldova. Further, Moscow criticized the OSCE's position that the recent elections in Belarus were not democratic.

Secretary of State Powell in turn implicitly criticized Russia, saying Moscow must fulfill a pledge to withdraw troops from Georgia and Moldova before the United States will ratify a European troop-reduction treaty.

Moscow's latest broadside follows previous criticism of the OSCE over the past year.

In July, the leaders of Russia and five other former Soviet republics criticized it for being ineffective in promoting stability and security. They also said the OSCE has failed to help solve economic problems.

OSCE spokesman Richard Murphy defends the work of the OSCE, but says it is up to the members to decide what sort of organization they want.

"I think the OSCE is effective, but there are legitimate grounds for discussion among the countries as to where they want to put the emphasis, or whether they want to change the emphasis of our work either geographically or thematically," Murphy said.

Murphy told RFE/RL that reform is ongoing. For instance, the Sofia meeting made a decision to enhance the role of the OSCE's secretary-general, to make the office more effective. It also decided to set up a panel of eminent persons to discuss what roles the OSCE should take in future.

One big grievance among eastern members is that the OSCE still spends the biggest share of its resources in Southeast Europe, despite what are seen as more pressing needs in Central Asia and Caucasus. Central Asia, for instance, receives only one-tenth of the resources allocated to Southeast Europe.

Murphy said it's up to the member states to change that situation if they want.

"This is up to the participating states, when they decide the annual budget, they decide the allocation of resources. It is up to the countries themselves, there has been a gradual shift in resources over the last few years, but it has not been dramatic," Murphy said.

With decisions at the OSCE taken by consensus of all 55 members, quick action on redefining the role and focus of the OSCE is hardly to be expected.