Prague, 29 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The OSCE has a problem on its hands.
In the most immediate sense, that problem is about money:
"The OSCE currently has no agreement on its budget for 2005," says Keith Jinks, a spokesman for the OSCE. "And the situation is that now, as we approach the end of the first quarter, there is a certain tension and that inevitably has been a subject of discussion -- a behind-the-scenes, continuing discussion -- to try to find a way of resolving the budget issue."
Jinks spoke with RFE/RL today amid media reports that Moscow is threatening not to pay its contribution to the 2005 OSCE budget unless the organization agrees to focus less on democracy and more on security issues.
He says the OSCE is trying to address Russian concerns, noting that a special panel is looking into criticisms leveled against the OSCE last summer by a Russian-led group of former Soviet countries.
That panel is due in June to deliver recommendations on possible reforms to the current OSCE chairman -- Slovene Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel.
Its refusal so far to contribute to this year's budget means the OSCE will soon have to adopt an emergency, month-to-month budget that will make launching any new or important initiatives nearly impossible.
But while future reforms may shift the OSCE's resources away from Europe and toward Central Asia, Jinks says its mission will not be compromised.
"[Rupel has] said that human rights are non-negotiable," Jinks says. "He made that very plain. He said that there are basic standards and these can't be adjusted on the grounds of improving the security situation in the world. In other words, human rights do remain paramount in the role of the organization."
Last year, Russia contributed about $10 million to the 55-nation OSCE, which operates on the basis of consensus among its members.
Its refusal so far to contribute to this year's budget means the OSCE, according to Jinks, will soon have to adopt an emergency, month-to-month budget that will make launching any new or important initiatives nearly impossible.
The budget issue appears so acute that, according to a report in today's "International Herald Tribune," the European Union recently circulated a confidential document asking member states to help support the OSCE's $240 million budget -- or risk its collapse.
Jinks, for his part, rejects that possibility.
"It's not a question of the organization being in any way paralyzed or coming to any kind of crisis point," he says. "But obviously, it's not a satisfactory situation, and it's not one that the chairmanship of the organization wishes to see continue for any day longer than it has to."
Russia has long been vocal in its criticism of the OSCE, whose missions have provided guidance for democratic dissidents across the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Last July, Moscow led a group of eight other former Soviet states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan -- in a statement that accused the OSCE of not respecting the national sovereignty and internal affairs of the countries in which it operates.
Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have since had popular political uprisings that came on the heels of strong OSCE and Western criticism of their election processes. And the once pro-Russian government of Moldova, which also signed the statement, has since turned toward the West.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised about the possibility of political change coming in next year's scheduled polls in Kazakhstan and Belarus. Under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus has consistently criticized the OSCE mission in Minsk, officially downgrading its status in 2002.
"Clearly, it's not just with the OSCE that relations are tense," says Dafne Ter-Sakarian, a Eurasia analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London. "Clearly, Russia is increasingly concerned about 'Western interference' in its traditional sphere of influence. So, it's got to try to curtail this if possible. [Withholding money from the OSCE] is one way that it's attempting to do so."
Russia also accuses the OSCE of ignoring what it sees as discrimination against Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia, while spotlighting human rights and democracy shortcomings in other former Soviet countries.
But the "International Herald Tribune" quotes the confidential EU document as saying, "At the heart of the present crisis lies a more fundamental 'values gap.' Russia's main problem with the OSCE concerns those things we most value in it -- its monitoring of human rights and democracy."
The original mandate of the OSCE, which dates to 1975, was to focus on human rights, but also security and economic issues.
Russia now says it wants to "balance" those three areas. But the OSCE's Jinks says the organization has always principally been about human rights and democracy.
EIU analyst Ter-Sakarian believes Russia's threats are merely tactical. She says Russia's foreign policy is keenly focused on gaining entry to and influencing key international institutions such as the OSCE -- not on leaving them.
"It's more of a brinkmanship game," she says. "The most Russia can hope for is for the OSCE to be sort of conciliatory. Russia can't really afford to walk away from these institutions, because they're the only foothold it has on being an international player at all."
Still, Russian rhetoric continues to heat up.
Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the international affairs committee of Russia's upper house of parliament, was quoted at the weekend as saying, "Unless the OSCE is reformed drastically, it will have no future."