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OSCE: Diplomats Review Proposals For Reform

  • Roland Eggleston

Top diplomats from the 55 member-states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meet in Vienna today and tomorrow to review proposals for making it more effective. Negotiations have been under way since the beginning of the year to meet Russian criticisms that the organization is dominated by Western policies and that some of its operations need to be modernized. But Western diplomats reject any attempt to weaken the OSCE’s committment to human rights and free and fair elections. This week's meeting is expected to approve a set of recommendations that will be considered by the OSCE foreign ministers conference in Ljubljana in December.

Vienna, 12 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Russia forced the OSCE to consider changes in its operations a year ago when it blocked the budget until Western countries agreed to study its ideas.

Most Western delegations acknowledge that 30 years after the OSCE was founded in 1975, its institutions are in need of a shake-up. They also acknowledge that the European Union has become a competitor to the OSCE in some political areas and it must adapt if it is to maintain its credibility.

A Dutch political expert, Jan-Herman van Roijen, believes OSCE’s future may depend on the way it responds to the challenges it is now facing. “At present the OSCE is confronted with serious challenges to what it will be able to provide in future years," Van Roijen told RFE/RL. "In other words -- the basic question of its political relevancy. The OSCE is clearly at a crossroads."

Russia’s wish list covers many fields. Among its less-publicized demands is a change in the system of military confidence-building measures that were agreed in the 1980s after years of negotiations. They limit the size and type of ground and air forces in Europe and require prior notification of some military activities. At the time the Confidence and Security Building Measures (CSBM) agreements were regarded as a major step forward in European security. But Russia now describes them as “obsolete" and wants them replaced by new agreements.

While military/security matters are high on Russia's list of priorities diplomats report that it is equally persistent in its efforts to undermine the West’s focus on human rights and the promotion of democratic values in former Soviet countries.

Russia is particularly critical of the OSCE’s most sensitive agency, the Office of Democratic Institutions (ODIHR), which is responsible for election monitoring. Russia dislikes its custom of issuing a comment on elections soon after the polls close. In Russia's view, ODIHR should submit its reports to the Permanent Council in Vienna and allow it to decide whether they should be published.
Some Western countries believe the OSCE could improve election standards by sending teams to the country concerned long before the election to train monitors and help voters understand their rights.

Skeptical Western diplomats point out that all agreements at the Permanent Council must be unanimous so it would be simple for any country to kill an unfavorable report by refusing consensus.

Some Western countries believe the OSCE could improve election standards by sending teams to the country concerned long before the election to train monitors and help voters understand their rights.

Recently, Russia has alleged that some Western election monitors interfere in the internal affairs of the country to which they were posted. Among the critics is Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who told a meeting in Vienna in April that some countries try to use the electoral process to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Some Russian officials claim that Western election monitors played a role in the postelection upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The accusations are rejected by international election experts

Hrair Balian, an election specialist at the Geneva Institute of Strategic Studies in Switzerland, describes these allegations as "totally incorrect." Balian told RFE/RL that Western election-monitoring teams, including those from the ODIHR, went out of their way for years to warn the leaders of these countries that trouble would strike if they did not introduce honest elections.

“In all three countries -- the ODIHR for years and years, if not for a decade, has been pointing out violations, flaws, and even fraud in the electoral process," Balian said. "And it has made extensive recommendations to remedy these problems but to no avail. No one paid attention...or if they did, very little attention was paid, [only] lip service was paid to the ODIHR recommendations.”

Russia’s other major demand is that the OSCE should stop accepting extra funding from Western countries above their annual budget contributions. The money is frequently used to fund democracy-building projects in the OSCE's field offices. Because the extra funding is private, Russia and other critics have no control over its use.

Russia is also pressing the OSCE to become a "legal entity" like the United Nations or the European Union. At present it remains just an “organization” or “conference.”

One of the benefits of becoming a legal entity is that OSCE staff would be entitled to diplomatic passports. However, the United States has strongly resisted giving this status to OSCE and has refused to give its agreement.