In itself the announcement represents a diplomatic victory for Moscow, which has long been seeking to boost the OSCE's role in politico-military issues to counterbalance that of NATO.
Forum For Debate
In his annual state-of-the-nation address to the Federal Assembly on April 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the dispute over Washington's missile-defense plans went beyond U.S.-Russian relations and concerned "all European states, including those which do not belong to NATO."
He went on as saying he believed the issue should be debated at the OSCE.
"It is time to put some real content into the activities of the OSCE, make this organization face the problems that are causing the peoples of Europe alarm and stop just splitting hairs in the post-Soviet space," Putin added.
Two days later, OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos said in a statement he "agreed" that the organization "was an appropriate forum to discuss Washington's missile-defense proposals."
The Spanish foreign minister further suggested that the issue be debated at the Forum for Security Cooperation -- the OSCE's main decision-making body on politico-military issues -- and at the organization's Annual Security Review Conference that is scheduled to take place in Vienna in June.
Neither Russia nor the United States has officially reacted to Moratinos' initiative.
Addressing an international security conference in Munich on February 10, Putin denounced what he described as "attempts to turn the OSCE into an unsophisticated instrument to promote the foreign-policy interests of individual countries, or groups of countries, toward other countries."
Although Putin did not elaborate further, it was clear his attack targeted the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
The Warsaw-based body, whose priority task is to assess elections in the OSCE region, has criticized most parliamentary and presidential ballots that have taken place in the former Soviet Union since 1991 as failing to meet democratic standards.
In a February 28 interview with Russia's "Rossiiskaya gazeta" official daily, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described ODIHR as a "politicized organization."
In Lavrov's words, ODIHR "can no longer continue to exist as it is for it operates on the basis of instructions that are invented by employees of the office and that are not appraised by governments."
Lavrov also criticized unspecified states for refusing "to bring any changes to the functioning of ODIHR."
In the opinion of Julie Finley, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Putin's Munich statement should be read as "a prelude to not inviting" the OSCE to monitor Russia's upcoming parliamentary and presidential polls.
"It is time to put some real content into the activities of the OSCE, make this organization face the problems that are causing the peoples of Europe alarm and stop just splitting hairs in the post-Soviet space." -- Putin
Yet, Moscow's hostile attitude toward ODIHR goes back a long way.
Russian officials have blamed the bad marks given by ODIHR election missions in Georgia and Ukraine for the political overhauls that took place in those two countries in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
At a CIS summit in July 2004, the heads of states of Russia and eight other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) issued a letter accusing the OSCE of interfering in the internal affairs of its participating states and calling for a fundamental refocusing of its priorities and activities.
The signatories accused ODIHR of carrying out "politicized" election-monitoring activities and OSCE field missions of focusing exclusively on human rights issues while neglecting the organization's other two dimensions -- politico-military and economic-environmental.
Responding to the letter, the U.S. delegation at the OSCE stated that "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy, and the rule of law is at the core of the [organization's] comprehensive concept of security."
The dispute stems from what one observer, Ales Gaube of Slovenia's "Dnevnik" daily, once described as the "incompatible and inflexible visions" of Russia and the United States.
Russia has long been seeking to put ODIHR under the supervision of the OSCE's Permanent Council, which would have to approve all of the office's election reports. Since all decisions at the OSCE are made on a consensual basis, this would effectively give Russia and other CIS countries a veto over ODIHR's decisions.
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns once described ODIHR as "the gold standard worldwide in election monitoring."
Other longtime Russian demands include boosting the OSCE's role in the politico-military and economic-environmental fields and curtailing extra funding some Western countries give the organization above their annual budget contributions. The money is frequently used to fund democracy-building projects in the OSCE's field offices. Russia and other critics have no control over voluntary contributions.
Washington strongly opposes curtailing the OSCE's human-rights dimension and stripping ODIHR -- which U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns once described as "the gold standard worldwide in election monitoring" -- of its autonomy.
Although U.S. State Department officials praise the role the OSCE has played in managing Europe's recent security challenges, Washington's views on the organization's role in the military aspect of security compared to that of NATO are less explicit.
The 2000 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) -- which was drafted under President Bill Clinton -- says the OSCE "has a key role to play in enhancing Europe's stability [and] provides the [U.S.] with a venue for developing Europe's security architecture in a manner that complements [Washington's] NATO strategy."
Released two years into President George W. Bush's administration, the 2002 NSS does not mention the OSCE even once. Tellingly, it describes NATO as "the fulcrum of transatlantic and inter-European security," while reducing the European Union to the role of Washington's "partner in opening world trade."
The 2006 edition of the NSS contains only one reference to the OSCE, which is listed among regional organizations that could help the United States promote "effective democracy."
Kazakh Leadership Chances
Critics of this vision include Kazakhstan, which has applied to chair the OSCE in 2009.
Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council on April 30, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin mentioned ODIHR's contribution to reforming his country's judicial system and election laws. But he also clearly indicated that, should Kazakhstan take the helm of the OSCE, it would put the emphasis on security, economic, and environmental issues.
While welcoming Astana's "expressed interest in moving forward with implementation of political reform," U.S. Ambassador Finley urged Kazakhstan to "address the structural issues which restrict basic freedoms and limit the ability of [its] citizens to influence their government."
U.S. officials have said that Kazakhstan cannot lead the OSCE unless it makes substantial progress in the field of human rights and democracy building.
Addressing a conference in Astana on April 20, Russia's envoy to the OSCE, Aleksei Borodavkin, said refusing Kazakhstan the opportunity to chair the organization would "once again" show that "one state, or one group of states, has usurped the right to issue political reprimands and teach other states how to live, shape their domestic policies, and promote democracy."