The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is readying for a summit meeting in Istanbul this autumn, its first top-level gathering since 1996. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the rush to prepare for the summit, and the challenges facing the organization.
Prague, 1 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the Austrian capital, Vienna, there's a quiet sense of urgency these days among the diplomats attached to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Dark-suited envoys with briefcases scurry in and out of the OSCE's headquarters near the city's elegant opera house. They are trying to put the finishing touches to a formal "OSCE Security Charter." If it's ready in time, the document will be signed by the heads of state or government of the 55 member states at a summit in Istanbul in November (Nov. 18-19).
Under the chairmanship of Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, the diplomats are racing to complete the charter, which the OSCE is calling a pillar of the common house of Europe.
The term "Europe" is used here in an extended sense, as the OSCE members encompass nations stretching from the United States and Canada, through Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus and Central Asia. In fact, as the OSCE extends around the northern hemisphere from Vancouver to Vladivostok, it can claim to be the biggest regional security organization in the world.
OSCE spokesman Mans Nyberg told RFE/RL that, in a nutshell, the planned security charter distills and codifies practices that the organization has developed over the years. It will put in place a general outline of the bilateral and multi-lateral mechanisms designed to increase security among members.
The charter is based on the OSCE's founding principle of enhancing security through cooperation. It is meant to be the centerpiece of the two-day Istanbul summit, which is also set to adopt the "Vienna Document." That's an improved version of the present information exchange system between member states on their military activities.
The Istanbul gathering is the organization's first full summit since the Lisbon meeting of 1996, and as Nyberg put it:
"It comes at a crucial point in the history of the OSCE where, in Kosovo, we have the largest field mission of the OSCE that has ever been established, and we are playing a crucial role in the whole Balkans area."
Kosovo is expected to be a major theme of the summit. In that province, the OSCE is using the experience it gained earlier in post-conflict rehabilitation in Bosnia. Hopefully, says Nyberg, the mistakes made in Bosnia will not be repeated in Kosovo.
The organization is working on long-term democratization in Kosovo, by helping create proper electoral processes, helping the media develop, and training legal and administrative personnel. A training school for police is also being opened, and the OSCE considers this to be an important step toward creation of a civil society.
Observing elections has always been an important task of the OSCE, and one of the most contentious. Member states are obliged to allow the OSCE to monitor the fairness of their electoral processes, and this has sometimes led to harsh criticism.
In the Central Asian region, for instance, the Tajik parliamentary elections of 1995 were criticized as full of irregularities. And in Kazakhstan, the OSCE even refused to send a full observer team to the elections this past January because of so many perceived irregularities in pre-election campaigning.
Next in line is Uzbekistan, which has requested OSCE observers to cover its parliamentary and presidential elections in December and January. As Nyberg puts it:
"In all these cases, the governments are still very keen to have the OSCE there to observe, which shows they really want to be regarded as striving toward democratic credentials and a democratic society, which is a positive thing."
Turkmenistan, however, appears to be emerging as a possible exception to that picture, in that it has not yet extended an official invitation to the OSCE to send observers to its December parliamentary elections.
The OSCE lists the chances of instability in Central Asia as one of its worries, considering the general fragility of the region and the fighting that persists in Afghanistan, on the borders of three OSCE member states (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).
But the region also has what the OSCE sees as success stories. For instance, the political progress in Tajikistan, where the government and opposition are now proceeding to implement their peace agreement.
Elsewhere, the OSCE must contend with further intractable problems, such as the chronically unstable Caucasus region, and what it calls the "frozen conflict" over Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
The OSCE is a comparatively young organization, having sprung out of the east-west Helsinki security process of the 1970s. As Nyberg put it, the OSCE sees itself as still evolving as a guardian of democratic Europe.