The bustling Turkish port of Istanbul prepares to host what's shaping up to be an important and possibly contentious international summit. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke writes that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting this week is being seen as an important test of the organization's credibility.
Istanbul, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Istanbul, one of the great crossroads of civilization, lies spread out in full splendor on the hillsides beside the Bosphorus.
The minarets and domes of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia soar above the city, telling of a rich spiritual legacy that has helped form this place over the centuries.
Throughout its history, filled with glory, greed, and human folly, Istanbul has always been a meeting place. A place for the exchange of ideas, for bargaining and for haggling -- sometimes over life and death.
That tradition continues in full this week as the city plays host to 54 heads of state or government at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They're coming from North America, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Baltics, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
The summit was meant to be a formal affair, where set speeches would be given and four pre-arranged documents would be signed. But the tragedies of the real world are now intruding.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in a rare foreign appearance, will be here to deflect growing international concern about the devastating conflict in Chechnya, where Moscow's soldiers are continuing to pound the breakaway Muslim republic in spite of growing calls for an end to the campaign.
The United States has questioned whether Russia is violating the OSCE code and the Geneva conventions of war through its apparent disregard for civilian casualties. President Bill Clinton will address this issue at expected talks with Yeltsin, and others are expected to join in the chorus.
Estonian President Lennart Meri, however, will not be among them. He has withdrawn from the summit, partly because he says the OSCE is not treating the Chechen conflict seriously enough. Chechnya is not part of the formal summit agenda, but will be discussed in side meetings.
Our correspondent says that such criticism is making the summit an increasingly important test for the OSCE itself.
After all, the organization is proving powerless to ameliorate the Chechen conflict, not least because Russia will not allow OSCE observers into the conflict zone. And OSCE mediation appears to have been largely ineffective in resolving another major regional dispute, the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. The United States has taken a lead in pushing this dispute toward a solution outside of the OSCE framework.
Analysts say that, for its part, Russia was hoping the OSCE would be able to take over a security role as a substitute for NATO's possible push eastward. That's an important foreign policy aim from Moscow's point of view.
OSCE spokeswoman Melissa Fleming tells RFE/RL, however, that the Russian view of an expanded security role for the OSCE was always an isolated one. She says the organization is vital in today's world.
"I don't think any other OSCE country has wanted the organization to play a hierarchical role, but rather a complementary role in the so-called European security architecture. It's clear that the types of conflicts and crises that we are facing today call for an organization like the OSCE to handle them because they are not merely interstate military conflicts as we have classically known them before, but they are much more complex."
Fleming notes that one of the major documents to be signed is the European Security Charter, an amplified codification of the OSCE principles of strengthening security through cooperation.
"We believe the charter will also strengthen the organization and its capabilities in preventing conflict and managing crises, and rebuilding societies that have already gone through conflicts and need help in building new foundation stones and democratic institutions."
One function of the OSCE that is seen as key is monitoring elections in transition states to ensure their fairness. The approval of the OSCE's monitoring teams is now considered essential if an election is to be considered democratically legitimate. A refusal by the OSCE to monitor a vote or a bad report on that vote puts in question a government's credentials.
For instance, the OSCE has monitored, or will monitor, only two of six recent or upcoming elections in the Central Asian countries. That's a clear sign to the world that democratic practices in some of those republics need to be improved.