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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Division Over Consensus

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's decision to block an OSCE declaration that contained language critical of Russian actions in Chechnya, Georgia, and Moldova has generated a sharp reaction from Western governments and raised questions about the future of both the OSCE and East-West relations.

Most of the 55 countries represented at an OSCE ministerial meeting in Vienna this week were sharply critical of Russian actions in Chechnya as well as Moscow's slowness in reducing the number of its troops in Georgia and withdrawing them from Moldova -- as it had promised to do at the OSCE Istanbul summit. They sought to issue a joint OSCE statement on all three issues.

But Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was able to prevent OSCE action on Tuesday by refusing to join a consensus, as required by the rules of that organization. As a result, the two-day meeting broke up without a joint declaration. Instead, Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, whose country currently chairs the pan-European organization, issued a less authoritative chairman's summary.

At the sessions this week, Western diplomats sharply criticized the Russian Federation for its approach in Chechnya. But Ivanov lashed out at his interlocutors, complaining that the West had adopted a double standard on ethnic conflicts and noting that Moscow is not prepared to take lessons on how to behave from anyone.

Despite the tone of these remarks, Western participants at the meeting said that Ivanov had reaffirmed that Moscow would live up to its promises about troop reductions and withdrawal in Georgia and Moldova. And they suggested that other differences between Moscow and the West on questions such as the political situation in Belarus could be addressed in the future.

But the Russian foreign minister's sharp response to criticism about Russian actions in Chechnya, his government's unwillingness to allow OSCE observers to visit there, and most of all Moscow's decision to block an OSCE consensus suggest that the Vienna meeting is likely to cast three shadows on the OSCE for some time to come.

First, this latest standoff in Vienna recalls the way in which this organization functioned at the end of the Cold War. Known at that time as the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group seldom was able to reach agreement because the Soviet delegations routinely refused to join the consensus which existed among most other countries.

At that time, Moscow typically sought to have others, such as its East European satellites, take the lead in denying consensus when the Soviet government sought to improve East-West ties. Only when it lacked such allies, when tensions were high, or when it wanted to make a more dramatic point did the Soviet delegation take the lead in doing so itself.

By staking out such a tough position now, the Russian government highlights its own isolation not only within the OSCE but more broadly and thus makes East-West cooperation on these and other issues less rather than more likely.

Second, the near unanimity of the non-Russian delegations on Chechnya and elsewhere may make some of the individual governments involved more willing to speak out against Russian behavior than they have been up to now.

Again, during the period leading up to the end of the Cold War, that is precisely what the CSCE routinely did. By highlighting what was then called "consensus minus one" -- that is, consensus by all members except the Soviet Union -- the CSCE emboldened its members to speak and act on their own and in other forums. That in turn sometimes forced Moscow to modify its position.

And third, the division over consensus in Vienna this week seems certain to have yet another consequence for the organization itself, one that could either lead to the renovation of the OSCE or contribute to its eventual demise.

For much of the last decade, the Russian authorities and some in Western Europe have urged that the OSCE -- rather than NATO or any other organization -- should serve as the foundation of European security. But Ivanov's ability to block action simply by using the organization's own requirements for consensus raises serious questions about whether the OSCE could ever play that role.

Some countries may now call for moving beyond consensus to some system of majority or super majority vote, but Ivanov's rhetoric suggests that Russia would be among those who would oppose such a move. There is thus little opportunity for such reforms anytime soon.

The OSCE appears likely to be entering a new period of difficulties, one in which divisions between East and West on key issues will prevent the formation of the consensus on which that organization ultimately relies.