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OSCE: Key Meeting Set For U.S.-Russia Clash Over Democracy

(official site) VIENNA, November 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and the United States look set to clash over human rights and democracy this week when OSCE foreign ministers meet in Spain to assess competing visions for the future of the world’s largest regional security organization.

Russia, which strongly opposes the OSCE's flagship role as a bulwark for human rights and democracy across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, will see its controversial bid to overhaul the Vienna-based organization under fierce debate during the ministerial council in Madrid on November 29-30. Central to Moscow’s agenda is a proposal to weaken the OSCE’s election monitoring work, which Russia blames for helping to usher in pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia, and support for Kazakhstan’s bid to assume the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship in 2009.

Washington has called Russia’s proposals “unprecedented,” arguing that they would strip the organization of a core mission: upholding democratic and rights standards across 56 nations from North America to the Russian Far East. Moscow, by contrast, has threatened to hold up future OSCE work if its demands go unmet. Russian media have dubbed the Madrid meeting, which is also expected to address a key arms-control treaty, “a moment of truth.”

The Kazakh Bid

Among other tasks, the ministerial council is expected to decide which nations will hold the OSCE rotating chairmanship in 2009, 2010, and 2011. But Kazakh aspirations to chair the organization in 2009 have left participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe profoundly divided.

Russia and all other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States back Astana’s bid. But some Western countries oppose it, arguing that energy-rich Kazakhstan is not prepared to lead an organization whose core values include respect for rights and commitment to democracy. The United States, Britain, and the Czech Republic oppose the Kazakh bid, but several other Western nations support it, with Canada among the latest to drop its objections.

Washington has suggested postponing the Kazakh chairmanship until 2011, provided Astana can demonstrate its commitment to OSCE democracy standards. But Moscow insists on Kazakhstan's obtaining the chair in 2009, arguing that CIS countries would perceive a rejection of Astana’s bid as proof that not all OSCE participating states enjoy equal rights.

In a bid to break the deadlock, the Spanish chairman-in-office has proposed that Kazakhstan be offered the chairmanship in 2010 and host a summit of OSCE heads of state and government. That idea was eventually dropped.

Failure in Madrid to reach a consensus -- required for all OSCE resolutions -- theoretically would make Greece the next candidate in line. Athens has applied to chair the OSCE “any time between 2009 and 2011.” Lithuania, which has also applied, could then be considered to take over from Athens in 2010.

But Moscow has signaled that it may veto this scenario. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko earlier this month warned that failure to meet Astana’s request without conditions would leave the organization facing the risk of “remaining without a chair at all, and not only in 2009.”

Astana, however, seems to have abandoned hope of seeing its bid accepted, although it has signaled it would agree to lead the OSCE in 2011 if “no conditions” are attached to the offer.

In recent comments to the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency, an unidentified Kazakh Foreign Ministry official cited two main obstacles to Kazakhstan’s application. First, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which monitors elections, has given a generally negative assessment of recent Kazakh legislative polls that saw the ruling party grab all seats in the lower chamber of parliament. Second, according to the diplomat, Western countries would rather see NATO member Lithuania become the first former Soviet nation to chair the OSCE.

An Embattled Organization

But the Kazakh issue is merely the tip of the iceberg for the embattled OSCE. A senior U.S. diplomat recently stated in Vienna that the Madrid meeting is “coming at a critical juncture for the OSCE in a much larger, existential sense.” Gary D. Robbins, who heads the U.S. State Department’s Office for European Security and Political Affairs, told the OSCE’s Permanent Council on November 8 that it is becoming increasingly difficult to bridge differences and broker agreements among OSCE members.

“Our joint human rights commitments, which go to the heart of what this organization is about, are now being questioned or blatantly ignored,” Robbins said. He denounced “unprecedented [Russian] proposals that are little more than attempts to dismantle the structures that we have put in place over the years.”

Robbins’ address contained an explicit reference to a draft Russian proposal that seeks to impose limitations on ODIHR’s work and put the OSCE’s election-monitoring body under the control of participating states. Moscow hopes its plan, which is endorsed by Kazakhstan and five other CIS countries, will be examined in Madrid. But given the strong U.S. objections, it is unclear whether that will happen.

The Kremlin, which holds ODIHR partly responsible for the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, is proposing to limit to 50 the number of OSCE monitors at any given election. Russia’s draft also suggests that the heads of ODIHR election-observation missions be forbidden to offer snap commentary on any polls until the inviting country releases its own official results.

ODIHR earlier this month announced that it had declined an invitation to observe Russia’s parliamentary elections on December 2. The OSCE blamed the Kremlin for the decision, accusing Moscow of delaying extending the invitation to OSCE observers and denying them visas. Russian President Vladimir Putin this week accused Washington of meddling in the process by recommending that ODIHR abstain from sending observers to Russia. The State Department dismissed the charge.

Moving Forward On CFE

Washington would also like the ministerial council to break substantial ground on the future of the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Earlier this year, Russia announced that effective December 12, it would suspend its participation in the landmark Cold War-era disarmament treaty. Russia accused NATO countries of failing to ratify the treaty’s 1999 adapted version that imposed further arms reductions on signatories.

Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine are the only countries that have ratified the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty to date. Moscow complains that under the treaty, it cannot freely move troops and military equipment on its own territory, while NATO keeps enlarging eastwards.

But the United States and other NATO countries say they will not ratify the 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty until Moscow withdraws all its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from Georgia and Moldova's Russian-speaking separatist region of Trandsniester.

Under commitments made at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul, Russia agreed to pull out from those two countries within specific deadlines that were renegotiated after it missed them.

But Moscow maintains a military presence in Transdniester, and although it recently vacated two bases in Georgia proper, the fate of its Gudauta military base in the Georgian separatist republic of Abkhazia remains unclear.

Tbilisi claims the base is still operational and is being used either by the Abkhaz armed forces, or by Russian peacekeepers deployed in the region. Georgia demands that OSCE-led inspection teams be authorized to visit Gudauta to verify Moscow’s claims that the base no longer poses any security threat and has been turned into an army sanatorium.

Georgia also recently accused Russia of deploying troops and military equipment in Abkhazia in violation of the CFE pact. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said last week that he intended to raise these and other security issues in Madrid.

OSCE ministerial councils theoretically end with the adoption of a politically binding declaration that sets priorities for the year to come. But persistent disagreements between Russia and the United States have prevented the adoption of such declarations ever since the 2002 ministerial council in Porto.

Judging by the depth of differences between Moscow and Washington, that might well be the case again this year, too.

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