Though Russia was criticized for its dispute with the OSCE's main election-monitoring body and forced to compromise on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship bid, Moscow nonetheless emerged unscathed from the meeting in Madrid.
The disagreements meant that the talks concluded without a final declaration, and the OSCE's outgoing chairman-in-office, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, closed the meeting with a simple political statement.
Ministerial declarations are politically binding blueprints that set the organization's priorities for the incoming chairman-in-office. But because of the political squabbles, there hasn't been such a declaration since the 2002 ministerial council in Porto.
But envoys of the OSCE's 56 participating states did decide on 10 issues, including one on increasing the organization's support for Afghanistan's border security and management.
Compromise On Kazakhstan
Ministers also agreed to grant Kazakhstan the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, with Greece taking the chair in 2009 and Lithuania in 2011.
Kazakhstan had applied to lead the organization in 2009, but that bid left the OSCE participating states profoundly divided. A decision on that issue should have been reached at last year's Brussels ministerial council, but was postponed to give Astana more time to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and democratic values.
Although Kazakhstan has made no noticeable progress in those regards -- even going backward in the view of many observers -- Washington and other critics eventually lifted their objections and agreed on a Spanish-sponsored compromise to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship in 2010.
The decision was finalized only two hours before the ministerial council's closing session and after much negotiating between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.
Reaching consensus on Kazakhstan's bid was of critical importance for the OSCE.
Russia had warned that if Astana's bid to chair the organization was not granted -- and without conditions -- Moscow would block any decision on the OSCE's 2009, 2010, and 2011 chairmanships. That would have left the organization without a troika when Finland takes the helm on January 1, 2008.
The troika is one of the OSCE's main institutions. It consists of the chairman-in-office, its predecessor, and its successor. The troika makes political decisions for the OSCE.
The fact that Kazakhstan will lead the OSCE only in 2010 -- and not a year earlier, as the Kremlin initially insisted -- has been interpreted by some commentators as a setback for Russia.
Moscow's daily "Kommersant" on December 1 described the Madrid ministerial council as "one of the greatest fiascos Russia has endured in years."
The daily noted that in addition to defeating Kazakhstan's 2009 chairmanship bid, the United States and other Western nations overturned Russia's proposals to overhaul the OSCE's Office for Human Rights and Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) and criticized Moscow for its decision to freeze its commitments under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.
Moscow's Plans For ODIHR
Arguably, Russia may have lost a battle. But it has definitely not lost the war.
First, Moscow has long been seeking to boost the OSCE's role in political-military issues to counterbalance NATO's influence. Bearing that in mind, the future of the CFE was debated at length in Madrid, and that in itself is an achievement for Russia.
Second, Kazakhstan's gaining of the OSCE chair in 2010 still fits into Moscow's longer-term plans regarding the organization.
Russian representatives had brought with them a draft proposal that recommended that the functioning of the ODIHR -- which is the OSCE's main election-monitoring body -- be strictly regulated and supervised by participating states. Under existing procedures, ODIHR does not report to the Permanent Council -- the OSCE's main decision-making body, in which all participating states have an equal voice -- but to the chairman-in-office.
The United States, which ranks among ODIHR's strongest supporters, has criticized the Russian plan as an attempt to undermine the independence and effectiveness of what Undersecretary of State Burns described as "the world's premier organization for election monitoring."
Addressing reporters ahead of the Madrid meeting, Burns warned that Washington "will not give one millimeter of opening to any proposal that will weaken ODIHR.... It's just not possible at this ministerial [council] or any time in the future."
Burns's views were supported by other western participants, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who on November 29 called upon participants to "preserve ODIHR's autonomy."
Addressing the media at the close of the Madrid ministerial, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin said his country would see that OSCE institutions are strengthened when it takes the helm of the organization. He also said that Astana will not back any initiative that aims to weaken ODIHR's mandate to monitor elections.
The pledge could be viewed as a token response to Burns's earlier warning that "any country that wishes to be a chairman-in-office of the OSCE must commit itself to preserve the institutions of the OSCE." Yet, it does not contradict Russia's vision of how the organization should operate.
Russia denies that its plan -- which has been endorsed by Kazakhstan and another five CIS states (Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) -- aims to weaken ODIHR.
Lavrov said in Madrid that ODIHR's mandate "is already weak enough. It has been completely watered down. We want to strengthen it and we're going to tackle that."
An OSCE Charter
Russia's ODIHR reform plan is part of a more ambitious scheme whose objective, according to its authors, is to restore the balance between the OSCE's human-rights "basket" and the organization's other two dimensions: political-military affairs and economic and environmental issues.
Moscow insists that the OSCE must adopt a charter that regulates the activities of all its institutions, shifts its priorities on security issues, and establishes overall budget transparency. Russia has accused the United States and other Western countries of using OSCE field missions as political instruments to meddle in the internal affairs of post-Soviet states by providing them with unlimited and uncontrolled extrabudgetary funds.
Washington opposes Moscow's reform plan. "A charter won't help the OSCE do its job better than it does today," Gary D. Robbins, who heads the U.S. State Department's Office for European Security and Political Affairs, said in Vienna on November 8.
Addressing his OSCE counterparts on November 29, Lavrov suggested that experts start working on a draft charter to be put to the vote at next year's ministerial council in Helsinki. But his proposal was rejected.
Moscow, in turn, blocked two draft decisions on effective participation and representation in democratic societies and on strengthening the OSCE's engagement with human-rights defenders and independent, national human-rights institutions.
It also vetoed a draft decision of the "Convention on the international legal personality, legal capacity, privileges, and immunity of the OSCE." Speaking on behalf of the European Union at the end of the ministerial council, Portugal's representative regretted that this text, which he said "would give the OSCE the recognition of a fully-fledged international organization," was not approved.
Lavrov made it clear in his address to the ministerial council that Russia will not back the Legal Personality Convention until its own proposal for a new OSCE charter is adopted.
Russia also toppled another draft, which should have been included in the final ministerial declaration and had been proposed by Moldova and Georgia. It demanded that Russia withdraw all its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester and provide documented evidence that it has vacated the Gudauta military base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia.
Russia, which claims it has fulfilled its military commitments to Moldova and Georgia, has been blocking such a declaration for the past five years.