Relations between Moscow and the OSCE have been rocky since the birth of that organization more than three decades ago, in the midst of the Cold War. But with Russia now eager to earn respect as a rising world power, its stance on the international democracy watchdog has become, at times, downright hostile.
Russia got a head start on setting the tone for 2008. On December 26, just days before the OSCE's annual change of chairmanship, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko announced Russia's intent to reduce payments to the organization, which he accused, among other things, of turning its nose up at suggestions from Moscow.
Russia's contribution accounts for 6 percent of the OSCE's budget -- which totaled 168 million euros ($249 million) last year -- so even a sizable cut should not significantly affect the group's operations.
But OSCE spokesman Martin Nesirky says the payments are about more than just money. "Every country's contribution, whether it's San Marino or the United States, is important, because it's proof of its commitment to the organization," Nesirky says. "The Russian Federation's contribution is important in monetary terms, of course, but symbolically, too."
Accusation Of Bias
Russia's decision to reduce its payments, in a sense, fits into the ongoing debate over the OSCE's budget for 2008, which has yet to be adopted due to a lack of consensus among the 56 participating states. Individual countries are also in separate negotiations over the size of their contribution to this year's budget.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry's latest note, in which it accuses the OSCE of bias toward certain member states, leaves little doubt about the issue's political undertones.
"This is connected chiefly with the OSCE's election-monitoring activities, both in Russia and other former Soviet countries," says Yevgeny Volk, a Russian political analyst. "By reducing its contribution, I think Russia is seeking to voice its opposition to the OSCE's activities and to exert pressure on the organization."
Russia in the past has blamed the OSCE's election-monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), of helping to usher in pro-Western leaders in Ukraine and Georgia.
Russia and ODIHR clashed again in December, when the group announced it would not monitor Russia's parliamentary elections after Moscow allegedly barred its observers from obtaining visas. Russian President Vladimir Putin struck back by accusing Washington of asking ODIHR to abstain from sending observers to Russia. It is unclear whether ODIHR monitors will be on hand when Russia holds its presidential election in March.
OSCE spokesman Nesirky says Russia's criticism of the Vienna-based organization has grown especially sharp since Putin's Munich security conference speech in February 2007, when he accused the United States of forcefully imposing its will on the world.
"Right from February, there have been some quite strident comments about the work of the OSCE and ways to improve things," Nesirky says. "That in itself is part of the process. I think people also see it in the broader context of relations between Russia and other countries -- like the United States or the NATO member states -- and in the context of the domestic political scene, with a set of elections both in December and in March."
Russia has been at odds with the OSCE on a number of other issues, including the Kosovo dispute and Moscow's military campaign against separatist rebels in Chechnya.
It largely opposes the OSCE's role as a human rights and democracy watchdog across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which many in Moscow continue to regard as Russia's own sphere of influence.
Moscow also caused dismay within the OSCE last year by withdrawing from the adapted Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits the deployment of heavy weaponry between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.
The OSCE's annual ministerial council in November, held in Madrid, also ended without a final declaration after Moscow blocked agreement on a number of issues.
With Russian presidential elections approaching and Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian leadership preparing to declare independence from Serbia, tensions between Russia and the OSCE are only likely to build up further this year.
Finland, which took over the OSCE's rotating chairmanship on January 1, has vowed to focus on the observance of existing commitments. Finland, which shares a border and a legacy of historic conflicts with Russia, may well influence the OSCE to adopt a tougher line on its unruly neighbor.
A journalist with the Finnish daily "Helsingin Sanomat," Kari Huhta, says Russia will certainly be high on his country's agenda throughout its OSCE chairmanship.
"On January 10, the Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva will travel to Vienna and outline at the Permanent Council the main points that he will want to emphasize for the Finnish chairmanship," Huhta says. "You don't have to be terribly well informed to guess that Russia will be quite high on the list in a number of ways."
He notes that "for Finland, Russia, of course, has a more immediate presence geographically, politically, and economically than it did for the previous chairman, Spain, which is on the other edge of Europe."