U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has used a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to slam Russia for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, of seeking to undermine the democratic processes in the region, and of committing human rights abuses against its own people.
Addressing the first day of an OSCE ministerial meeting on December 3, Biegun also singled out Belarus for “brutally” violating human rights by cracking down on street protests calling on authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka to resign following a contested presidential election in August.
“The most egregious violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity within the OSCE area remains Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea,” Biegun told the meeting in Albania’s capital, Tirana, which is being held via video link due to the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Moscow occupied and seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, a move that led the European Union, the United States, and other countries to impose sanctions on Russia. Russia is also backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.
Biegun said it is “unacceptable” that the OSCE mission monitoring the conflict faces “daily harassment and restrictions, largely in Russia-controlled areas,” according to a transcript by the U.S. mission to the pan-European organization.
The deputy secretary of state reiterated Washington’s call on Moscow to implement its commitments to the Minsk peace agreements aimed at putting an end to the conflict and insisted that Washington “will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation” of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, where he said “Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and others opposed to the occupation face cruel repression.”
“Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere -- its flagrant disregard for international law and for the OSCE’s foundational principles -- have caused a broad deterioration of the European security environment,” said Biegun, who noted that the Kremlin is keeping Russian forces in Moldova’s Moscow-backed separatist region of Transdniester and in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia “without host-nation consent.”
Moscow recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations after Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August 2008. Only a handful of other countries have followed the Kremlin's lead.
In his address to the Tirana meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “the unwillingness of Western countries to abandon confrontational...approaches and an arrogant attitude toward the legitimate interests of other states” have been preventing the OSCE from functioning as a unified body.
The OSCE's member states "must show the political will for compromise and equal and mutually respectful cooperation," Lavrov said, without blaming any specific country.
Biegun also accused Russia of using “disinformation and other hybrid methods” to “undermine the democratic processes of other states,” while violating the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Russian people.
He cited “recent efforts to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of the press by significantly expanding the scope of so-called ‘foreign agent’ rules, rendering individual journalists vulnerable to designation and increasing government censorship tools.”
On Belarus, Biegun urged the authorities to “cease their crackdown” on the largely peaceful protests that erupted across Belarus following the August 9 presidential election, noting that “more than 100 political prisoners are detained in the country for exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
“The authorities must release political prisoners, journalists, and all those unjustly detained. They must engage in meaningful dialogue with the [opposition] Coordination Council and Belarusian civil society,” he added.
The opposition says the vote that extended Lukashenka’s rule was rigged and the West refuses to accept the outcome, slapping sanctions on the strongman and other top officials.
Elsewhere in the region, he urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to resume work with the United States, Russia, and France -- the cochairs of the Minsk Group mediating in the conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh -- to reach a “lasting, peaceful end” to the conflict.
Last month, a Russia-mediated cease-fire ended six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijani forces and ethnic Armenians in and around Nagorno-Karabakh -- the worst clashes over the region since the early 1990s.
“This dispute will not be resolved on the battlefield. We welcome the cessation of hostilities, but this is only the first step,” Biegun said.
Originally established during the Cold War to foster dialogue between the Soviet Union and the West, the 57-nation OSCE is known for its election-monitoring work, reports on human rights and press freedom, and engaging in diplomacy to resolve conflicts, including in Ukraine, Belarus, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
During its two-day meeting in Tirana, the Vienna-based organization is expected to resolve a months-long impasse over the conflict-resolution body’s leadership team.
Since July, the OSCE's top four positions have been empty because member states failed to renew the three-year terms of diplomats in those posts, in what is normally a formality.
The OSCE strives to reach decisions by consensus, leaving it susceptible to gridlock between its European, Central Asian, and North American member states.
Russia and several former Soviet states have complained that top leadership positions have traditionally been held by Westerners, who they say have focused too much on human rights issues.
Under a compromise, OSCE members are expected to approve Helga Schmid as the new secretary-general.
A German, Schmid currently serves as secretary-general of the EU's diplomatic service. She is best known for playing a key role in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
The other three top posts will be filled by an Italian, Portuguese, and Kazakh.
Matteo Mecacci, a former Italian parliament member, has been nominated to head the OSCE's democracy, human rights, and election-monitoring office.
Former Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov has been tapped as OSCE high commissioner for minorities.
Maria Teresa Ribeiro, a secretary of state in the Portuguese Foreign Ministry, is the nominee for the OSCE media-freedom representative.
U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmore said on December 1 that he expects member states to agree on filling the top four positions with these candidates.
However, an unrelated dispute between Hungary and Ukraine over national minority issues has emerged in recent days that as a potential to create problems, he said.