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An OSCE monitoring team at work in eastern Ukraine. Photo by OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

OSCE Leadership Vacuum: Squabbling Threatens Clout of International Security Organization

An internal power struggle has undermined the world’s leading international security body since the summer. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is due to finally get four new leaders in December but the unprecedented power vacuum has hit at a crunch time for hotspots worldwide.

Five months ago, political commentators worldwide were taken aback by news that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) lacked de-facto leadership, watching aghast as the OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger vacated his office in mid-July, exiting alongside three other leaders.

The top-floor exodus was triggered by Azerbaijan which sought to eject Freedom of the Media Representative Harlem Desir from his post, accusing him of voicing “excessive criticism” of press freedom in Azerbaijan. The complaints escalated, and other nations weighed in, including Turkey and Tajikistan who aired gripes about human rights representative Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir. Finally, after an intervention from France, Canada Norway and Iceland, all four leaders were ousted, leaving the OSCE rudderless for the first time since it was created in 1975.

A key international player in conflict prevention, mediation and promoting democracy, its absent leadership came at a time that the organization was increasingly in demand. From its involvements in the conflict in eastern Ukraine to the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a long-standing conflict that snowballed into fully-fledged war in September. The OSCE found itself at the center of the Nagorno-Karabakh mediation process with its Minsk Group co-chairing negotiations. Ahead of the ceasefire signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan in early November, commentators were pushing for the Minsk Group to do more to stall the spiralling death toll, for example by stepping up their activities on the ground.

Multilateralism on the rocks

International commentators were quick to note that the internal squabbles could hardly have happened at a worse juncture, coinciding, as they did, with global economic and social problems exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. “We are in trouble when petty parochialism denies us vital leadership in the midst of a global crisis,” commented U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, chair of the bipartisan Helsinki Commission in a statement from Washington. “Now more than ever, reliable multilateral institutions are needed to forge solutions during and after the current pandemic.”

As the only security-focused organization that involves Russia, the U.S. and other major Western nations – all on an equal footing – the OSCE does have unusual leverage. But the cracks emerging in its structure form part of a broader decline of multilateralism, as witnessed by institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, whose members also hail from diametrically opposed political camps.

But while the sway of multilateral groupings is weakened, authoritarianism and declining public freedoms are a worldwide problem. The recently released Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2020 Democracy Report illustrates how democracies are facing growing challenges from within, underscoring the need for global cohesion and scrutiny. “The purposeful undermining of democratic oversight bodies and the curtailment of political-participation rights by democratically elected governments (“democratic backsliding”) can be seen in a growing number of countries,” it wrote.

“A number of democratically elected governments are purposively undermining the oversight bodies designed to hold them accountable and oblige them to govern responsibly. Autocratic regimes are trying to tighten the thumbscrews further on opposition forces and the free media.”

Observing US ballot, Criticizing Belarus

Despite its personnel saga, the OSCE does retain a high profile, observing ballots, pushing for media freedoms and mediating in conflicts. Take, for example, its monitoring of the U.S. election, and oft-cited criticism of President Trump’s fraud allegations, which it complained “undermined public trust” in democracy. Or its recent statement putting pressure onto Belarus to halt impunity for human rights abuses and hold free elections.

But how seriously its comments are taken boils down to its international reputation. And that, observers have argued, is being dented by its extended management void. “I think that a leadership vacuum that goes on for too long does undermine the credibility of the OSCE,” said Stephanie Liechtenstein a former OSCE official and expert on the institution.

And meanwhile the clock is ticking for the selection process for OSCE’s top jobs, with eleven names apparently under consideration for the four posts. The behind-closed-doors discussions are likely to be complex and divisive, not least because appointments require consensus among all 57 states, meaning any member could block agreement.

Past experience shows how fraught the process can be: The last group of four leaders, selected in 2017, took months of negotiations and an informal gathering of foreign ministers to break the deadlock. But as December looms large, the rest of the world is watching closely. After a year of extraordinary new problems, violent conflicts and democratic deficits, the OSCE needs to demonstrate it has the clout and cohesion to face the challenges ahead.

A version of this article was published by The EU Observer.

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