Tempers flare in Russia-U.S. battle for control
of agenda for European security, cooperation

By Richard Weitz
A EurasiaNet commentary
(Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.)

With Russia and the United States wrestling for control of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s agenda, 2007 could prove an important year for the 56-member state organization.

In December, Moscow intensified its efforts to steer the OSCE in a different direction, a reaction in part to criticism leveled at the Kremlin’s policies by several prominent European Union figures. For example, in a mid-December interview published by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht, who concurrently served in 2006 as the OSCE’s chairman-in-office, lambasted Russia, saying that he had formed a "conclusive impression" that Russia was a "non-modern state."

"[Russia] is not a democratic system in our [Western] sense of the term," de Gucht stated, adding that the Kremlin did not make a clear enough distinction between "the regime and state property – between management and ownership of assets."

De Gucht also suggested that Moscow harbored anachronistic imperial ambitions in the countries that comprised the former Soviet empire. "Russia is suffering from phantom limb syndrome," he said. "It no longer has those territories [CIS states], but it’s still feeling pain in them. That explains the Russians’ attachment to Georgia and Ukraine."

De Gucht’s comments helped draw a clear line within the OSCE -- with the United States, Canada and European Union standing against Russia and its surrogates in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In response to the criticism, Russia went on the offensive, stepping up efforts to change the OSCE’s policy direction.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin attacked the OSCE for paying too little attention to political, military, and economic issues. Since 2004, Russian officials have urged the OSCE to apply its "original comprehensive approach" to the "new" transnational security challenges manifested in international terrorism and the illicit manufacture and trafficking of weapons. Moscow also has pushed for the allocation of a greater share of resources to economic development programs in countries located "east of Vienna."

In addition, the governments of Russia, Belarus, and most Central Asian countries have complained about the OSCE’s perceived preoccupation with democratization and human rights in member states. Since 2004, Russian officials have sought to reduce the OSCE’s election monitoring capacity and other democracy-promotion activities. For several months in 2004, the Russian government even refused to approve the OSCE budget until its members agreed to hold talks on its proposals. Since OSCE decisions are made by consensus, the other members had to pay heed to Moscow’s concerns. Although in the end, OSCE members rejected most Russian demands, they did agree to reduce Moscow’s share of the organization’s budget.

A particular target of Russian ire is the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). In late 2005, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained that ODIHR had become too independent, adding that the office required more specific directions to guide its work. In particular, he complained that ODIHR had failed to apply "equal treatment" to its election monitoring missions.

Kamynin, in his comments last December, alleged that some member governments want to leave the OSCE unreformed since the present system provides them with "a convenient environment to exercise unilateral influence on other organization members, and to attempt to reform their societies and policies according to standards imposed from outside."

Lavrov reiterated many of these criticisms at an early December 2006 meeting of the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers in Brussels. For the first time, he warned that a failure to make the needed reforms -- at least from Russia’s viewpoint -- would call into question the rationale for the organization’s existence. Lavrov may have sought to make a preemptive strike since the issue of the so-called "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet bloc, especially the disputed separatist regions in Georgia and Moldova, is now high on the OSCE’s agenda. The frozen conflicts were the main topic of discussion during a December 18 meeting in Moscow between Lavrov and the OSCE’s chairman-in-office for 2007, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

At the OSCE foreign ministers meeting in December, the head of the American delegation, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, called for Russian troops to withdraw completely from Georgia and Moldova in accord with the commitments Moscow made at the 1999 OSCE Istanbul summit. Western governments accuse Russian peacekeepers in both countries of siding with separatists -- supporting the breakaway regions of Transdnestr in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Lavrov replied that the OSCE’s involvement in these disputes was only "politicizing" these conflicts and impeding their peaceful resolution. Disputes over the continued presence of Russian military forces in the disputed regions of Georgia and Moldova have hindered NATO’s adoption of the amended Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

More generally, there has been a growing divergence in the American and Russian visions for the OSCE. The United States wants to rebalance the OSCE geographically, but not functionally. American officials prefer the OSCE to continue devoting attention to political reform issues (especially elections monitoring), but to allocate greater resources to monitoring the situation in the former Soviet Union. The governments of Russia and its allies want to rebalance the OSCE functionally by having it focus on political and military cooperation. Although they favor new OSCE initiatives to promote economic development in the former Soviet states, they do not want the organization to single them out for increased attention in its so-called human dimension activities.