Saturday

13th Apr 2024

Opinion

The under-reported power struggle at the top of the OSCE

  • An internal power struggle has undermined the world’s leading international security body since the summer. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is due to finally get four new leaders in December (Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly)

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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 US representative 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 organisation that involves Russia, the US 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 recent 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, criticising 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 US election, and oft-cited criticism of president Donald 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 11 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.

Author bio

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper among others. She is an editor for SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI Blog.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EUobserved

Belarus: Where's the EU when you need it?

It has been 81 days since the first police cosh hit the first skull in Belarus and president Alexander Lukashenko has still not paid any EU price.

I'm an 'election observer' - but what do we actually do?

There is a persistent problem of 'fake observers.' Often the government of the country they are observing, or even the election management body itself, pays for these observers, holds fancy dinners, and puts them in five-star hotels.

Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation

As Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos just reclaimed the title of the richest person on Earth, its workers cannot even take a bathroom break under the pressure of meeting inhumane performance targets.

The Bolsonaro-Orbán far-right nexus

Defeated far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has given various reasons for sheltering at the Hungarian embassy in Brasilia — none of them make sense.

The problem of corruption in Ukraine — and a solution

Sunlight is the best disinfectant— so in a way, it is encouraging to see corruption scandals coming to the fore, as this may deter potential future graft, a key prerequisite for Kyiv's eventual EU accession.

This 'deregulation' lobbying now threatens EU economy

Next week's EU summit (17-18 April) will discuss the strategic agenda for the next five years. The current "competitiveness agenda" is to a large extent driven by a big lobbying campaign — so far, not well covered by the media.

Latest News

  1. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'
  2. Belgium declares war on MEPs who took Russian 'cash'
  3. Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight
  4. Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation
  5. Resist backlash on deforestation law, green groups tell EU
  6. China's high-quality development brings opportunities to the world
  7. Ukraine tops aid list again, but EU spending slumps
  8. Who did Russia pay? MEPs urge spies to give names

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us