Closure of the OSCE Office in Minsk a Loss for People of Belarus
By way of explanation for not extending the mandate of the OSCE Office in Minsk, Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Martynov wrote to tell OSCE Chairman-in-Office Saudabayev that the “mandate has been implemented in full and there is no need for continuing the field presence next year.” This couldn’t be further from the truth, and I’m glad to see that the new Lithuanian Chairmanship working to keep the Office. Nevertheless, administrative procedures for closing the Office have already begun, and it very well may be shut for good. The real loser in this situation is not the OSCE, but the people of Belarus. Closing the Office would reflect a disturbing trend of some governments in former Soviet States turning away from their OSCE commitments and viewing the OSCE’s efforts to provide democratic assistance as a threat.
The refusal to extend the annual mandate in Belarus comes on the heels of the flawed December 19th presidential election and the subsequent brutal crackdown on opposition, both of which dashed any hopes for near-term democratic progress. The OSCE’s negative assessment of the conduct of the election, as well as the strong condemnation many countries made of the violence, clearly did not please President Lukashenka, who derided “mindless democracy” at a post-election news conference.
Lukashenka’s lack of enthusiasm for an OSCE presence, however, is not a new phenomenon. Eight years ago amidst a generally deteriorating human rights situation in the country, Belarus forced the OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group in Minsk to close by failing to renew visas or extend accreditation for professional staff. The government finally agreed to a successor OSCE presence – the current OSCE Office in Minsk – but only with a significantly weaker mandate and after 14 EU member countries and the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on the travel of high-ranking Belarusian officials.
I believe an effective OSCE field operation in Belarus is needed now more than ever and I commend Chairman-in-Office Ažubalis for his ongoing efforts to enable the OSCE to continue its work there. I hope he succeeds. However, while I believe that maintaining an OSCE presence is important enough to make some compromises if need be, it should not come at any cost. The OSCE must maintain its integrity.
Belarusian behavior towards its OSCE field presence is reflective of the attitude of several other governments in the former Soviet space which host OSCE missions. Over the past several years, mandates have been weakened and missions have been downgraded to “offices” or “project coordinators.” Some host governments require an agreed memorandum of understanding for each activity the field presence undertakes, essentially giving the government a veto over any and all OSCE work in their country.
This does not reflect poorly on the OSCE, but rather on the host governments who clearly do not want the OSCE’s assistance to build democratic institutions but instead view it as interference as they move away from implementing their commitments. The problem, therefore, is not just how to keep the OSCE in these countries, but how to help these countries keep their commitments and support democratic reform instead of moving in the opposite direction.