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Diplomatic row in the OSCE as Azerbaijan aims to downgrade the mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku

SHR
Analysis 27 May 2013

In mid-March, the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister sent a letter to the OSCE, officially requesting that the mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku be reviewed and its status changed to that of a “project coordinator.” Essentially, this would mean a downgrading of the OSCE Office to a more technical level and a reduction of the Office’s competences as well as its room to maneuver. All projects would have to be officially approved by the Foreign Ministry and their implementation would be closely monitored. Azerbaijan’s unhappiness with the OSCE and its activities is nothing new. For instance, Azerbaijan has on a regular basis failed to join consensus on a number of important Ministerial Council decisions. Yet, the official request by Baku to downgrade the OSCE Office caught many by surprise, with the mandate of the Office approved just 6 months ago and its budget of approximately 2.8 million Euros passed very recently. The downgrading of the Office in Baku would signify the continuation of a negative trend; upon the request of the Uzbek government, the OSCE Center in Tashkent was downgraded in 2006 to the status of a project coordinator.

In an immediate reaction to the Azerbaijani letter, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier traveled to Baku on 15 March to discuss the request to downgrade the Office with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Discussions have since continued behind closed doors. However, some of the ‘diplomatic row’ (an expression used by the Caucasus election watch) around the issue became public when Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov addressed the OSCE Permanent Council (PC) in Vienna on 14 May. At the PC meeting, it became apparent that OSCE participating States want to keep a strong mandate for the OSCE Office in Baku, while Azerbaijan seemed adamant about downgrading it. Foreign Minister Mammadyarov stressed that while having “provided organizational and political support to the activity of the Office since its establishment,” this year Azerbaijan proposed “the remission of the OSCE Office in Baku to the project coordinator status.”

In addition, Azerbaijan expressed its frustration at the PC meeting with regard to a number of other issues. Firstly, Azerbaijan is unhappy with the OSCE’s efforts to find a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the format of the OSCE Minsk Group. Mammadyarov stressed that the Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the Russian Federation and the United States, required “immediate reinvigoration.” He suggested that the conflict resolution process needed to be opened up to “the entire membership of the Minsk Group,” which would include Belarus, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan and, on a rotating basis, the OSCE Troika. Secondly, Azerbaijan believes that the OSCE is being transformed into a “coordination mechanism of competing and opposing political-military groupings,” seriously affecting “those states that due to different limitations cannot or will not join collective defense institutions in the near future.”

In their replies to the statement by Azerbaijan, the EU and the US both expressed strong support for the work of the OSCE Minsk Group and they reaffirmed their belief that the current mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku should be kept as it is. In addition, they both hoped that Azerbaijan would soon issue an official invitation to the OSCE/ODIHR to observe the upcoming presidential elections in Azerbaijan in October of this year. The statement of Turkey was different in tone. Turkey stressed that, “the host nation’s consent and preferences are essential in order to ensure a positive outcome from the OSCE’s field activities.” Referring to the mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku, Turkey hoped for a “satisfactory outcome of the issue.”

It seems that the request to downgrade the OSCE Office in Baku is part of a bigger offensive targeted at seizing control of the political situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the October presidential election. Azerbaijan has yet to issue an official invitation to the OSCE/ODIHR to observe the election. Also, only recently, on 10 March, police brutally moved against an ‘unsanctioned rally’ in Baku using rubber bullets and teargas and detaining and arresting several protestors. Furthermore, Avaz Zeynallye, the editor of an independent daily newspaper has recently been sentenced to nine years in prison on blackmail charges, after criticizing senior government officials. All of these developments have to be monitored very carefully. An observation of the presidential election by the OSCE/ODIHR is of utmost importance. The fate of the OSCE Office in Baku will most probably be decided upon before the summer recess. The Ukrainian Chairmanship needs to mobilize all its energy and diplomatic skills so that the OSCE can maintain a meaningful presence in Azerbaijan.

To read the current mandate (PC.DEC/318) of the OSCE Office in Baku, click here.

To read the 2013 survey of OSCE field operations, click here.