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Sweden’s bumpy six months at the helm of the OSCE

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis15 July 2021

On January 1 Sweden took over the OSCE Chairmanship for the first time in 28 years at a time of paralysis in the Organization’s consensus-based decision-making process. Gone is the heyday of multilateral engagement and cooperation. Today the geopolitical situation is dominated by great power competition between the United States, Russia and China, global push-back against human rights, protracted conflicts in the OSCE area and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this challenging environment, how effective has Sweden been during the first six months of chairing the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization? This article will shed some light on this question.

‘Back to basics’

Sweden has made returning to what it sees as the OSCE’s core role at the focus of its leadership. Under the motto “back to basics” Stockholm wants the OSCE to focus on defending the “European security order,” upholding the “OSCE comprehensive concept of security” and contributing to “resolving conflicts in accordance with international law”.

They are pursuing goals with a Swedish emphasis on inclusivity and gender equality and a special focus on the women, peace and security agenda. This focus is also reflected by Sweden renaming the “OSCE Chairmanship” into the “OSCE Chairpersonship”, a move that underlines Stockholm’s focus on gender equality. In line with this, Sweden also launched a new advisory group of experts on women, peace and security in February.

A bumpy first half

But chairing the OSCE is seldom defined by national objectives. Instead, Sweden has been facing structural issues that have continuously grown worse over the past years. Thus far, Sweden has not been able to solve these issues successfully on the diplomatic level.

Tensions between OSCE participating States have increased due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that flared up last year. Because of the OSCE’s need for consensus in decision making, increased tensions between participating States, most notably between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have derailed even minor procedural decisions.

Lengthy negotiations are needed to try and form consensus – the Chair’s main task. But they often fail because of the opposition of just a few states. “The inhibition threshold to block decisions is consistently lowered,” one OSCE diplomat, who requested anonymity, told SHR Monitor in Vienna.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also still continuing to limit effective diplomatic engagement. Travel restrictions continue to limit corridor diplomacy with many conferences held virtually or in a hybrid format. This has also created a smaller space for the press and civil society in OSCE meetings – despite Sweden’s championing of freedom of the media and access for civil society.

Extensive traveling

Sweden nevertheless set out an ambitious agenda at the beginning of the year. “During the coming year, I will do my part to ensure that the OSCE can make a real difference on the ground and to defend the principles on which our organisation was founded,” Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said in Vienna on January 14, when she officially launched the Swedish OSCE Chairpersonship.

To demonstrate this commitment, Linde travelled extensively during the first half of Sweden’s stewardship of the OSCE. All in all, she made 17 trips in her capacity as OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (CiO), visiting almost all OSCE field operations as well as conflict areas.

Most notably, Linde has already made two trips to Ukraine, one in February and a second one in June. During both trips, she also visited the contact line in the east, where she witnessed first-hand the impact of the conflict on people’s lives, and spoke to staff of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

Linde also visited many OSCE field operations in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans – contrary to some OSCE CiOs in previous years. These trips are considered very useful, as they help to raise the profile of the OSCE in the respective countries, provide support to the respective OSCE head of mission, and bring matters of importance to the attention of the highest level of government.

Struggling to address conflicts in the OSCE area

Yet, the protracted conflicts in Moldova and Georgia are ongoing, and the Ukraine conflict remains unresolved in its seventh year. The OSCE has also not been able to establish a more active role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after last year’s six-week war, despite an almost three decades-long engagement in the region by the OSCE Minsk Group.

One of Sweden’s first challenges was the Russian troop build-up along Ukraine’s border and in Crimea in April. Ukraine responded to this by requesting a meeting under chapter III of the Vienna Document regarding unusual military activities. Russia chose not to attend the meeting on April 10 in Vienna, but was nevertheless forced into transparency, as it had to answer in writing questions raised by Ukraine.

In addition, the Swedish Chairpersonship just lost its Special Representative in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group. Heidi Grau, a Swiss career diplomat who assumed her post in the OSCE in January 2020, has informed the Swedish Chair of her intention to resign and will leave her position in the course of the summer.

Filling this post will be crucial as the situation in eastern Ukraine is deteriorating and the Special Representative plays a key role, for example in the implementation of ceasefire deals. To fill the post quickly, Sweden will have to engage in active consultations, most notably with Ukraine and Russia.

Belarus is another challenge as the country goes through a crisis after the violent crackdown on protests and mass detentions in the aftermath of the election last year. Authorities in Minsk have still not replied to the OSCE’s offer to facilitate dialogue.

OSCE budget still not adopted

Furthermore, there is still no agreement on the annual OSCE budget proposal that is roughly at the same level as in previous years (139 million Euros). Diplomatic sources in Vienna say that there are several problems with this, but one main issue is that Armenia and Azerbaijan have concerns with the budget proposal and therefore consensus could not be reached thus far.

A similar situation occurred in March when OSCE participating States were negotiating prolonging the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine. A breakthrough was achieved only at the last-minute, a few hours before the SMM mandate would have expired.

The lack of an approved budget is already creating problems. The Organization has been operating under so-called monthly, provisional allotments since April. This means that projects funded by the OSCE unified budget “can only be implemented if they are continuing projects already funded in the prior year and for which the provisional allotment provides sufficient resources”, the OSCE press department explained in an email to SHR Monitor.

No new projects can be initiated by OSCE departments, field operations or institutions. This can be debilitating as the OSCE is prevented from long-term planning and from entering into contracts with other organizations or entities.

In order to adopt the budget and ensure the continuous and smooth functioning of the Organization, Sweden will have to invest considerable diplomatic efforts, including on the level of capitals.

Linde told reports at a press briefing in Vienna on June 29 that “there is a proposal on the table that is supported by almost all states”. “We are now engaging to see how we can move forward given that the decision is delayed already and that it is in all our interest to find a way forward to help the organization deliver on its mandate,” she added.

Flagship conferences at risk

Adding to Sweden’s headaches are disagreements over the agenda of this year’s Annual Security Review Conference (ASRC) that was planned for June. The ASRC is an important annual event that includes high-level officials from OSCE capitals and focuses on conflict prevention, arms control, crisis and conflict situations in the OSCE area, and transnational threats. It was cancelled over disagreements whether to include a separate panel discussion on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the agenda of the conference.

At a press conference in Vienna on June 29, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told reporters that it was “unfortunate” that the “flagship conference of the first dimension” could not be held as planned. She added that she still hoped to organize the conference at a later stage before the end of the year.

Several diplomats in Vienna told SHR Monitor that they fear that the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), Europe’s largest human rights conference planned to be held in Warsaw in September, could suffer a similar fate. Several states continue to quarrel over the conference’s format, agenda as well as over the conditions for NGO access.

Further challenges ahead

Before the end of the year, Sweden should begin to focus on issues of real substance such as the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus and several other OSCE participating States. The worsening security situation in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea as well as in the Sea of Azov should also be addressed.

In this context, the Swedish Chair could start thinking about how to better support the promotion of dialogue between Russia and the West after the recent US-Russia summit.

Sweden will also have to keep an eye on instability in Central Asia caused by a rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan. Finally, Sweden could begin to think ahead at a potential OSCE role in the global post-COVID recovery process.


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