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The 26th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Bratislava: A breakdown in cooperative security?

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis17 December 2019

At their annual ministerial gathering, foreign ministers failed to overcome their differences and reached agreement only on a very limited number of decisions, thus demonstrating the limits of cooperative security.

The 26th OSCE Ministerial Council (MC) meeting opened in Bratislava on 5 December with a dramatic appeal by OSCE Chairperson-in-Office (CiO), Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák. “I call for increased flexibility and willingness to compromise in order to broaden and strengthen our interactive dialogue; to put the hopes, expectations and well-being of our people before our own political objectives […],” Lajčák said in a statement that was sent out to foreign ministers five days prior to the start of the MC.

Appeal for more compromise

Answering questions by reporters, Lajčák described the rationale behind the appeal as a way to “help ministers recommit to the spirit of Helsinki” and to provide greater political support to the work of the OSCE. “My feeling after this year as OSCE Chair is that there is not sufficient political oversight,” he explained.

Diplomats in Vienna say that they understood the appeal also as a reminder to adopt a more constructive attitude during negotiations on ministerial decisions.

The appeal was new and unique in the sense that it represented the personal view by the OSCE CiO and was never submitted for negotiation. Around 40 foreign ministers from OSCE participating States supported Lajčák’s appeal, and most of them made reference to it in their opening statements.

Despite the personal urge for more compromise and the expressed support by the majority of OSCE participating States, its practical implementation proved to be impossible. Contrary to the spirit of the appeal, diplomats negotiated until late in the evening on 6 December, and in the end, were able to agree only on six out of approximately 20 tabled drafts, with the agreed documents containing little substance.

What happened?

Clashes in the plenary

The meeting still seemed to run its normal course on the first day, as ministers gathered in the plenary session to deliver their statements.

Foreign Minister Lajčák opened the MC and talked about Slovakia’s work during the past months, including efforts to help settle the conflict in and around Ukraine, provide for a safer future, and improve multilateralism. “Multilateralism requires commitment and compromise,” he stressed, adding that consensus should not be used as a weapon “to hold processes hostage to unrelated issues”. Minister Lajčák also announced that Swiss Ambassador Heidi Grau would succeed Austrian Ambassador Martin Sajdik as Special Representative in Ukraine and the Trilateral Contact Group as of 1 January 2020.

OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger stressed the OSCE’s unique role as a “platform for inclusive security dialogue” where everyone has “an equal voice”. He praised the work of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine and noted that in 2019 alone, 1,350 local ceasefires had been brokered by the monitors in order to enable the restoration of critical infrastructure. In this context, he called on the conflict parties to “respect and protect SMM monitors and assets and to remove restrictions on their freedom of movement”.

Most statements by foreign ministers took up the issue of Ukraine and addressed the protracted conflicts in the OSCE area, including in Transdniestra, Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia.

Attending his first international conference after taking office, Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, delivered the statement on behalf of the European Union (EU). “I welcome the recent positive developments in Ukraine. […] At the same time, the core of the conflict remains: Russia’s violations of international law and OSCE principles through illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and aggression in eastern Ukraine.” He also expressed support for the SMM, to which EU member states contribute more than two thirds in personnel and budget.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip T. Reeker, delivered the statement on behalf of the United States (U.S.). He singled out Russia and its actions as being responsible for the current “mistrust and hot conflict” in the OSCE area. Reeker also expressed full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and called on Russia to “fulfil its 2014 and 2015 Minsk commitments and halt its unprovoked aggression against a peaceful neighbor”.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko thanked foreign minister Lajčák for his personal engagement and “numerous visits to the conflict affected areas” in Ukraine and he expressed strong support for the work of the SMM in the country. Without mentioning Russia directly, Prystaiko lamented the “blatant disregard for the norms of international law” that has led to a situation “in which parts of Ukraine’s territory remains occupied [and] violence along the contact line in Donbas continues, leaving 14,000 people killed and as many as 30,000 wounded”. He also criticized “the occupying power” in Crimea that “continues to pursue policies of intimidation, discriminatory practices and human rights violations” toward the population on the peninsula, including Crimean Tartars.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov brushed off all the criticism and instead reprimanded the cultivation of an “enemy image” of Russia. He also complained about NATO enlargement as well as “movement of military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders” and “the rapid build-up of military capabilities in eastern Europe”. In his view a “positive pan-European agenda” was needed instead, in order to deal with all pressing issues of European security. He also expressed support for the work of the SMM.

Polarized environment

While foreign ministers delivered their statements in the plenary session, negotiations on the ministerial draft decisions continued in the committees in parallel.

As the deadline for the closing session on 6 December at noon was looming, it turned out that achieving consensus was becoming increasingly difficult, as some states put national interests above the common goal of achieving consensus. The MC therefore went into overtime and negotiations continued until late Friday evening.

Taking up a practice from Milan in 2018, Slovakia decided to hold the closing press conference around noon on Friday, despite the fact that negotiations on ministerial decisions continued until late Friday evening.

Diplomats familiar with the negotiations say that deep rifts among participating States made achieving consensus difficult as old divisions remained and new ones opened up.

In particular, ongoing divisions between Ukraine and Russia, that have persisted ever since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, remained. These differences continued to exasperate discussions, having a negative impact on the negotiation process.

In addition, negotiations continued to be overshadowed by disagreements between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. There is a tendency to link conflict-related disagreements with unrelated areas of the OSCE’s work, which makes achieving consensus even more very difficult.

Furthermore, new divisions opened up, especially among the western camp within the OSCE. The growing divide among western States is the result of divergent views towards engagement with Russian. Some states, among them Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Belgium, support constructive collaboration with Russia on matters of common interest. Others, including the U.S., UK, Canada, Norway, Poland and Sweden, want to avoid a “business as usual” scenario in which the real concerns regarding Russia’s behavior are not sufficiently addressed. This divide means that the West does not always speak with one, unified voice anymore, which also sometimes complicates negotiations on ministerial decisions.

The practice, which is becoming more common, of linking agreement on decisions to unrelated topics in order to advance narrow national interests, holds entire negotiation processes hostage and blocks prospects for productive dialogue, making the achievement of consensus impossible.

This dynamic is particularly harmful in the OSCE, an Organization that is based on consensus. “This practice is now also assumed by some established, western democracies,“ one diplomat noted, adding that “a readiness for compromise is nowadays seen as a weakness”. The Bratislava MC thus also clearly demonstrated the limits of cooperative security.

Weak results

As a result, ministers could agree only on six documents, three of which were of a purely administrative nature.

Among the more substantive texts was a ministerial statement on the negotiations on the Transdniestrian settlement process in the 5+2 format. (The format includes Moldova, Transdniestria, the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the U.S.). While this was the only statement on the protracted conflicts, it is important to note that the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met on the margins of the MC to discuss their differences.

The ministerial statement on Transdniestria reaffirms that Moldova and Transdniestria are ready to continue the so-called “result oriented settlement process”, which was already emphasized by the 2016 Hamburg, 2017 Vienna and 2018 Milan ministerial statements. This can be seen as a positive development since this year’s talks in the 5+2 format, which were held in Bratislava in early October, failed to produce a new protocol with concrete, small steps and confidence-building measures, in particular with regard to taxation and the banking system. Overall, the statement can be seen as a positive signal for continuation of the settlement process, especially considering that this year things were made more complicated by elections in Moldova in February that resulted in a short constitutional crisis in June.

In addition, ministers adopted two commemorative declarations. One was on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the OSCE Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security, a key document from 1994 that regulates norms and principles with regard to the conduct of armed and security forces. The one-page declaration does little more than reconfirming what had been agreed 25 years ago.

The second commemorative declaration deals with the 25th anniversary of the OSCE principles governing non-proliferation, as well as the 15th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, in which the Security Council decided in 2004 that all states shall refrain from providing any form of support to non-state actors that attempt to acquire and develop weapons of mass destruction. Again, this declaration merely reaffirms OSCE commitments to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Furthermore, the OSCE MC decided that Sweden should take the OSCE Chairmanship in 2021 and Poland in 2022. This decision is important as it provides continuity and gives the Organization the possibility to plan and coordinate activities and political priorities within the Troika. Yet, it proved to be difficult to get the necessary support, even for this seemingly administrative decision. After protracted negotiations at the ambassadorial level in Vienna in the weeks prior to the MC, the deadlock was only broken last minute among ministers in Bratislava on 5 December.

Failed draft decisions

As was expected, the political declaration yet again failed to reach consensus, a negative trend that has continued since 2002. In order to make up for this, the OSCE Troika issued a joint Declaration for People, Dialogue and Stability, emphasizing many of the aspects that would have gone into the political declaration, such as the OSCE’s work in Ukraine, and the recent successful disengagement in eastern Ukraine. In their joint statement, the OSCE Troika also expresses support for modernizing the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures, and reaffirms that the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are part of the OSCE’s comprehensive concept of security.

The polarized environment also meant that no decision could be adopted in the human as well as in the economic and environmental dimensions. Some of the drafts under negotiation would have strengthened existing mandates or even provided the Organization with new mandates to address emerging threats. These included drafts on the topics of energy security, supporting digital innovation, countering environmental crime, combating torture, and enhancing the right to peaceful assembly.

Furthermore, 32 states, including the U.S., tabled a draft decision on modernizing the 2011 Vienna Document. As Acting Assistant Secretary of State Reeker stated in his opening remarks, Russia “was not prepared to make a commitment”.

Moscow in fact first demands a comprehensive solution of the security situation in Europe, which also includes abandoning NATO deterrence and stationing of troops along the NATO-Russia border, as a precondition to a decision on modernizing the 2011 Vienna Document. “In a situation in which instead of dialogue we are facing the aggressive containment of our country, we see no possibility for discussing the modernization of the Vienna Document 2011,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated in his opening remarks at the MC. (see here for a recent study by PIR Center on this topic).

Strong leadership throughout the year

Despite the weak results of the Bratislava MC, the Slovak Chairmanship needs to be given credit for its work throughout 2019, which was characterized by a particularly engaged CiO. By traveling to all OSCE field operations and attending all major OSCE conferences throughout the year, Foreign Minister Lajčák enhanced the visibility of the OSCE on the international stage and provided much needed political leadership.

This leadership was particularly visible in eastern Ukraine. The Slovak Chairmanship took full advantage of the window of opportunity and pushed for military disengagement, demining, and reparation of the Stanytsia Luhanska bridge, thus improving the living conditions for people on the ground in Ukraine.

Albania to take over

Albania will take over the OSCE Chairmanship from Slovakia on 1 January 2020. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama noted that his country had actually been against the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in the 1970s. “When the OSCE was born, Albania was the only European state to refuse it and to denounce it,” he said during the concluding press conference in Bratislava. Against this background, he described it as “amazing” that Albania will take over the Chairmanship in 2020, and assured everyone that his country would act as an “open and inclusive chair”.


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