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The OSCE Ministerial Council and Year in Review: Virtual Diplomacy and the Limits of Cooperative Security

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis16 December 2020

The 27th OSCE Ministerial Council (MC) meeting was held against the background of unprecedented security challenges in the OSCE region—among which the global coronavirus pandemic was only one part. Given the circumstances, the Albanian OSCE Chairmanship was forced to move the annual gathering of OSCE Foreign Ministers online for the first time in the Organization’s history.

From a central operating room at the Foreign Ministry in Tirana, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, welcomed 53 Foreign Ministers online, calling on them one by one. Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, he described 2020 as a “particularly testing year, even by usual standards”.

“Let’s use the Tirana ministerial meeting as an opportunity to turn the corner and to emerge from our current crisis in co-operation,” Rama said, opening the meeting. Next to him was Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde, who will take over the OSCE Chairmanship next year (and who travelled to Tirana specifically for the virtual OSCE MC meeting).

Decisions on OSCE senior leadership

As one of the main deliverables, the MC agreed to appoint German career diplomat Helga Schmid, who previously served as secretary general of the European External Action Service, as the next OSCE Secretary General. Her diplomatic skills are widely recognized thanks to her key role in helping negotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Participating States also agreed to appoint former Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov as the Organization’s next High Commissioner on National Minorities; Portuguese State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Maria Teresa Ribeiro as Representative on Freedom of the Media; and Matteo Mecacci of Italy, president of the advocacy NGO International Campaign for Tibet, as the new Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

The appointments finally brought to an end an unprecedented leadership vacuum at the OSCE—and highlighted the Albanian Chairmanship’s success in forging a consensus despite considerable challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the already complicated negotiations into a virtual format. A spat between Hungary and Ukraine over minority rights had threatened to spoil the agreement at the eleventh hour, but was overcome at a meeting among OSCE ambassadors in Vienna earlier this month.

The four appointments represent a balanced package, taking into consideration gender and geography. Russia and other former Soviet republics had long wanted one of their own representatives to be offered senior positions in the OSCE—a demand accommodated by the appointment of Abdrakhmanov.

Meanwhile, in a significant move, participating States agreed that North Macedonia will chair the OSCE in 2023, following Sweden in 2021 and Poland in 2022. This provides the Organization with a clear path for leadership over the next three years and enables forward planning and continuity. A bid by Estonia to assume the Chairmanship in 2024, however, failed.

Small package of decisions adopted

Also under negotiation were 20 draft decisions and declarations among OSCE diplomats. Only four received a consensus and will build on existing commitments: a declaration on strengthening cooperation in countering transnational organized crime; a decision on preventing and combating corruption through digitalization and increased transparency; a decision on the prevention and eradication of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and a declaration on cooperation with the OSCE Asian Partners.

Participating States also adopted a ministerial statement on the negotiations over the Transdniestrian settlement process in the 5+2 format. It builds on earlier statements adopted in Hamburg (2016), Vienna (2017), Milan (2018) and Bratislava (2019). It provides a strong political impetus to the negotiation process in the 5+2 format, which has slowed down this year as interconnectivity between the two banks of the Dniester River suffered due to the pandemic.

Failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Since the coronavirus forced governments to introduce nationwide measures to curb its spread, international cooperation has suffered even despite attempts by the OSCE to promote such coordinated efforts.

To its credit, the Albanian Chairmanship, together with the OSCE Secretariat, managed the unprecedented task of moving the entire negotiation and meeting schedule of the OSCE online during much of the year. This ensured, for example, the timely extension of the mandate of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine in March (including an increased budget for the mission) at a time when Austria introduced a strict lockdown.

Yet the Organization failed to respond with clear action or policy proposals to deal with the pandemic’s consequences for international security. This was probably one of the reasons the Chairmanship tabled a draft ministerial declaration on COVID-19 that was under negotiation prior to the MC in the Preparatory Committee.

The draft declaration, seen by SHR Monitor, was a substantive text that underscored the need for international and multilateral cooperation in addressing the pandemic. It urged States to protect fundamental freedoms and human rights—particularly regarding the use of states of emergency—and recognized the importance of the free and transparent flow of information and the need to counter the spread of disinformation. The draft text also referred to the economic impact of the pandemic, as well as its effect on a range of other issues, such as women’s rights, national minorities, and civil society.

But while the draft declaration received widespread support from many participating States, it failed to attract the necessary consensus due to fundamentally divergent views regarding protracted conflicts in the OSCE region—particularly the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

To make up for this failure, Albania used the text of the draft declaration on COVID-19 and issued it as a “Chairmanship Statement on COVID-19”, also on behalf of 55 other OSCE participating States. The only State missing on the list is Armenia.

The OSCE region in turmoil

Indeed, 2020 was marked by numerous conflicts that flared up across the OSCE region.

Following the August 9 presidential election in Belarus, demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the country demanding President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. The regime responded with violence, crushing the protests and detaining people en masse. Authorities in Minks refused an offer by the Albanian OSCE Chairmanship, together with the incoming Swedish Chairmanship, to visit Belarus and facilitate dialogue.

With few other options remaining, 17 participating States triggered the so-called Moscow Mechanism in mid-September and mandated Wolfgang Benedek, an Austrian professor of international law, to investigate alleged human rights violations and election fraud. His report, released on November 5, found “massive and systematic” human rights violations “proven beyond doubt,” as well as “overwhelming evidence” that the election was rigged. The report also contains many concrete recommendations to both the Belarusian regime and the international community. Thus far, no follow-up has been initiated.

Only weeks into the Belarusian crisis, heavy fighting erupted in and around the disputed South Caucasian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in late September—the worst since the early 1990s. The full-scale war was halted six weeks later following a Moscow-brokered ceasefire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to the region. With geopolitical realities confirmed, the OSCE Minsk Group, that spearheaded efforts to find a lasting solution to the conflict since 1992, was sidelined and unable to play its vital role in settling the conflict.

Meanwhile, other crises in the OSCE area, including in Ukraine, Transdniestria and Georgia, remain unresolved. Despite a renewed ceasefire in eastern Ukraine largely holding since July, efforts by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission have been constrained by the coronavirus pandemic, although the mission was able to compensate for this by employing technical means such as drones and cameras.

Besides having a profound economic impact on societies, the pandemic also halted arms control verification and has increased the humanitarian cost of conflicts. Some governments in the OSCE region intensified their crackdowns on civil society and used the pandemic as cover to flout the rule of law, as documented by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

All this turmoil came during a year of important anniversaries, including the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the founding of the United Nations, the 45th anniversary of the CSCE Helsinki Final Act, the 30th anniversary of the CSCE Charter of Paris as well as the 10th anniversary of the OSCE Astana Summit. Today, these milestones seem little more than distant reminders of a better time, when the OSCE seemed a more relevant actor and participating States made better use of the instruments and tools that the Organization offers them.

Heated debate in the virtual plenary

Most foreign ministers referred to those challenges in their virtual speeches.

Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, expressed the EU’s “unwavering commitment to multilateralism” to tackle the global challenges. He called on Belarus to implement the recommendations contained in Benedek’s report and to accept the mediation proposal by the OSCE. On Nagorno-Karabakh, he underlined the fact that the final status of the disputed region remains unresolved and reiterated the EU’s full support of the OSCE Minsk Group and its Co-Chairs as “the only established format to pursue this objective”.

Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun emphasized that Ukraine must “remain at the top of our agenda”, describing the conflict as “the most egregious violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity within the OSCE area”. He called on Russia to implement the Minsk Agreements and stressed that the U.S. would “never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea”.

Like many Foreign Ministers, Biegun also called on Belarus to release political prisoners and engage in a meaningful dialogue with the opposition’s coordination council. As a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Biegun also urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to “resume work with the Minsk Group Co-Chairs to reach a lasting, peaceful end to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

On behalf of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba denounced the “ongoing Russian aggression” against his country and underscored the need for the OSCE community “to maintain pressure on Russia to make it change its behavior”. He also said Kyiv had worked on a ministerial draft decision on the OSCE permanent monitoring of areas adjacent to the uncontrolled segment of the Ukrainian-Russian border. He said this proposal had received the support of 33 States—but was blocked by Russia, leading to its failure.

Kuleba also condemned the “cynical and systematic persecution of dissenting voices” by the “occupying power” in Crimea. Referring to Russia’s “continued occupation and militarization of the Crimean Peninsula and its surrounding waters”, he reminded participating States that it was in their “common interest to restore security and stability in the wider Azov-Black Sea region” and called on all States to support an upcoming UN General Assembly resolution on the matter.

A Russian proposal for OSCE reform

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov presented an entirely different view on those issues—saying the pandemic had “become an additional factor of fragmentation and anxiety in international relations” and had shown “the need to jointly work out consistent responses to common challenges and counter real rather than imaginary threats”.

“The stumbling block remains the reluctance of Western countries to give up confrontational block-based approaches and the arrogant attitude to the lawful interests of other states, which stems from the belief of their exceptionalism,” he said.

Lavrov added that Russia hopes Ukraine will “stop sabotaging the implementation of the Minsk Agreements”. On Nagorno-Karabakh, he underlined his country’s willingness to continue facilitating the settlement, but also expressed support for “cooperation between the three Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group”, which besides Russia includes the U.S. and France.

What came as a surprise to many, though, was a proposal by Lavrov to reform the OSCE. Referring to the difficulty of appointing the Organization’s senior leadership, he claimed it was a sign of institutional problems that have long accumulated. He also said the OSCE’s reputation was dealt a severe blow due to ODIHR’s “misguided refusal to monitor the presidential election in Belarus, subsequent one-sided criticism of the Belarusian authorities and the launch of the obsolete Moscow Mechanism”.

“The ODIHR’s bias, its participation in campaigns against some countries and its impervious, cowardly silence about the situation in other countries discredits our organization,” Lavrov said.

Russia believes the OSCE should improve the transparency and efficiency of its Secretariat, institutions and field missions, improve methods of monitoring elections, streamline the activities and preparations of the Ministerial Council, achieve a balance in the three security dimensions, and upgrade the budget process. Lavrov suggested that the incoming Swedish OSCE Chairmanship should establish an informal working group on “enhancing the OSCE’s efficiency”, adding that it was “high time our Western colleagues stopped feigning the impression that changes are not necessary”.

Acrimonious exchange over Nagorno-Karabakh

In the wake of the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the virtual MC also saw a heated exchange between those two countries. Fundamentally divergent views on the issue foreshadow a difficult task ahead for the OSCE Minsk Group in pushing for a final settlement.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov made clear that, for his country, the conflict was now settled. He hailed the Moscow-brokered November 10 ceasefire as having “created the ground” for putting an end to the three-decade-old conflict, highlighting the return of surrounding territories to Azerbaijan as well as the importance of returning internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes under the supervision of UNHCR, as well as the safe movement of persons and vehicles between the two countries.

Bayramov also referred to the joint monitoring center between Russia and Turkey that was established to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire, and thanked both countries for “making the agreement a reality”. “These neighboring states play an important role as guarantors of the above-mentioned agreement, the implementation of which will ensure long overdue peace and stability in the South Caucasus region,” he said.

Bayramov also expressed Azerbaijan’s willingness to work with relevant international partners, such as the ICRC, UNHCR, other UN agencies and individual states, “to contribute to peace and stability in full compliance with the UN guiding principles on humanitarian assistance of 1991”. He did not mention the OSCE Minsk Group facilitating a final settlement.

“Azerbaijan is resolute to reintegrate its citizens of the Armenian region residing in the territories of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the republic of Azerbaijan in this political, social and economic space, guaranteeing the same rights and freedoms with all the citizens of Azerbaijan regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation on an equal and non-discriminatory basis.”

In apparent support of Azerbaijan, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh showed that “the 30-year occupation of Azerbaijani territory was not sustainable” and that the recent agreement means “a real chance for peace after three decades”. He said Turkey, as a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, was committed to all efforts to find a lasting settlement to the conflict, which should be based “on international law, relevant UN Security Council resolutions, OSCE principles as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan”. “We call on other members of the OSCE Minsk Group and Co-Chairs to refrain from politically motivated actions that will undermine the path to a negotiated settlement”, he added.

Unsurprisingly, Armenian Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian presented an entirely different point of view. He referred to the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and said “the large-scale war unleashed by Azerbaijan with the direct involvement of its allies—Turkey and foreign terrorist fighters and jihadists—added another dimension to the already dire situation”.

He said fighting was accompanied by war crimes “with the ultimate purpose of ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population from their ancestral lands” and claimed Azerbaijan was “greatly instigated and supported politically and militarily by the Turkish leadership in its pursuit of expansionist power projection into the South Caucasus and beyond”. Aivazian said that the latter two countries now insisted that the current situation on the ground resulting from the war should be considered “as resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

According to Armenia, Aivazian said, a lasting and sustainable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be achieved only through negotiations under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship as “the only internationally-mandated mechanism to deal with settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”.

A positive signal came, however, when the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group (the U.S., Russia and France) released a joint statement on December 3 urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to “take advantage of the current ceasefire to negotiate a lasting and sustainable peace agreement” under their guidance and to receive the Co-Chair in the region “at the earliest opportunity”.

The OSCE is ‘not fun’

At the end of the ministerial meeting, Rama provided an emotional roundup of his country’s one-year tenure at the helm of the Organization. “Once upon a time, but yet in our lifetime, we were the North Korea of Europe, and suddenly we had to lead, through a pandemic, such a large world organization,” he said. “This is quite a tough Organization to manage—not fun!”

He recalled the many crises Albania faced during its time in office, each one arriving with a loud “boom”, as Rama described it. “Everything was against us, crisis upon crisis upon crisis. But we persevered and showed our resilience, our ambition and our passion”, he said.

Indeed, the meeting revealed that virtual diplomacy works if all States act in concert and understand the urgency of the situation. The appointment of the four leadership posts is an example of that—as is the Chair’s ability to move decision-making and negotiation online as the pandemic broke out.

Yet 2020 also exposed the limits of cooperative security. Geopolitical realities prevailed in Nagorno-Karabakh, with new facts being created on the ground via military action instead of diplomacy. In Belarus, the OSCE’s instruments quickly reached their limits after Minsk refused to take up the Chairmanship’s offer for mediation, while a follow-up to the Moscow Mechanism report remains elusive for the time being.

The main challenges will continue into next year when Sweden takes over the OSCE Chairmanship. There is hope, however, that a vaccine will help bring the pandemic under control and enable the OSCE to return to its usual working methods. “Diplomacy is very much a contact sport,” as one OSCE diplomat remarked recently.


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