“The OSCE is only as strong as the global political climate permits”

OSCE leadership crew voted out

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) plays an important role in international interaction and especially in the area of tension between NATO and Russia. It is the successor organisation to the CSCE (Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe), under which the Helsinki Final Act was signed on 1 August 1975. During the Cold War, its follow-up conferences were one of the few platforms for dialogue between the communist Eastern bloc and the West, including neutral and non-aligned states.
    Today, the OSCE, founded in 1995, is trying to bring the parties in the European conflicts together in order to support the dialogue between the major powers involved. In addition to this political level, the OSCE is also active in practical terms, for example, it observes national elections to ensure that they are conducted in accordance with the rule of law and democratic criteria. Or it monitors compliance with an agreed ceasefire, as is currently the case in Eastern Ukraine (see box). The OSCE does not take any coercive measures; it only becomes active upon the invitation or with consent of the participating states. The OSCE’s leadership is determined by the Permanent Council of Ambassadors in Vienna, who of course consult with their actual governments. The principle of unanimity applies.1

It was a pleasure and an honour for Switzerland when an experienced Swiss diplomat was elected Secretary-General and Head of the OSCE three years ago. Thomas Greminger has worked in the diplomatic service of the FDFA (Federal Department of Foreign Affairs) since 1990, including the SDC (Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation). Since 2010 he has been Switzerland’s permanent representative (with the rank of an ambassador) to the OSCE, the UN and the international organisations in Vienna. In his new position as Secretary-General, Greminger as representative of neutral Switzerland could pick from an embarassment of riches.
    However, when in July 2020 Greminger and the other leaders were up for re-election for the next three years, usually a mere formality, there was a scandal: all four were voted out of office and their term of office ended on 18 July. The annual Council of the 57 foreign ministers in December will probably have to solve the leadership crisis. It shall be explained – as far as can be seen today – how this could happen and what geopolitical moves might be behind it.

Course of the decline reelection

Since 2017, the leadership of the OSCE has consisted of Thomas Greminger, Secretary-General (Switzerland), Harlem Désir, Representative on Freedom of the Media (France), Ingibjörg Solrun Gisladottir, Head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) (Iceland) and Lamberto Zannier, High Commissioner on National Minorities (Italy).
    On 26 June 2020, the Austrian newspaper “Der Standard” reported that Azerbaijan is opposed to the extension of the mandate of the Media Representative Harlem Désir. The Azerbaijani Foreign Minister said that Désir had “‘unduly criticised’ the situation of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan”. Azerbaijan also criticised that Désir had provided little assistance in eliminating the problems in this regard.2
This was the first step to get the ball rolling. According to the daily press of 16 July, Tajikistan joined the vote against the Frenchman’s re-election. Next in line Turkey and Tajikistan (which had been affected by one of the ODIHR scandals in the past) opposed the extension of the mandate of Icelandic Ingibjörg Solrun Gisladottir. Now France and Iceland, with the support of Canada and Norway, reacted and demanded rightaway that the entire leadership team should not be re-elected, thus including Thomas Greminger and Lamberto Zannier.3
    Since in the OSCE all 57 member states would have to agree to the re-election of the four leaders, the failure of the election was a fact. Since 18 July 2020, the OSCE has now been without leadership.

Secretary-General Greminger as a victim of political dynamics

In response to Fredy Gsteiger’s question on Radio SRF on 14 July: “Do you see yourself to some extent as collateral damage of a difficult situation in the OSCE, almost a bit of a pawn sacrifice?”, Secretary -eneral Greminger answered: “Yes, that is a fair description. My person, my performance over the past three years have not been fundamentally questioned. Of course, there have been criticisms here and there – that’s normal when you take action in an organisation with 57 participating states. In this sense, I have actually been the victim of a political dynamic to some extent”.4
    In the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, the problem of conspicously one-sidedly occupied leadership positions was also taken up: “Would a better geographical distribution of leadership positions be a way to give them broader support? The Russians are pushing for candidates from Eastern Europe.” Thomas Greminger: “It would now be important that strong candidacies also come from the East. In the General Secretariat, too, we have too few staff from countries east of Vienna.”5
    This gives rise to the suspicion that the states of the West are trying to control the OSCE. The fact is that resistance from Russia and other Eastern states was already coming in 2017, because the candidates were largely from Western European NATO countries. Finally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreed to the composition, mainly because Thomas Greminger was proposed as Secretary-General. The “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” comments: “Greminger had a considerable advantage as the representative of a neutral country that also maintains excellent relations with Moscow. He thus became one of the most prominent Swiss diplomats in the international arena”.6
    In view of the one-sided composition of offices, it is understandable that the government of Azerbaijan now took French criticism of its country as a reason to demand the Frenchman’s removal from office. It is important to bear in mind that Azerbaijan has been involved for over 30 years in one of the conflicts the OSCE has been struggling to resolve: the dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. At present, another war is raging between the two states, with at least 17 people already dead.7 The OSCE was unable to solve this conflict, but prevented it from escalating for many years. In this respect, Russia’s assistance is crucial, as it had a de-escalating effect in the past. Without Moscow’s assistance, escalation could hardly be prevented. It seems that the Azerbaijani Government feels that the Western states in the OSCE do not provide enough support. One indication of this is that Turkey – which is on Azerbaijan’s side in this war – has joined the call for the removal of the OSCE leadership.

Cui bono? Who benefits from a weak OSCE?

Azerbaijan, Turkey and Tajikistan may have initiated the removal of the OSCE leadership, but it seems that a weakening of this important institution, whose main purpose is to maintain dialogue between the West and Russia, is not inconvenient for some major powers.
    Despite the efforts of Secretary-General Thomas Greminger, the heads of states and governments have not agreed on an adequate interim solution in the current situation – for example an extension of the current mandates until successors are appointed. According to an announcement by the SDA on 18 July, “deputies and office heads” will only continue to perform the necessary routine functions until the successors have been appointed.8 This will only be possible at the next Ministerial Council of Foreign Ministers of the OSCE participating states in December.
    According to Thomas Greminger, the great powers have hardly lifted a finger to prevent the debacle and save the OSCE’s political capacity to act. Sometimes arises that the NATO and EU member states in particular have little interest in a strong OSCE. They also resisted Greminger’s reform efforts to strengthen the OSCE. According to an article in World Economy, Canada and Norway – who are largely responsible for the de-selection of the OSCE leadership team – played an active role in torpedoing Greminger’s proposed instruments for de-escalating tensions between OSCE States.9
    After the failure of his efforts to find a satisfactory interim solution, Greminger stated: “I am very disappointed and frustrated that it has come to this. [...] To prevent the leadership vacuum that has now become reality, it would have required an escalation by the major powers who would have shown the smaller countries the political costs of their disastrous solo efforts. But apart from Germany, none of them was ready for steps beyond diplomatic intervention.” And further: “A call from President Macron to his Azerbaijani counterpart might have made a difference. The tactics of blocking and remaining passive at the same time is disturbing.”10  Especially when keeping in mind that, according to reports, a telephone conversation between the current chairman of the OSCE, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, and the Azerbaijani head of state Aliyev was constructive.
    Why did Macron not make this telephone call? Why is there no news from the superpower on the other side of the Atlantic (which is not usually so reticent)? According to reports, Macron and his Foreign Minister Le Drian did not answer the telephone calls from Federal President Sommaruga and Federal Councilor Cassis either. Based on the available documents, one can only assume that the careful and focused work of OSCE staff, for example in the Ukraine conflict, may not be in the interests of the major Western powers. If you read the randomly selected daily report of the Special Monitoring Mission to Eastern Ukraine of 16 July (see box “OSCE field operations”), it is easy to see that – at least on that day – “most of the ceasefire violations were recorded in government-controlled areas”. This contradicts the “aggressiveness” of the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, or rather the Russians supporting them, as claimed in our media. On the contrary, an analysis of several years of ceasefire violations in Eastern Ukraine shows according to an independent expert that the Ukrainian army is committing a significant proportion of these violations. This proportion fluctuates periodically between 40 and 60%.
    Thomas Greminger, who already after the coup on the Maidan in 2014 (at that time still as Swiss representative with the OSCE) “played a decisive role in the establishment of the observer mission in Ukraine”11, is commenting the accusations made here and there of being “too Russia-friendly”: “[…] I was very careful not to be in Moscow more often than in Washington. Balance is the be-all and end-all of this organisation. It is not my fault that I was always received at a lower level in Washington than in Moscow. At the same time, it seems to me that it makes sense to cultivate relations with the Russians. The OSCE is one of the few remaining international dialogue platforms where they still sit at the table on an equal footing.”12
    Perhaps this view from a neutral side is too balanced for some NATO powers? Canada, in particular, has already expressed difficulties with Greminger’s participation in conferences in Moscow. Western states sometimes tried to prevent high-ranking delegations from attending conferences in Moscow and to ensure such participation at the Munich Security Conference.

Russian Foreign Minister demanded an OSCE peace initiative
at the Russian border with NATO states

In contrast to the Western Powers, Russia is holding on to a strong OSCE which performs its tasks above all on Russia’s border with NATO Europe. At the ministerial meeting of the “Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe” in Bratislava on 6 December 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke in plain language: “In several waves NATO has expanded – which wants to be the source of legitimacy. Its military infrastructure has reached Russia’s borders, and it has intensively expanded its military potential in Eastern Europe, increased its arms expenditure to record levels and at the same time created an enemy image (of Russia). All this has created tensions that we have not seen since the years of the Cold War.” Lavrov called on the OSCE to take action: “It is important to stop this dangerous trend and stop the further tendency towards confrontation. The OSCE could and should play an important role in solving these tasks because of its vast geographical scope, its all-encompassing approach to security, its consensus principle and its cultural dialogue”.13

Closing remarks

Let us leave the closing remarks to the Swiss Thomas Greminger: “The OSCE is only as strong as the global political climate allows. We are a toolbox of great tools, even if some of them are somewhat cheap or outdated. But these tools have to be used. If the political will is lacking, the box is severely underutilised.”14        •

1  About the organisation and activities of the OSCE see the fact sheet “What is the OSCE?” published by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe from 30 August 2018 (https://www.osce.org/whatistheosce)
2  “Aserbaidschan gegen Verlängerung von OSZE-Medienbeauftragtem Harlem Désir” (Azerbaijan against extension of OSCE Media Representative Harlem Désir), in: Der Standard from 26 June 2020 (APA)
3  Liechtenstein, Stephanie. “OSZE lahmgelegt – durch kleingeistiges Verhalten einzelner Staaten” (OSCE paralysed– by small-minded behaviour of individual states), in: St. Galler Tagblatt from 16 July 2020. Guest commentary.
4  Gsteiger, Fredy. “OSZE: Thomas Greminger als Bauernopfer?” (OSCE: Thomas Greminger as a pawn sacrifice?), Radio SRF, Echo der Zeit from 14 July 2020
5  Mijnssen, Ivo. “Ich sehe mich durchaus als Kollateralschaden” (I consider myself quite collateral damage), Interview with OSCE Secretary-General Thomas Greminger, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020
6  Mijnssen, Ivo. “Kopflose OSZE” (Headless OSCE), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020
7  See for example: Silvia Stöber. “Armenien und Aserbaidschan. Konfliktherd ‘Schwarzer Felsen’”. (Armenia and Azerbaijan. Conflict focus ‘Black Rock’), tagesschau.de from 18 July 2020: “These are the fiercest battles since 2016: Armenian and Azerbaijani troops have been shooting at each other with heavy guns for days. The risk of the conflict spreading is great”
8  “OSZE-Posten werden bis Jahresende von Vizes und Büroleitern geführt”. (OSCE positions will be held by Vice-Presidents and Heads of Office until the end of the year) sda-release from 18 July 2020
9  Guljaew, Rudolf. “OSZE – Brückenbauer in der Krise” (OSCE – bridge-builder in the crisis), in: World Economy from 14 July 2020
10 Mijnssen, Ivo. “Ich sehe mich durchaus als Kollateralschaden”. Interview mit OSZE-Generalsekretär Thomas Greminger (I do see myself as collateral damage. Interview with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020
11 Mijnssen, Ivo. “Kopflose OSZE” (The Headless OSCE), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020
12 Mijnssen, Ivo. “Ich sehe mich durchaus als Kollateralschaden”. Interview mit OSZE-Generalsekretär Thomas Greminger (I do see myself as collateral damage. Interview with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020
13 “Lawrow will OSZE-Friedensinitiative: Die Nato steht an unseren Grenzen und erklärt uns zum Feind” (Lavrov wants OSCE peace initiative: NATO stands at our borders and declares us the enemy) RT deutsch from 6 December 2019
14  Mijnssen, Ivo. “Ich sehe mich durchaus als Kollateralschaden”. Interview mit OSZE-Generalsekretär Thomas Greminger (I do see myself as collateral damage. Interview with OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger), in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung from 17 July 2020

OSCE field operations

mw. According to the OSCE Information Bulletin1 , the majority of the 3,500 staff and resources are deployed in field operations in South Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia: “One of the OSCE’s core activities is to address protracted conflicts in its region through agreed negotiation formats. These include the Transdniestrian Settlement Process, aimed at achieving a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict over Transdniestria; the OSCE Minsk Group, which seeks a peaceful negotiated solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; and the Geneva International Discussions on the aftermath of the August 2008 conflict in Georgia, which the Organisation cochairs with the United Nations and the European Union.”

OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine

The Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine currently exists of almost 700 unarmed civilian monitors and initially pursues the goal of reducing tensions. On the OSCE homepage you can find the daily reports of the SMM and learn that every day there are numerous ceasefire violations at the agreed ceasefire line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. For example, on 16 July 2020 there were 30 violations, including numerous explosions. Interestingly, the daily report points out that most of the ceasefire violations were reported in government-controlled areas (with exact locations in words and on a map).
    Besides these monitorings, the SMM also carries out humanitarian activities for the affected population. For example you can read in the summary of the daily report of 16 July 2020:
    "The Mission facilitated and monitored adherence to localised ceasefires to enable the repairs and maintenance of critical civilian infrastructure.
    The Mission continued following up on the situation of civilians amid the COVID-19 outbreak, including at entry-exit checkpoints and corresponding checkpoints in Donetsk and Luhansk regions.“2

1  “What is the OSCE?”  Published by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 30 August 2018 (https://www.osce.org/whatistheosce)
2  Daily Report 168/2020 of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), published on 16 July 2020

OSCE participating States

mw. Participating States of The OSCE are all European states, including neutral states, the former member states of the Soviet Union as well as the USA and Canada (thus also all NATO members): Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Greece, The Holy See (Vatican City), Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Canada, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Croatia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Northern Macedonia, Norway, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Sweden, Switzerland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Tajikistan, Czech Republic, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Hungary, Uzbekistan, United Kingdom, United States of America, Cyprus.

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