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Unresolved tensions

The future of the OSCE has been in debate since the end of the 1990s, when two presidents who at one time championed the organisation, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, came out of office. Neither of their successors were interested in the OSCE in the form that it took in the 1990s, while at the same time neither proved able to change it. For this and other reasons, the OSCE remains in doubt in terms of its medium- to long-term sustainability. The first issue is the debate between the USA (and its allies) and Russia (and its allies) as to what form of OSCE they want, harking back to the creation of the CSCE from 1973 to 1975. The institutionalisation and transition of the Conference to the Organization created an actor in the European security architecture which would predominately be concerned with the fallout of failed and contested states in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. As far as Central and Eastern Europe was concerned, other organisations, such as NATO, the EU and Council of Europe, were also interested in the state of contestation and transition in these states, largely for their own purposes of enlargement. However, the same issues in the former Soviet Union were left unresolved. For instance, no movement has occurred in four ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet Union, despite the agreement at the 1999 Istanbul Summit (Revised CFE Treaty) that all Russian troops would leave the breakaway regions. The OSCE (and the UN) has been unable to improve the situation, although arguably in some cases it (at times) has helped to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Perhaps more worrying is the established resentment in the former Soviet Union that the OSCE has become an organisation aimed solely at regime transition, citing Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2007 as examples. The Russian Federation has stated on numerous occasions, as has Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, that the OSCE is no longer fit forpurpose with its current focus on democratic transition, human rights, and intra-state conflict resolution. Rather, the Russian president Vladimir Putin has encouraged a reform process in the OSCE that would see the organisation return to its inter-state focus on issues such as arms control, economic cooperation and environmental sustainability (see Dunay, 2006). As a result of the decision-making system in the OSCE PC, little resolution has been found. For instance, OSCE institutions like ODIHR are isolated from budget constraints taken at the PC. On the other hand, it is possible for ODIHR to be primarily funded by a certain group of participating states, which maintains the institution but furthers the resentment.

One example of compromise was the Kazakh assumption of the Chairperson-in-Office in 2011, which, for the first time, allowed a government friendly to Moscow into the role. The outcome of the position of Kazakhstan, however, was rather muted. Kazakhstan pushed for a summit at which a new direction of the OSCE would be debated. By the time the USA came around to agreeing to the summit (in the spirit of the ‘Reset’ policy with Russia), the Russian Federation changed its mind and withdrew its support for the summit. As a result, the OSCE looks much the same as it did before the Kazakh chairmanship, with little prospect for change. Ukraine took up the mantle in 2013, with similar outcomes.

Second, the OSCE faces considerable pressure from other organisations that have come to assume its functions (see Galbreath and Gebhard, 2010). NATO has become the vehicle for arms control discussions with the Russian Federation. The EU has become evident in the field with 37 CSDP field missions throughout the world from 2003. The EU has also become increasingly interested in far Southeast Europe in the cases of the 'frozen conflicts’. There is an EU border mission on the Ukraine-Moldova border. There are EU monitors in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. When push comes to shove in Nagorno-Karabakh, we can assume that the EU will be the primary actor here as well, although they will need to negotiate with the Russian Federation if a lasting peace is to be found. Even the Council of Europe has developed similar functions to the OSCE, with the Secretariat of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and Parliamentary Assembly. Overall, there are very few areas on which OSCE has focused left untouched by other international organisations. Contrarily, this may not be a problem for the OSCE or for the other organisations. More specifically, this functional overlap appears to be more burden sharing than competition. For instance, recent work on the European approach to national minorities indicates a strong role played by all of the organisations (see Galbreath and McEvoy, 2012).

Third, and connected to both of the previous issues, is the growing lack of political interest in the OSCE by all sides. Many states do not have full delegations to the OSCE any longer. Any collective good that comes with being a participating state at the OSCE is delivered by other organisations in ways that appear more manageable and dependable, while at the same time being ironically more constraining as legal agreements (as opposed to the political nature of the OSCE). Most problematic is the disinterest in the very areas in which it is the key - if not only - actor. Russia suspended its participation of the Revised CFE Treaty following the USA’s insistence on missile defence in Eastern Europe. In parliamentary elections to the State Duma in 2010, the Russian government did not allow the participation of the OSCE ODIHR as election observers. Yet, currently, no major participating state has a desire to do away with OSCE either, for reasons of its uniqueness, as mentioned earlier.

One such example of the OSCE’s re-emergence is Ukraine, as one case that had not been able to come to terms with its post-Soviet status. With changes in Ukraine’s relationship with the European Union, the Euromaidan movement and eventual Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent separatist movement in the Donbas, the tension had manifested itself in open warfare, the likes of which had not been seen since the Yugoslav Wars. The OSCE was once again thrust back into the spotlight, as an organisation that had experience in the region, had a degree of trust by both the West and Russia, not to mention Ukraine, and had the specialisation for field missions similar to those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The OSCE’s role has been to monitor compliance around the Minsk II agreement that was accepted by all involved in the conflict. The organisation has many observers across the contact line separating Ukrainian forces and separatist forces. Furthermore, the OSCE has been working with the United Nations on settling internally displaced persons (IDPs) emanating from the conflict affected areas. The OSCE has once again shown its vital role at the heart of European security, often fulfilling a function that no other international organisation or defence alliance could do; something that speaks more to its future than any other single factor.


The OSCE holds a unique place in European security. While NATO remains a collective security alliance and the EU continues to develop a multitude of aims and ambitions in Europe and beyond, the OSCE has a grounded approach to regional security that, while sometimes copied by other organisations, continues to be its hallmark. As the CSCE, the Conference was able to bring East and West together to lay out common security and cooperation goals that would outlast the period of détente and into the post Cold War era. Even as the post Cold War era was shaken by the rise of global jihadist terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the OSCE has maintained a role in fostering security and cooperation in ways and in areas that other organisations cannot, such as parent-teacher associations in Bosnian schools, police training in Kosovo, and observer missions in South Ossetia and now Ukraine. As European security changes in relation to European states, the USA, Russia, and, indeed, the future of the EU itself, the OSCE will continue to have a role to play; one which harks back to the original intent of the Helsinki Final Act to preserve security and encourage cooperation.

Further reading

Ghebali, Victor-Yves, and Warner, Daniel (eds) (2018), The Operational Role of the OSCE in South-Eastern Europe: Contributing to Regional Stability in the Balkans. London: Routledge.

Jenichen, Anne, Joachim, Jutta, and Schneiker, Andrea (2018), “'Gendering” European Security: Policy Changes, Reform Coalitions and Opposition in the OSCE’, European Security, 27 (1), 1-19.

Kropatcheva, Elena (2012), 'Russia and the Role of the OSCE in European Security: A “Forum” for Dialog or a “Battlefield” of Interests?’, European Security, 21 (3), 370-394.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Network of Think Tanks and .Academic Institutions (2017), OSCE Confidence Building in the Economic and Environmental Dimension: Current Opportunities and Constraints. Vienna: CORE Centre for OSCE Research.

Sperling, James, and Kirchner, Emil (1997), Recasting the European Order: Security Architectures and Economic Cooperation. Manchester: Manchester University' Press.


The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe:


Brosig, Malte (2011), ‘The Interplay of International Institutions in Kosovo between Convergence, Confusion and Niche Capabilities’, European Security, 20 (2), 185-204.

Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe (1975), ‘Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe Final Act’, Helsinki, 1 August. Available at: (accessed: 31 October 2018).

Dunay, Pal (2006), ‘The OSCE in Crisis’, Chaillot Paper 88. Paris: Institute for Security Studies.

Fall, Brian (1977), ‘The Helsinki Conference, Belgrade and European Security’, International Security, 2 (1), 100-105.

Galbreath, David J. (2005), Nation-Building and Minority Politics in Post-Socialist States: Interests, Influence and Identities in Estonia and Latvia. Stuttgart: Ibidem.

Galbreath, David J. (2007), The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. London: Routledge.

Galbreath, David J. (2009), ‘Putting the Colour into Revolutions? The OSCE and Civil Society in the Post-Soviet Region’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, 25 (2), 161-80.

Galbreath, David J., and Gebhard, Carmen (2010), Cooperation or Conflict? Problematizing Organizational Overlap in Europe. London: Ashgate.

Galbreath, David J., and McEvoy, Joanne (2012), ‘European Organizations and Minority Rights in Europe: On Transforming the Securitization Dynamic’, Security Dialogue, 43 (3), 265-282.

Gebhard, Carmen, and Norheim-Martinsen, Per Martin (2011), ‘Making Sense of EU Comprehensive Security towards Conceptual and Analytical Clarity’, European Security, 20 (2), 221-241.

Kemp, Walter A. (2001), Quiet Diplomacy in Action: The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. The Hague: Kluwer Law International.

Krupnick, Charles (1998), ‘Europe’s Intergovernmental NGO: The OSCE in Europe’s Emerging Security Structure’, European Security, 7 (2), 30-53.

Laitin, David D. (1998), Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mann, Michael (2005), The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sizoo, Jan, and Jurrjens, Rudolph (1984), CSCE Decision-Making: The Madrid Experience. The Hague: Kluwer Academic.

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