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Reviving the OSCE

It is 20 years since leaders from across Europe and North America met to set the seal on the end of the Cold War. The result was the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, a visionary statement signed on Nov. 21, 1990 by most European governments, Canada, the United States and the Soviet Union. The statement was intended to replace the divisions and rivalries of the past with new institutions of common security stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok and was the basis for the formation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Participating states pledged to improve their relations, to treat security within the Euro-Atlantic area as indivisible, and to work together on the basis of mutual respect and common democratic values.

The OSCE was meant to be the organizational expression of this pan-European vision.?  The informal mechanisms established by the Helsinki Accords 15 years earlier were replaced with permanent structures designed to prevent conflict, institutionalize security cooperation and strengthen democratic reform and human rights. Heads of state and foreign ministers were to meet regularly to resolve Europe’s security problems and set priorities for the future.

Regrettably, the promise of that historic vision has not been honored. Instead of being a central pillar of the post-Cold War European order, the OSCE is more often an afterthought in the continent’s most important security deliberations. Russia’s authoritarian turn has weakened the base of common values that participating states are meant to share, with Moscow becoming openly hostile to the OSCE’s human rights and election monitoring functions as well as to media freedom. Russia’s intervention in Georgia, disputes over energy supplies, and a failure to resolve the frozen conflicts have added to a climate of mutual recrimination.

At the same time, though, it would be wrong to lay all the blame for the OSCE’s decline at Russia’s door. There has been no summit of heads of OSCE member governments since 1999, and many Western leaders give the appearance of having lost interest in the organization.?  Some complain about the absence of a substantive agenda that might command their attention. But if Western countries were committed to realizing the goals envisaged for the OSCE in the Charter of Paris, they would be working to develop a substantive agenda of their own. It is Western passivity as much as Russian obstructionism that is at fault.

But there are now tentative signs that relations between Russia and the West might be changing for the better. U.S. President Barack Obama’s reset policy has already produced an important nuclear disarmament agreement.?  Europe, Russia and the United States are cooperating constructively again on Iran. In addition, the Russian government’s sensitive handling of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre has opened the way for a rapprochement with Poland.

These are all encouraging developments. The violence in Kyrgyzstan, an OSCE member, shows the need to handle security problems in the Eurasian space in a cooperative rather than a competitive manner. The OSCE should be the vehicle that permits a defusing of the crisis. Russia, together with the member states of the European Union and NATO, should support the efforts of Kazakhstan to solve the crisis in its capacity as chair of the OSCE. With the backing of these countries, the OSCE could play an important role in facilitating the honest and stable government Kyrgyzstan needs, thereby making a valuable contribution to the security of Central Asia as a whole.

Russia and the West should be seeking to build on this opportunity. President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new European security treaty has obvious problems. It is widely interpreted as an effort to sideline the OSCE, paralyze NATO and divide Europe into spheres of influence. But instead of summarily turning down Medvedev’s security proposal, the West should embrace the challenge of renewing Europe’s security architecture and make a counterproposal designed to uphold its own values while acknowledging Russia’s legitimate role and aspirations. At the same time, the OSCE should condition Russia’s role in European security on the Kremlin’s adherence to the values and principles enshrined in the Charter of Paris and the Helsinki Final Act.

Meanwhile, Western governments should be developing a package of proposals designed to reform the OSCE and strengthen its ability to meet the security challenges ahead.?  These should be explored at a heads of government summit to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Charter of Paris in November. There is certainly plenty to discuss.?  With Kazakhstan the first Central Asian and the first majority-Muslim nation to chair the OSCE, it is a symbolically significant moment to address some of the big foreign policy issues of our time — how to accommodate the rise of Asia, improve cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and bring security and stability to Afghanistan.

These are all areas where Russia, Europe and North America should recognize their shared long-term interests in working together. The OSCE will either become the forum within which a new security partnership is forged, or the promise of 1990 will continue to fade to the detriment of all.

A new thaw appears to be taking place in relations between Russia and the West. Now would be the ideal moment to revitalize the OSCE and breathe new life into the vision of a Euro-Atlantic community that is united in the common pursuit of peace and progress.

Denis MacShane is a British member of parliament.

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