Field monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are some of the unsung heroes of Europe’s darkest corners. A reminder of that came on April 23 when Joseph Stone, an American paramedic, died and two other OSCE colleagues were injured when their vehicle hit a land mine in eastern Ukraine. They were near the village of Pryshyb, deep in territory controlled by separatists and their Russian backers.

The monitors’ mission—to help stabilize this and other European conflicts—is being performed with an organization that is overstretched, underfunded, and assailed on all sides. Undermined by its critics, the OSCE currently has no budget for 2017, several offices in limbo, and two major positions unfilled.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
More >

The irony is that the OSCE is under attack at a moment when it is needed more than ever. It was able to step up and play a role in eastern Ukraine precisely because it was the last man standing in 2014, when no other organization was deemed neutral enough to fit the part. The OSCE also remains the only international organization on the ground in the extremely dangerous Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict zone.

The current crisis is largely because of the wrath of a number of post-Soviet countries that want to curtail the body’s capacity to put a spotlight on their more dubious activities. That resentment is shared by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who attacked OSCE monitors’ forthright criticisms of the April 16 constitutional referendum to boost his powers. Because the OSCE is a consensus-based organization, any one of its 57 members can throw a wrench into the works, and the whole machine can grind to a halt.

The OSCE’s Yerevan office is currently operating in a kind of legal limbo after Azerbaijan vetoed the prolongation of its mandate. Azerbaijan alleged that the office was exceeding its mandate through activities such as supporting mine clearance, saying this was work on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict and outside the domestic context of Armenia. (Azerbaijan closed down its own OSCE office in 2015.) The Armenians reacted angrily. The United States and others urged Baku to reconsider, and there are hopes that the row can be resolved soon.

The offices in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also face being downgraded after political attacks from their host governments. Meanwhile, two of the three special OSCE envoy positions, the high commissioner on national minorities and the representative on freedom of the media, are vacant, mainly because Russia has objected to the appointment or reappointment of individuals to the posts. Moscow, along with other post-Soviet states that shelter under its umbrella, bristles against an emphasis on the human dimension and the work of these two offices, along with that of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, accusing them of “double standards” or “intrusive democratization.” (Others would say this proves they are doing their jobs.)

An insider in Vienna, where the OSCE is headquartered, described the organization to me as “a canary in a difficult world.” It can only reflect what is going in Europe; it cannot set the agenda. That means that in a highly divided Europe, everyone agrees that the OSCE is needed in principle but cannot agree on what specifically it should be doing. So the Permanent Council, the OSCE’s main decisionmaking body, becomes a theater of choreographed outrage and the 57 states can only sign up to a slimmed-down minimum agenda.

As Europe’s only universally accepted security organization, the OSCE is woefully underfunded. Its 2016 budget of €141 million ($153 million) was about 3 percent of the UN’s budget. Sixty percent of that sum came from six nations, which are also stalwarts of the G7: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the United States. When it comes to funding the organization that they use as a stage for a never-ending duel with one another, Armenia and Azerbaijan each contributed only €45,000 ($49,000) in 2016, paying even less to the OSCE than the Vatican did.

Two fairly threadbare operations are trying to contain conflict in Europe’s two most dangerous conflict zones, in eastern Ukraine and in and around Nagorny Karabakh. The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine has 700 monitors and runs off a separate budget. But it is also designed to monitor a postceasefire situation where there is no proper ceasefire. The operation is dangerous, has a high turnover of staff, and is mandated to chase a moving target.

The OSCE ground operation for Nagorny Karabakh is much more precarious. Despite the massive weaponry now deployed by the Armenian and Azerbaijani armies facing each other across the line of contact, the OSCE still has just six field monitors on the ground, as it did in the mid-1990s. A modest proposal to increase their number to twelve or thirteen, to which the presidents of both Armenia and Azerbaijan apparently agreed in Vienna in May 2016, foundered amid bickering over minutiae. Yet these are the eyes and ears on the ground looking out for a repeat of the April 2016 Armenian-Azerbaijani four-day war—or something worse.

A persistent problem is that the OSCE Secretariat, which will soon have a new secretary general to succeed Lamberto Zannier, has the institutional knowledge and memory but is weaker than its counterpart at the UN. The institution of an annual chairperson in office brings in powerful diplomats from countries such as Germany in 2016, but the one-year time span of the rotating Chairmanship limits its effectiveness: spoilers can play for time, knowing that the pesky diplomats giving them a hard time will be gone in a year.

How will the OSCE respond to all these challenges? Probably with some messy compromises and by muddling through. Even the organization’s critics accept that it does a useful job—and hopefully, the tragic example of Joseph Stone will remind them of that truth. The shame is that the OSCE could be doing so much more.