Should Russia Leave the OSCE?
No. 3 2008 July/September

In 1986, a number of people in the U.S. political establishment
raised the issue of the United States withdrawing from the
Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the
predecessor of the current Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Their arguments for their proposal
sounded simple and attractive to many – the balance of the Helsinki
process had been upset. In 1975, when signing the Final Act of the
Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Soviet Union
achieved recognition of the inviolability of national borders,
whereas the liberalization of the Soviet political regime, promised
by Moscow, turned out to be superficial and temporary. In 1986,
many thought that the Helsinki process was reversing.

This conclusion prompted U.S. congressmen to call on their
president to withdraw from the Helsinki process. Lawyers from the
State Department and the Library of Congress, who worked on this
issue, concluded that technically it was easy to do. The president
needed only to withdraw the U.S. signature from the Final Act,
notifying all the participating states about it. However, the U.S.
Helsinki Commission (which includes members of the Congress and
government) found such a move precipitate and recommended
refraining from it. The Commission presented the following
arguments against U.S. renunciation of the Final Act.

First, U.S. renunciation would not annul the
Final Act and would not stop the Helsinki process. Moreover, the
U.S. would thus voluntarily waive the opportunity to influence the
process and would let the Soviet Union take a dominant position in
it. This circumstance would hardly displease Moscow, which from the
beginning of the process “strongly preferred to have CSCE with the
Americans looking on from the outside.”

Second, U.S. renunciation of the Final Act
would produce a negative effect among U.S. allies in Europe, as
well as neutral and non-aligned countries, which would interpret
withdrawal as “a sign of decreased U.S. interest and influence in

And finally third, U.S. withdrawal from the
process could move the issue of human rights in the Soviet Union
and Eastern Europe to the periphery of East-West relations. But
this is precisely what American critics of the CSCE wanted to

The Commission proposed that the U.S. patiently and more
actively pursue its goals within the framework of the Helsinki
process. Official Washington eventually followed these
recommendations. By 1989, there appeared signs of a breakthrough in
the discussion of the human rights issue and political pluralism.
The OSCE Vienna follow-up meeting in 1989 settled all issues of
humanitarian cooperation, which had been heatedly debated ever
since the Final Act was signed.

Twenty years later, Moscow seems to have changed roles with
Washington. Today, Russian politicians complain about imbalances in
OSCE activities: a geographic imbalance (the organization’s work is
focused primarily “east of Vienna;” that is, in the countries of
the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union) and a thematic
imbalance (from Russia’s point of view, there is an unjustified
overemphasis on human rights to the detriment of other areas, among
them security, economy and environment).

Moscow is displeased about the autonomy of some OSCE
institutions, above all the Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights (ODIHR) which monitors elections. The Russian
leadership openly accuses independent OSCE institutions of bias and
double standards and says they have been “privatized” by Western
countries, first of all by the United States. Now Russian
politicians say that there is no use in such an OSCE and ever more
loudly urge their government to withdraw from the organization.

Of course, the present situation does not exactly mirror the
1980s, and the OSCE today markedly differs from what it used to be.
Now it is not just a series of conferences and meetings of experts,
but a system of existing structures and institutions.

It is not clear, though, what Moscow wants to achieve. Does it
want the OSCE to step up its activities “west of Vienna” or to just
reduce their scope in the East? Does it want the OSCE to focus more
on security in Europe or to curb its human rights efforts? One can
assume that Russia would like the OSCE to pay less attention to
human rights and more attention to security issues that evoke the
Kremlin’s concern.

However, although the present situation does not literally
repeat that of 1986, the dilemma now facing Moscow in many ways is
similar to that faced by Washington more than 20 years ago:
withdraw from the OSCE or persistently seek that the OSCE in its
activities take into account issues of interest to Russia. These
should include not only matters that have been harshly criticized
by Moscow in recent years, but also more general trends in the
organization’s development, which often remain beyond the framework
of public discussions in Russia.

These include, in particular, a gradual reduction in the scope
of OSCE activities and the increasingly prominent direct
interaction of the U.S. and the European Union with OSCE members
located “east of Vienna.” Against this background, the issue of the
expediency of Russia’s withdrawal from the OSCE is not as simple as
it seems to be.


The idea that the OSCE focuses its activities only on the “East”
(mainly in the form of missions and various centers and offices) is
generally true, but it requires an essential specification. The
main region of the OSCE’s field work has always been Southeast
Europe, namely the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Albania.
The territory of the former Soviet Union has never been a zone of
any large-scale OSCE presence. Its Balkan missions in this decade
account for half of the OSCE budget, whereas projects in the former
Soviet Union make up about 20 percent (Graph 1). The same goes for
the size of OSCE missions. In the last few years, the OSCE has sent
79 to 81 percent of its international staff working in the field to
countries in Southeast Europe.

Graph 1. Allocations for Activities in Southeast Europe
and the Former Soviet Union (% of OSCE unified budget)









OSCE field operations peaked in the late 1990s-early 2000s. The
financing of OSCE field operations has seen absolute and relative
reductions since then: from ?184 million in 2000 to ?118 million in
2007, and from 87 to 70 percent of the OSCE unified budget over the
same period. The organization’s international staff has been
decreasing accordingly. Both the rise and decline in OSCE field
activities largely coincided in time with changes in the situation
in the Balkans. The scale of the OSCE presence in the former Soviet
Union changed little, except for recently, when it has been
decreasing as well.

The largest OSCE mission was deployed in 1999 in Kosovo. In
2000, its international staff included 649 employees. In 2007, it
had dropped to only 283 employees. The mission in Croatia reached
its peak in 1998 when it involved 280 employees. In 2007, on the
eve of the mission’s closure, this figure stood at a mere 30
people. In 2002, the OSCE Spillover Monitor Mission to Skopje
involved 300 employees; in 2007, its staff included only 82

The tendency to reduce the scale of OSCE field operations has
been growing in recent years – primarily due to a downsized
presence in the Balkans. In 2008, the OSCE closed its mission in
Croatia, which has been replaced by an office in Zagreb. The future
of the OSCE’s largest missions to date – in Kosovo and in Bosnia
and Herzegovina – is still undecided. The European Union plans to
take over some or all of their functions in the foreseeable future.
OSCE activities in Macedonia have been decreasing, too.

This trend suggests that the OSCE will continue to cut its
activities in the participating states. The closure or simple
reduction of the missions in Kosovo and Bosnia is equivalent to an
almost 50 percent reduction in funds related to OSCE field
operations, and to a 50-plus reduction in OSCE international staff.
Meanwhile, the curtailment of OSCE activities in the Balkans is not
being compensated for by any significant build-up of an OSCE
presence in the former Soviet Union (Graph 2).

Graph 2. Budgets of OSCE Missions in Southeast Europe
and the Former Soviet Union (million euros)

The largest OSCE mission in the territory of the former Soviet
Union is in Georgia. It accounts for about one-third of all OSCE
expenses in the former Soviet Union. However, after the termination
of the monitoring of the Russian-Georgian border, this mission
underwent the most significant reductions. Its budget has been cut
in half over the past five years, while the number of personnel has
been reduced from 148 to 64 people (including staff under
individual member-countries).

The scope of OSCE operations in other former Soviet countries –
in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia – is rather
modest. The OSCE centers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have the
largest budgets and staff. But their aggregate budget is comparable
to the budget of the relatively small OSCE mission in Serbia. At
the same time, the strength of OSCE international staff in Serbia
is 50 percent greater than that of the OSCE centers in Kyrgyzstan
and Tajikistan taken together.

The trend toward a gradual reduction in OSCE activities “east of
Vienna” is confirmed by a marked decrease – especially since 2007 –
in extra-budgetary funds allocated by the participating states for
the implementation of projects by OSCE missions. The largest cuts
in extra-budgetary contributions to the OSCE came from the U.S. –
more than by half in 2007. The reason for the move was not
Washington’s disillusionment about the organization’s
effectiveness, but the need to find additional funds for the
implementation of other projects in other parts of the world.

The aforementioned figures are not needed to make an assessment
of the OSCE’s work. The problem is not whether it was necessary to
conduct registration and draw up electoral registers in Albania
amid chaos and virtually from scratch, and to train local staff to
do this work. The problem is not whether the financing of projects
for assembling light weapons and small arms in Tajikistan was
effective, or how useful the OSCE’s skills development programs for
the Kyrgyz police were – and not even whether the OSCE should
provide assistance in drawing up electoral registers, say, in

Also, it is not so important whether we give positive or
negative assessments to the OSCE’s work “east of Vienna.” What is
important is that the peak of its activity is over. The scope of
the organization’s operations – above all, in the Balkans – has
been steadily decreasing. This decrease is not compensated for in
any way by stepped-up activities in the former Soviet Union. In
particular, since the OSCE closed its Assistance Group to Chechnya
and gave up election observation in Russia in 2007, the
organization has not been engaged in any activity in this

If Russia’s criticism was aimed at having the OSCE reduce its
activities “east of Vienna,” then this is happening today by
itself. But if the Russian goal was to have the OSCE broaden its
activities in the West, then this task requires a different


The continued presence on the OSCE agenda of such issues as the
rule of law, the formation and development of democratic
institutions, human rights, and free and fair elections (in
Belarus, Uzbekistan and some other countries) is often taken as an
attempt to go against the “when-in-Rome” rule. This irritates the
political class, which wants to continue living according to its
own laws. This irritation sometimes translates into a desire to
withdraw from the organization if it does not offer any tangible
benefits in exchange. No wonder Russian politicians have such ideas
as well.
Again, the matter is not how rational this desire is, but whether
withdrawing from the OSCE would solve the problem and whether it
would make the life of the Russian political elite more

Moscow’s withdrawal would hardly bring about the collapse of the
OSCE. Actually, all of Russia’s neighbors are interested in the
organization in one way or another. Kazakhstan, which is to hold
the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, is preparing intensively for this
mission. Even Belarus and Uzbekistan, which have found themselves
in political isolation in the West, view their presence in the OSCE
as an important symbol of their involvement in the pan-European
process, despite all “costs.” However, these costs are not so great
and in any case are controllable as the level, scope and quality of
interaction with the OSCE and its institutions (the nature of
missions, their strength, the nature of projects, etc.) are
determined primarily by member-states.

The attitude toward the OSCE could change, perhaps, only in
Georgia, which now views the organization as an instrument of
Russian policy. If Russia withdraws from the organization and thus
stops influencing decision-making regarding the activities of the
OSCE Mission to Georgia, official Tbilisi will only welcome such a
turn of events.

So, even if Russia withdraws, the OSCE will continue its
traditional activities, although perhaps on a still smaller scale
than today. Moscow will no longer participate in shaping OSCE
policies and it will finally lose its levers of influence over OSCE
interaction with neighboring countries. While not working toward a
substantial reduction of OSCE activities “east of Vienna,”
including in the humanitarian sphere, Russia will hardly have this
organization build up its efforts in the West (if we really want
this, of course). Moscow will even lose the capacity to criticize
the organization and demand its in-depth reform, while the OSCE
will remain and will become a tool – perhaps, even in a greater
degree than today – for advancing political and other know-how
along the West-East line.
The “No OSCE, No Problems” principle does not work in practice.
Humanitarian issues are on the agenda of many international
organizations today, including the agenda of their cooperation with
Russia and other post-Soviet states. If the OSCE weakens or
dramatically reduces its activities in the territory of the former
Soviet Union, this factor will speed up the formation of other
mechanisms of Western political influence within the framework of
direct EU/U.S. cooperation with the newly independent states.
Today, these mechanisms are in a rudimentary state, but their
emergence will affect these countries’ relations with Russia.

All OSCE participating countries – except for those in Central
Asia – are members of the Council of Europe, whose efforts are
focused on issues of strengthening democratic institutions and
protecting human rights. The Council’s standards in this sphere are
not lower – and in some aspects even higher – than OSCE
requirements. There is no doubt that the Council of Europe will be
ready to assume the function of observing elections as well, which
is now performed mainly by the OSCE. The Council will apparently
adopt standards and technologies of the Office for Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which is so unpopular in
Moscow, or will possibly take this organization under its wing.

The last few years have seen the EU step up its policy toward
Russia’s neighbors. Countries in Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova,
Belarus) and the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) are
now targets of the European Neighborhood Policy, under which they
themselves choose the pace and areas for closer integration with
the European Union, without necessarily becoming full members. In
2007, the EU adopted a strategy also toward Central Asian
countries, inviting them to build mechanisms for direct political
interaction. All countries in the region, including Uzbekistan, did
not fail to take advantage of this opportunity.

The rule of law, democratic institutions, free elections, and
human rights are all priority issues in the EU’s political dialog
with its Eastern neighbors and with Central Asian countries. The
agenda of Brussels’ cooperation with Central Asian nations also
includes issues traditional for the OSCE such as: the reform of law
enforcement bodies and keeping their staff; modern methods and
technologies of border control; and fighting drug trafficking,
organized criminal groups, corruption, terrorist and extremist

In other words, the European Union is already gradually entering
the OSCE realm in its interaction with all former Soviet countries,
including Russia. In relations with Moscow, Brussels also seeks to
institutionalize the dialog and cooperation in the issues of human
rights and the rule of law. These issues have been included in the
European Commission’s mandate for negotiating a new framework
agreement with Russia and may prove to be a stumbling block at
Russian-EU negotiations.

However, this kind of EU activity is not duly formalized and not
effective yet. Brussels, which finances about 70 percent of
expenditures related to the OSCE’s work in former Soviet countries,
prefers not to act independently, but via this organization. Yet
one can now hear in the European Union ever louder voices of those
who believe that it is time for the EU to take over the tasks that
the OSCE is unable to cope with. If the EU backs up its “good
governance” standard with the benefits of economic cooperation –
the EU is the main trading partner of virtually all former Soviet
countries – and with financing projects in various fields, this can
make the EU a very influential development factor in the region.
Indeed, over recent years, the OSCE has been lacking precisely an
independent economic weight for stimulating interest among member
states in cooperation.

Another important matter is the reform of the security sector
and the establishment of democratic control over it. This is an
element and condition for NATO’s interaction with newly independent
states. The importance of this aspect of cooperation should not be
overestimated, since the intensity of the participation of former
Soviet countries in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program differs
greatly. But this subject inevitably comes to the fore for
countries that seek rapprochement with the Alliance and especially
those seeking to enter it.

Therefore, Russia’s withdrawal and even the collapse of the OSCE
would not solve any of the problems that Moscow would like to get
rid of. This refers to the activities of the OSCE and other
European and Euro-Atlantic structures in the territory of the
former Soviet Union, and to Russia’s relations with these
organizations. The transfer of Western political know-how over to
the post-Soviet East would continue all the same. But the scope and
nature of these activities in relations between Western countries
and Russia’s neighbors in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and
Central Asia would then be determined without Moscow’s
participation. In addition, Russia would have a reduced capacity to
get organizations involved in this process to be more active “west
of Vienna.”

Russia’s withdrawal would have only one result: if it leaves the
OSCE, Russia would stay aloof from these processes of its own free
will and would lose its last chance to influence them.


During his visit to Germany on June 5, 2008, Russian President
Dmitry Medvedev proposed holding a pan-European summit to prepare a
new “European security pact.” The idea of finding a new consensus
among participants in the pan-European process has been in the air
for over the past year. No doubt, its promotion is certainly
important, but it should not push into the background the solution
of practical issues that are vital for the further functioning of
the OSCE.

The program for the organization’s in-depth reform, which Russia
advocated until recently, provided for the implementation of the
following institutional, legal and procedural transformations.

First, Russia insisted on an institutional
reform of the organization aimed at establishing stricter control
on the part of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna over the
organization’s basic structures, which operate independently on the
basis of their own mandates (ODIHR, the OSCE Representative on
Freedom of the Media, and the rather independent field missions).
The Permanent Council makes decisions on the basis of consensus,
and all the participating states have veto power.

Such a move would mean that all major decisions, which are now
independently made by individual OSCE institutions, would need
unanimous approval. For example, OSCE election observation missions
would not be allowed to make public their assessments before they
are discussed by the Permanent Council.

Second, Russia insisted on stronger political
leadership and control by the Permanent Council over mission
activities. In particular, the Council would audit the allocation
of extra-budgetary funds to missions for specific projects and the
expenditure of these funds (including the practice of secondment).
The idea is to gradually phase out the deployment of missions in
individual countries in favor of creating “thematic” missions that
would operate in all OSCE member-states. Thematic missions would
focus on joint counteraction to new security challenges (terrorism,
drugs, weapons and human trafficking, etc.).

Third, Russia advocated streamlining the OSCE’s
operation and internal governance procedures, which often formed
spontaneously on the basis of decisions made by the Ministerial
Council and the Permanent Council. To this end, Moscow proposed
making the OSCE a legal entity, adopting the organization’s Charter
(Russia distributed a draft Charter in the summer of 2007), and
unifying standard procedures for governing various operations of
the OSCE and its institutions. The respective functions should be
concentrated in the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna. To this end, it is
necessary to reorganize and strengthen the Secretariat, as well as
the powers of the Secretary General, while preserving their
accountability to the Permanent Council; change the personnel
policy and increase the representation of countries located “east
of Vienna” in the central structures, basic institutions and
missions; and revise the scale of contributions to the OSCE budget
and bring it in line with the participating states’ solvency ratio,
which would imply, in particular, reducing Russia’s

In recent years, a broad coalition has formed in the
organization that advocates its increased effectiveness through
restructuring and improved governance. The discussion of these
issues has brought about essential yet insufficient changes in the
OSCE’s operation.

However, many states find the requirements of Russia
unacceptable, which actually propose confining autonomous OSCE
institutions in a rigid corset of political consensus. This would
make the organization’s efficiency dependent on the success or
failure of political bargaining between Russia and its OSCE
partners, and would throw the organization back into the times that
were not very successful for it, namely the 1980s.

A reform of the OSCE like this would be unpromising and
unproductive. It would be more reasonable to think how the
organization’s seeming shortcomings could be turned into

The day-to-day activities of OSCE missions and institutions,
performed irrespective of the course of political negotiations,
open many opportunities for implementing projects of interest to
Russia. To restore the balance in the organization’s work, it would
be enough to intensify activities in sectors that are of priority
for Russia, such as countering new challenges and threats to
European security. Such activities must be made systematic and
aimed at preparing specific practical conclusions and
recommendations, which later could underlie decisions by the OSCE’s
Permanent Council and the Ministerial Council.

Organizing such activities with the participation of all
interested member-states of the OSCE today does not require – at
least, not always – a preliminary consensus. Reliance on the
Secretariat and its units would allow this work to be done on the
basis of extra-budgetary funding. If Russia now realizes the need
to strengthen one or another field of OSCE activity, it needs only
to allocate the required resources and to second its staff. One can
be sure that Moscow’s initiatives would meet with a positive
response from many member-states and they would be ready to join in
the funding.
Balance in OSCE activities can be restored without insisting that
some field of its work be curtailed – these activities have
recently been decreasing in any case. This goal should be achieved
by initiating such OSCE activities that Moscow thinks better meet
its interests and better reflect its views of how the organization
should develop.

As a matter of fact, Kazakhstan embarked on this path a year
ago, upholding its right to the OSCE Chairmanship. Astana proposed
programs aimed at promoting the development of other Central Asian
states, and came out with an initiative to take projects under OSCE
auspices to assist Afghanistan in the struggle against drug

Moscow will be able to improve the balance in OSCE activities
just as much as it is ready to fund work required for this.
However, this takes political will. If Moscow does not really want
that, nothing will come out of it.