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Ukraine Crisis Moves OSCE Out of Shadows (5/19)     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS News Hour

For two decades its 2,800 employees have toiled in relative obscurity, working on projects from democracy building to press freedom in the outer reaches of Europe and Central Asia. Now, thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the  Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with a budget of 144.8 million Euros finds itself playing a key role in trying to defuse Europe's most dangerous confrontation since the end of the Cold War.

But the Ukraine crisis that pits Russia's Vladimir Putin against the European Union and NATO has created a fundamental contradiction for the OSCE. The 57-nation organization is supposed to work on the basis of consensus and cooperation, or "win-win" as one of its officials said. Now Europe is thrust back into division, confrontation and zero-sum-game power politics, testing the OSCE's limits and skills. The test was dramatically demonstrated by the recent seizure and temporary confinement of the OSCE observer team by pro-Russian separatists.

As the OSCE's Secretary General, the Italian diplomat Lamberto Zannier has been explaining to officials and think tanks in Washington, the transformation has been both abrupt and sudden. Only months ago, when Ukraine held the revolving chairmanship of the organization, plans were afoot to observe the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords, the agreement that helped expand a human rights agenda in Eastern Europe and created organizations that eventually evolved into the OSCE. The theme was to be a new security architecture from Vancouver to Vladivostok. As for Ukraine, there was some thinking in OSCE circles that the country could best serve as a bridge between Europe and Russia.

The celebrations have been scrubbed, and now the OSCE is at the center of two diplomatic and political processes that could help stabilize Ukraine, or if they fail, push it fall further into chaos.

"We see a country increasingly split,"  Zannier told an audience at the WIlson Center. "We are in a process to bring the political process where it belongs and off the streets."

For the moment, the focus is on two fronts. In the headlines is the May 25 presidential election, which the U.S. and EU, have said will be a key test on whether to step up sanctions against Russia. OSCE will provide election monitors, as will American and European organizations, including, where feasible, in the highly contested eastern regions. These are separate from the several hundred OSCE monitors already on the ground, tracking unrest and political developments at some risk to themselves as the recent capture and brief imprisonment demonstrated.

The second effort is more behind the scenes, encouraging a round table discussion among Ukraine political factions. OSCE already has recruited a highly regarded German diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, to help the process, but insists the leadership has to come from Ukrainians. The real question, of course, is what elements from the more pro-Russian eastern Ukraine will participate.

Included in that effort is a plan for new parliamentary elections and with OSCE help, to bolster the role of the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament and the most important Ukrainian political entity that has not been torn apart in months of revolution.

But OSCE officials know they are under conflicting pressures. The first is to separate reconciliation from day to day political developments. The second is to move fast enough that events in the streets do not spin out of control and render reconciliation impossible.

But they acknowledge one major wild card out of their hands, the ultimate aims of President Putin. Russia has become less cooperative in OSCE projects in former Soviet states, but officials cling to the hope that Putin does not want a full confrontation or civil war on Russia's border. They saw some conciliatory signs when the current OSCE chairman, Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, met with Putin earlier in May.