The world’s biggest international security body has been thrown into crisis after infighting triggered the removal of its leadership team, sparking fears that the power vacuum could hamper vital work in conflict zones and an EU warning of a fresh blow to multilateral co-operation.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is rudderless after France, Canada, Norway and Iceland earlier this month refused to reappoint its secretary-general, Swiss diplomat Thomas Greminger, after his three-year term expired.
The move came in response to a decision by Azerbaijan, joined by Tajikistan and Turkey, to object to a second term for Frenchman Harlem Désir as representative for media freedom at the organisation. In the subsequent squabbling, member states also declined to reappoint the heads of the human rights and minorities offices.
The EU said in a statement that the crisis sparked by a “limited number” of countries in the 57-member body “undermines the effectiveness of the organisation and weakens the much-needed multilateral approach to security in Europe that the OSCE embodies”.
“By not agreeing to the reappointments they have just paralysed the whole organisation,” said Stephanie Liechtenstein, a former OSCE official and expert on the institution.
At some point there are things that require somebody to set a leadership agenda. You can’t do all of that without somebody in charge
The OSCE mandate covers conflict prevention and crisis management as well as upholding democratic standards and human rights. Its missions act as the eyes and ears of the international community in trouble spots such as eastern Ukraine, the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and breakaway state of Transnistria, and encompass conflict monitoring, election observation and wider projects in the region between Europe and Asia.
Some 700 OSCE personnel are currently monitoring the war in eastern Ukraine and it has a continuous presence in southeastern Europe and Eurasia to observe elections.
The organisation is unique in that since its inception in 1975 it is the only security-focused body to include the western powers and Russia. Its troubles are part of a wider loss of confidence in multilateralism and international co-operation, analysts said.
Mr Désir had angered Azerbaijan with his criticism of censorship and intimidation of the media, and of the meting out of long prison sentences to journalists.
“No part of the OSCE region is immune when it comes to risks for journalists or violations of media freedom commitments,” he said in his final report to OSCE ambassadors earlier this month.
Mr Désir was installed in the post in 2017. At the same time Mr Greminger became secretary-general, Icelander Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir took over the human rights office and Italy’s Lamberto Zannier took the minorities portfolio. They were appointed as a group because OSCE members could not agree on filling each post individually.
Azerbaijan, followed by Tajikistan, blocked Mr Désir’s reappointment earlier this month. Turkey and Tajikistan also vetoed another term for Ms Gisladottir, after accusing her office of engaging with opposition groups they regarded as criminal. France, Canada, Norway and Iceland then refused to back Mr Zannier and Mr Greminger on the grounds that all four officials had originally been appointed together.
The OSCE crisis was sparked when three member states blocked a second term for media freedom representative Harlem Désir © Alex Halada/AFP/Getty
Four nations have refused to reappoint Thomas Greminger as OSCE secretary-general amid infighting over the body’s leadership team © Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty
“Despite our efforts and those of the vast majority of participating states, no temporary solution was found to avoid the vacancy of these positions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement. “We reaffirm our total support to the OSCE and its senior management, who have fully accomplished the mandate entrusted to them by the participating states with professionalism and impartiality.”
The OSCE has installed an interim leadership and the body is overseen by a rotating chair, currently Albania. It now falls to Tirana to solve the crisis with OSCE foreign ministers due to meet in the Albanian capital in December. Nominations for the jobs close in September.
Gent Cakaj, Albania’s acting foreign minister, said the impasse was a “sign of a suffering multilateralism” but defended the OSCE’s decision-making process, which relies on consensus rather than a majority vote.
“The consensus rule that has guided the OSCE’s workings since the beginning gives strength to its decisions. Every state has an interest in finding effective solutions,” he said.
The OSCE secretariat declined to comment.
The OSCE, whose membership spans Central Asia, is a valuable forum for the EU, which is pushing to develop a “Eurasia” strategy as part of its strategic response to China’s growing assertiveness.
The tensions at the organisation have parallels with those in other multilateral institutions, such as the UN and WTO, which have a wide membership with divergent political views, analysts say.
Olga Oliker, programme director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said the crisis threatened to damage the OSCE’s work.
“At some point there are things that require somebody to set a leadership agenda,” she said. “You can’t do all of that without somebody in charge.”