The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is facing an unprecedented leadership crisis, after failing to agree an extension of its four most senior posts, leaving many in Europe worried about how it will continue to work until successors are chosen in December.
The 57 member states failed to reach a consensus on extending the mandates of four of the OSCE’s top officials last week, as of Saturday (18 July), the body has been de facto leaderless.
Swiss diplomat Thomas Greminger was appointed OSCE Secretary General in 2017, for a three-year term, with the four posts being a political package deal struck under the Austrian OSCE chairmanship, thus ending a leadership vacuum in the OSCE. All four are now vacant.
Besides Greminger’s, the three other positions that have been vacated include the director of the organization’s election monitoring and pro-democracy work (ODIHR, Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir); OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (Harlem Desir), and OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.
The OSCE’s consensus-based structure means even a single veto at the ministerial meeting in December can sink any reappointment.
While Azerbaijan and Tajikistan blocked the extension of Harlem Désir’s mandate, Turkey and Tajikistan prevented the extension of Gísladóttir’s.
According to the independent Azerbaijani news agency Turan, Baku has sent a diplomatic note to the Albanian OSCE Chairmanship, saying Désir had shown “excessive criticism” of the media freedom situation in Azerbaijan.
A team of OSCE negotiators have been leading conflict resolution talks since 2016, including the long-frozen Nagorno-Karabakh border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which has recently flared up.
At the same time, according to Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse, Tajikistan and Turkey issued diplomatic notes criticizing Gísladóttir’s for having allowed “registration of representatives of criminal groups and people who committed terrorist acts”.
The move also caused France – along with Canada, Norway, Iceland and Armenia – to deny the extension of some posts at a meeting among OSCE ambassadors in Vienna on 10 July.
Following the argumentation, the denial was an attack not on people but on their mandates, which would have created the need of the entire package of four to be extended to remain credible.
“The OSCE is confronted with an institutional crisis,” the Swiss Foreign Affairs Department warned in a statement.
“It is a sign of the times, perhaps, with the decline in trust in multilateral organizations and polarized national positions that it had to come to this,” Greminger said in a video addressing his staff before taking his leave this weekend.
“I see myself as collateral damage to a political dynamic,” Greminger said later in an interview with Neue Zürcher Zeitung, adding that he also sees the OSCE’s leadership crisis as a result of the great powers’ lack of commitment.
According to Greminger, “a call from Macron to his Azerbaijani counterparts might have made a difference”, Greminger said, adding that “the fact that you block but at the same time remain passive, bothers”.
The next step is to reach political agreement on four new personalities by the OSCE Council of Ministers in Tirana in December, for which the nomination process has already kicked off and member states were asked to submit new candidates for the four posts until 18 September.
Until then, the Albanian Chairmanship of the OSCE will “ensure that current business of the OSCE is maintained” through “considering exceptionally, and as an emergency remedial response, assigning the most appropriate officials to perform the essential functions,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV in a statement.
“We are hopeful that a solution will be found by the time of Tirana Ministerial,” the Chairmanship added.
“The decision of a limited number of participating states to oppose this proposal undermines the effectiveness of the organisation and weakens the much-needed multilateral approach to security in Europe that the OSCE embodies,” the EU said in a statement on Friday (17 July).
“A fully functioning, proper and stable leadership is even more essential given the numerous current challenges in our shared continent, which the coronavirus pandemic has made even more urgent to resolve,” the statement concluded.
However, a longer vacancy could threaten to paralyze the entire organization, whose mandate includes issues such as arms control, promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, and election monitoring.
Especially, the posts of the Media Representative and the High Commissioner for National Minorities might be highly impacted by the vacancy as they require an active acting head and are personality bound.
Asked by EURACTIV whether the daily business and the missions of the body would be in jeopardy, the Chairmanship said it will “take all the necessary steps in order to avoid any negative impact of the situation in the daily business or the on the mandate implementation of the field operations”, be it administrational or political.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]