1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is the OSCE's future in crisis?

Priyanka Shankar
June 9, 2023

Russia and Belarus have refused Estonia's OSCE 2024 chairmanship, leaving diplomats and security analysts questioning the purpose of the security body.

A logo of the OSCE is seen at its headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Diplomats and security analysts have warned that OSCE's future looks bleak with Russia undermining the security block's functionsImage: Lisa Leutner/AP Photo/picture alliance

When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) came into existence in the 1970s, during the Cold War era, its integral purpose was to "serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between the East and West."

Since then, the world's largest security organization has also played a role in defending press freedom, human rights, freedom of religion and intervened in mediating conflicts in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere in Europe.

But ever since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, diplomats, defense and security analysts have been warning that the organization's future could be in crisis with Moscow only too happy to create obstacles.

Over the past few months, while Russia has been blocking decisions with respect to the OSCE's annual budget and also refusing to prolong the organization's fieldwork in Ukraine, the Kremlin and its ally Belarus have now refused to allow Estonia to chair the organization next year.

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto has said this could lead to the collapse of the organization.

"If there is no chairman in 2024 and there is no consensus on this issue, then next year will be the year of the destruction of the OSCE as an organization," he told Finnish broadcaster Yle, highlighting that "the situation is serious."

Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Estonian Parliament shared similar sentiments, posting a tweet that asked how "European security and stability" could  "be ensured with an aggressor country at the same table?"

How does OSCE chairmanship work?

The OSCE is comprised of 57 members, including Russia, Ukraine, the US and European countries. Every year, one member state assumes the chair, steering the organization by convening discussions on stopping conflicts and taking action against countries that are guilty of human rights abuses, among other things.

The OSCE chair is currently held by North Macedonia, with Bujar Osmani, the country's foreign minister, as the incumbent. Finland is set to assume the role in 2025.

But for 2024, while Estonia has already submitted its bid for chairmanship, Minsk and Moscow have rejected Tallin's application.

"I have no idea why they are blocking our chairmanship. It is clear they don't care about the organization. Russia's ultimate goal, since Stalin's reign, has been to always have an upper hand on global security and veto any decision which does not benefit them. So refusing Estonia's chairmanship is a part of that playbook," Mihkelson told DW, adding that Belarus is Russia's puppet.

"But the critical question for other OSCE members right now should be about the future of the security body. So far, with Russia still being a member, the OSCE has been absolutely useless," he said.

"Estonia won't accept substitution for our 2024 chairmanship and we will continue fighting for our rights at the OSCE," he added.

Besides Estonia, Kazakhstan has also entered the chairmanship bid and according to a report from Vienna's daily broadsheet Die Presse, Austria is willing to step in as chair for 2024 if no consensus is reached.

Should there be no decision on the 2024 chair by the end of this year, the security body's troika — a form of cooperation between the present, previous and succeeding chairs — will be unable to function.

That could deepen the already existing crisis, said Harry Nedelcu, director of policy at Rasmussen Global and head of the organization's Free Ukraine task force.

"For over a year now the OSCE has already been in deep crisis because Russia has been undermining and obstructing its work. The one way to save the OSCE is by circumventing the Russians and effectively suspending them from the organization," he told DW.

Suspension for Russia?

Earlier this year, OSCE delegates staged a walkout from the Vienna-based organization's parliamentary session during a speech given by the Russian delegation on the war in Ukraine.

Lithuania's permanent representative for international organizations, including the OSCE, Vaidotas Verba, told DW that the parliamentarians deemed the meeting to be "morally and politically inappropriate."

"Our members of parliament consider it to be morally and politically inappropriate to sit in the same room with the people who helped to start this war, promoting [it] and now supporting the harsh measures against defenders of Ukraine," he said.

Meanwhile, Russian delegates at the OSCE targeted the security group's leadership and other parliamentary members earlier this month, for accusing Russia.

"According to rules of #OSCE, heads of its structures cannot make public statements that are inconsistent with consensus positions of participating States," the Russian delegation said in a tweet, referring to a statement by the OSCE leadership and other parliamentary delegates that blamed Russia for launching missile strikes in Ukraine.

Every decision by the OSCE is based on member consensus, making the suspension of Russia a challenge.

In interview with German broadcaster Welt in January, Secretary-General Helga Schmid highlighted that keeping diplomatic channels open with Russia "makes sense" and did not encourage the country's suspension.

"One day, we will need conversation again. And the OSCE is the only security organization in which everyone important to the European security architecture sits at one table," she said.

What's next?

With the elimination of Russia from the organization seemingly a faint hope, Mihkelson isn't very optimistic about the OSCE's role in the world.

"Under the current geopolitical setting, it is very difficult to question or negotiate with Russia. With it being a member, I don't see OSCE being able to function effectively around the world. We have already seen how useless it has been in helping Ukraine," he said.

In an interview with DW in May last year, Schmid told DW that it is always easy to blame international organizations.

"The OSCE offered an instrument, a platform for dialogue. But ultimately, we are not a defense alliance if there is no political will," she said. If one participating state — in this case, Russia — chooses force and violence over dialogue, it is not the fault of the organization, she added.

Ex-OSCE official Hug: 'Russia's occupation and claimed victory in 'sham' referendums are illegal'

Meanwhile, the EU has said that it does not support "the reprehensible conduct of Russia and Belarus" in the OSCE, but highlighted that the organization's role is still important in ensuring world peace and security.

"The OSCE is now more critical than ever — as a robust and principled organization that defends its founding principles in supporting a fellow participating State, Ukraine, and its people in their rightful self-defense from Russia's brutal war of aggression," the bloc's external actions' service said in a statement.

"The OSCE must fulfill its vital role in contributing to stopping Russia's war of aggression, restoring peace, and bringing all perpetrators of any international crimes committed in connection with Russia's war of aggression to justice."

With six months left for the OSCE to decide on the 2024 chairmanship, the existence and purpose of the organization comes down to how the security body's members from the West plan to negotiate with Russia and its allies in the coming months.

Edited by: Lucy James