Born in the chilliest era of the Cold War, Vienna’s OSCE fosters common-sense cooperation between people of good will

Vienna’s Hofburg has hosted the secretariat of the OSCE since 1995.
Vienna’s Hofburg has hosted the secretariat of the OSCE since 1995.

“What we do is soft power,” said Natacha Rajakovic, spokeswoman for the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE. Not easy to reconcile with trigger-happy hotspots like Ukraine and Kosovo that put them in the news. But everyday reality often lags behind the headlines.

Headquartered behind a modest baroque façade on Wallnerstraße in Vienna’s inner city, this low-profile power for peace employs a core team of 500, who marshal nearly 3,000 operatives “in the field.”  The offices are a typical Viennese mix of old and new, broad marble stairs flanked by neo-classic statuary, with glass walls looking onto the inner Hof (courtyard).  The atmosphere is relaxed and serious, where suits meld with preppy jeans and crisp button-downs. The male to female ratio seems balanced; names reflect the 57 member states.

Human rights or coca-colonialism?

The OSCE was born in the chilliest era of the Cold War. Two huge military machines were facing off along the 3,000 km border from the Baltic coast to the Aegean, both ready to set off WWIII at the touch of a button.  When Gen. de Gaulle took France out of NATO in 1966, the Soviets saw an opportunity to cement their grip on Eastern Europe by peaceful means.  The Russian proposal was a discussion platform between Moscow and Paris as a template for the Warsaw Pact and NATO, -tacitly accepting the Iron Curtain. It was the first crack in the cold war permafrost, preparing the way for the Helsinki Conference of 1976, the official birth of today’s OSCE.

The OSCE plays a crucial role in attempts to defuse tensions between Russia and the West following Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. Above is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister of Germany, the OSCE Chair in 2016. The tank (right) contains toxic chemicals, the disposal of which is overseen by the OSCE’s Mélange Programme. ©OSCE
The OSCE plays a crucial role in attempts to defuse tensions between Russia and the West following Ukraine’s Maidan revolution. Above is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister of Germany, the OSCE Chair in 2016.

The organization’s mandate comprises three dimensions of responsibility: political and military; economic and environmental; human rights and freedom of the media – elements that in practice often form a fatal chain. Unchecked corruption saps an economy and encourages environmental deterioration, that leads to economic problems, which morph easily into political or armed conflict.  Examples in southeastern Europe abound.  On top of this comes a healthy skepticism for well-meant Western efforts to export “our values.”  In countries further east, “human rights” is more often seen as code for western colonialism, perhaps akin to self-righteous Christian missionaries in 19th century Africa.

One tree at a time 

Sometimes the OSCE can break the chain by defusing conflicts at the source. Rajakovic told the story of a water usage dispute between neighbors across the Dniester river, shared by Ukraine and Moldova.  Negotiations were stalled at ministerial level, but the OSCE people in the field brought the mayors of the two most affected towns together, common local interests and a handshake agreement to start re-foresting the river’s catchment area.  Not the stuff of headlines in the capitals of global politics – but a positive start, “one tree at a time.”

Even in the Ukrainian maelstrom, the OSCE is booking an unsung success, the Mélange Programme – dealing not with Vienna coffee houses but with an odiously toxic chemical used to power rockets.  It is horrifying stuff – momentary contact and your skin can fall off.  Worse still, thousands of steel containers from the Soviet era are gently rotting in the Ukrainian countryside.  The liquid can be reprocessed to produce fertilizer and vehicle fuel, but the only plant to do this was on the Russian side.  The OSCE successfully brokered a joint operation between the local Russian and Ukrainian military commanders to transport the volatile liquid to the safety of the plant.  No high level diplomacy, no political posturing, just common-sense cooperation between people of good will.  Soft power at work.

The tank contains toxic chemicals, the disposal of which is overseen by the OSCE’s Mélange Programme. ©OSCE
The tank contains toxic chemicals, the disposal of which is overseen by the OSCE’s Mélange Programme.

Name and shame

Angela Kane, until recently UN High Commissioner for Disarmament, has watched the OSCE in operation: “They have people there on the ground, so they often have more local credibility than an international effort,” and they can make things happen where the mighty UN might not.  A Senior Policy Support officer echoed this: “We are the eyes and ears of the international community, we work at the grass roots.” Of course it is not easy: The OSCE has little clout, neither weapons nor sanctions. But it can keep the conversation going.  A German diplomat told Metropole succinctly: “Dialogue is the first casualty of conflict.”  So words can be soft power: “What we can do,” said an -insider “is name and shame.”

Another problem is attracting quality staff. There is plenty of motivation, a kind of early Peace Corps spirit, but the OSCE is no place for serious careerists.  There is no diplomatic status and no pension plan, and staff are expected to move on after 7-8 years, so they are inexperienced or retired professionals with their best years behind them.  The other issue of course is money: the OSCE has a miniscule budget of $160 million a year, barely enough to cover the fixed costs and nowhere near enough to fund the key projects in the field, so there is a constant scramble to raise funds. Usually the cash can be found, from the UN itself or from major member contributors such as Germany and the U. S.

Kane sees a growing problem here, too: “As the Americans pivot towards the Pacific, Europe is no longer seen as so important to U.S. security.”  All eyes are on Germany, OSCE Chair for 2016, that after decades of reticence is now expected “to pull its weight” on the international security stage.

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The OSCE is the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization. It unites 57 states from Europe, Asia and North America and employs over 2,700 people, including Natacha Rajakovic(left).

Germans to the front

The German chairmanship got off to a good start – the 2016 budget was approved on time by the end of the day December 31, 2015.  Berlin’s Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier was in Vienna in early March to set the tone.  Well aware of the OSCE’s relative toothlessness – the OSCE has no charter or official mandate, its field personnel never carry weapons and it cannot impose sanctions – Steinmeier made it clear that he intends to “build bridges from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”

Holger Dreiseitl from Germany’s Permanent Representation in Vienna sees this as an opportunity to continue the former Chancellor Willy Brandt’s historic rapprochement with the Ostblock nations in the 1970s.  The main 2016 priority will be to continue the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, the only reliable source of detailed reports on daily developments. Germany is already providing military drones to support the surveillance – not without some crossfire, as the Donetsk rebels occasionally shoot one out of the sky.

And what of the migration crisis?  Dreiseitl was guarded: Important yes, but it’s “far too early to tell.”  Perhaps this also shows one of the OSCE’s best qualities – understatement – often delivering more than promised.