Russia at bay | The 25th OSCE Ministerial Council Takes on Some of our World’s Most Intractable Problems

There’s always a strange calm in the press benches whatever the weight of the unfolding event.

The armored limousines roll up in front of the Hofburg, the Great and the Good emerge onto the red carpet to be greeted by the Charmer in Residence, Austria’s (still) foreign minister Sebastian Kurz – and the hounds of the media are sipping coffee and exchanging familiar banalities. Another day, another dollar.

For Nr. 28 on the world’s economic ranking (after Nigeria but just before Iran) Vienna hosts a disproportionate number of world events and permanent international agencies, including the OSCE. This is partly the lingering “neutrality bonus” of Austria’s contractual promise to the Soviets never to join NATO or any other formal military alignment. But it’s also Vienna’s magnificent suitability as a venue – grand imperial conference halls, appropriately stylish hotels and dining, all in a handy central European location.

The OSCE Ministerial Council December 7th and 8th 2017 is the annual reckoning up with the past year’s problems and next year’s priorities. This year it is also the handover from Austria’s chairmanship to Italy for 2018. As such it is also almost certainly Sebastian Kurz’ last major moment as Austria’s foreign minister, before leading the new government as Kanzler next year. His keynote speech was, as always, clear, precise and suitably statesmanlike, but like others who have the rare gift of being able to speak without notes with the conciseness of the printed page, formal, though certainly graceful. Despite its length, it was almost entertainment compared to the 60 or more individual national statements that followed. These point-scoring prepared narratives were read at breakneck speed (in a vain attempt to stay within the three minute limit), their aggressively partisan content strangely like the ritualized combat of Samurai swordsmen behind a screen, lethal strokes but no blood.

The OSCE’s major commitment over the last few years has been their monitoring of the bloody dispute in the East Ukraine and Dombass region. So the fight lines were clear: It was Russia against the rest of the world. Even Russia’s traditional ally Serbia stopped short of support, while major western “cold warriors” and the twitchy little ex-Soviet satellites were forthright: Terms like “violation of OSCE principles,” “seizure,” “illegal occupation,” and worse, flowed freely. The U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was uncompromisingly Trumpian: “We will never accept Russia’s annexation of Eastern Ukraine” but Russia’s Sergei Wiktorowitsch Lawrow gave as good as he got: “Reckless expansion of NATO … dirty means … blatant support for coup d’etats.”  Despite the excessively overlong bromide, Kurz remained, as ever, the diplomat, “Thank you Sergei” he cooed.

Will anything good come out of all this? The OSCE’s task is much broader than peace-keeping, it covers the spectrum of problems beyond political and military to include economics and environment, human rights and freedom of the media. Plenty to do. Human rights mean different things to different people: Comfortable Westerners mentioned gender and LGBT rights, recently war ravaged Balkan states emphasized basic rights to life and limb and freedom of the press. Sadly the Ukrainian stand-off looks as intractable as ever and as many speakers emphasized, the OSCE cannot impose peace, its own self defined remit is to try and build or repair trust as a prelude to positive discussion. So far even the 2017 “Spirit of Vienna” that several delegates praised so fulsomely has not been able produce any progress. Maybe a higher power should intervene. The Vatican’s delegate quoted his boss, God’s Vicar on Earth: “Peace is banishing the culture of conflict not just banning weapons.”

Let’s all light a candle; perhaps it is time to pray.

Simon Ballam
Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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