In praise of the OSCE as Ukraine's friend

An unsung international body, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has helped many countries become secure and democratic. Now Ukraine needs the OSCE to help resolve its tensions and hold a fair election.

Meeting at the Kremlin May 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Swiss President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who is the current head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

An idea hatched during the cold war – and one that helped end the cold war – may now be the best hope for Ukraine.

The idea is that the countries of Europe are allowed to observe the state of universal rights and security problems in each other’s territory. Simply by being transparent across borders about such internal problems as faulty elections, armed tensions, or abuses of basic freedoms, each country would be encouraged to reform and remain peaceful.

This concept of truth as purifier was at the heart of a 1975 agreement that marked a détente between the West and the Soviet Union. It gave courage to freedom advocates behind the Iron Curtain to speak out and eventually led to the creation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Today, that 57-nation organization spans more than a billion people from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Its Vienna-based staff of 2,690 does quiet but essential work on human rights, election monitoring, proper policing, cybersecurity, sex trafficking, and arms control.

Now it faces a challenge by being thrust into Ukraine, largely at the insistence of Germany. In April, the OSCE sent a German-led team of military observers to check on reports that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were in peril. Instead, the team ended up being captured by armed pro-Russia separatists, indirectly pointing to the absurd threat by Moscow that it might need to intervene to save ethnic Russians.

The OSCE is also gearing up to send 1,000 observers to check on Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election. It is well practiced at monitoring ballot counting, having done it in the United States, Kosovo, and other countries where doubts were cast on democratic procedures. Its very presence in tense situations has a curative effect, sending notice that the international community is watching for violations of standards.

The OSCE operates by consensus, which is its strength. Its work is holistic, weaving together solutions on security, rule of law, media, elections, and rights. It also works well with nongovernmental organizations, or civil society, aiding these activist groups in promoting basic liberties.

Russia has remained an OSCE member despite the many times it has been criticized by the group over dubious elections and moves against neighboring countries. Yet Moscow seeks to reform the organization in ways that would limit its work.

But the OSCE has proved to be a unique forum, one that is a model of cooperation and flexibility in resolving conflicts, uplifting human rights, and helping countries become more democratic. It does not always succeed, as happened during the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008. But it endures as a beacon for “best practices” across Eurasia.

Its skills are well matched to the issues in Ukraine. As long as the West and Russia agree to rely on it, the OSCE may prove to be the watchful eye that brings Ukraine out of its own cold war.

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