Russian experts and OSCE officials recently convened to discuss the current role of the OSCE in Ukraine and the lessons the world should learn from attempts to mediate the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

The head of the OSCE acting Chief Observer Paul Picard, center, speaks to the other members at a hotel in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Photo: AP

Having been accused of inefficiency and foot-dragging by Russian politicians in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) seems to have proved otherwise by revitalizing its activity after the Sept. 5 Minsk cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and its eastern rebellious republics.

Most importantly, the OSCE keeps sending its monitors to find out how the cease-fire is being observed. The organization is expected to increase its mission team from 80 monitors to about 500, OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said. In addition, OSCE monitors working in Ukraine have found three mass graves outside of the city of Donetsk, as indicated from its recent report. This report notes that the OSCE “saw two areas located 50 meters apart, each containing two human bodies.”

Given the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act in 2015 and troubling signs of a new Cold War between Russia and the West, the role of the OSCE in tackling the Ukrainian crisis becomes more relevant than ever. Having its origins in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the OSCE was actually an attempt to improve the relations between Soviet and Western countries. It was also regarded as the culmination of détente in Europe.

This intermediary role is exactly what Russia and the West urgently need now, as indicated from the International Seminar “Helsinki+40 Process: Prospects for Strengthening the OSCE” organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) on Sept. 25. The event brought together Russian and foreign experts as well as high-profile OSCE officials.

Despite all the criticism directed toward the OSCE for its inefficiency in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis - including accusations that its members were following double standards, the OSCE seems to have been effective in minimizing complications from the Ukrainian standoff. In fact, it has brought together two confrontational sides at the negotiation table, both Russian and foreign experts agree.

“In comparison with other global structures, the OSCE turns out to have been the only negotiation platform where two sides were able to come up with compromise,” said Andrei Zagorsky, director of IMEMO’s Department of Disarmament and Conflict Resolution, when asked about the lessons the world and the OSCE should draw from the Ukrainian crisis.

At the same time, he points out the lack of opportunities for the OSCE to participate in resolving the conflict in a fast and timely manner and prevent it from spinning out of control. “After all, the faster institutions respond to a crisis, the easier to forestall some [undesirable] processes,” he told Russia Direct.

Spencer Oliver, Secretary General of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, explains that the major reasons of the slowness in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis is the OSCE consensus rule that makes it very difficult to come up with a compromise and deploy the monitors on the ground as quickly and effectively as it should. It is because this principle equally deals with the interests and positions of all its participants.

“This reveals the weakness of the consensus rule in the OSCE,” Spencer said. “The OSCE members should address the consensus rule as it applies to international crisis, so that the countries that are responsible for provoking the crisis do not have the ability to veto the action of the overall organization to try to prevent this crisis and to resolve it.”

Likewise, Javier Ruperez, President of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in 1996-1998, sees the OSCE as a weak organization in this regard, because “it depends on the will of its states and the consensus rule.”

“Nothing can be done unless all 57 states agree on something,” he said. “The relevance of the OSCE will be proved if all 57 members will respect its rule and international law.”

Yet today “institutional fragmentation between different parts of the OSCE region – the Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian communities – is growing,” as it was noted by the participants of the RIAC international seminar in their common theses.  

“The split within the Organization now is deeper than at any time in the past 25 years,” it reads. “The culture of searching for consensus and compromise solutions has taken a back seat. A number of countries and groups of OSCE states increasingly rely on unilateral actions. Unilateral policies prevail over the effort to achieve concerted action. The zero-sum game logic increases mutual mistrusts.”

Meanwhile, both Ruperez and Oliver agree that keeping the promises of the1975 Helsinki Final Act is most important. The world should take note of the promises of this Act and determine how it can keep these written promises, which oblige the OSCE members to respect each other's sovereign equality and individuality, territorial integrity and freedom “to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems as well as its right to determine its laws and regulations.”

In this regard, Ruperez believes that the main lesson everyone should learn from Ukraine is that one cannot violate the principles of international law founded in the Final Act.

“These principles are very clear: They say you cannot violate territorial integrity or political independence of a country, you cannot violate the frontiers of a country. And we should concentrate on the basics of the situation,” he said. “Right now when stability is in danger, we should concentrate primarily on this lesson.”

However, accusations from some politicians that the OSCE is applying double standards seem to hamper any attempts to find common ground. Even long before the Ukrainian crisis Russian politicians and officials – including then-President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich – used the “whataboutism” tactic in their criticism of the West and the OCSE.

In 2011-2012, before and after Russian presidential and parliamentary campaigns that were marked by alleged ballot-stuffing and numerous violations, Medvedev and Lukashevich accused the OSCE of adhering to double standards, attempting to influence the domestic policy of the former Soviet republics or just unfair monitoring in other countries.  

Likewise, during the Ukrainian crisis some politicians and diplomats have reputedly claimed that the West and, particularly, the OSCE members, used double standards. While accusing the West for hampering the functioning of the multi-polar world order, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Russia’s Western partners “set a bad example.”

“In the late 1990s, the unthinkable happened: OSCE member states were bombing another OSCE member – Yugoslavia,” he said in an attempt to justify Russia’s policy in Ukraine in August, in the wake of the civil war in Eastern Ukraine.

Usually, everything that contradicts Russia’s policy, its point of view and perception of global affairs is seen as double standards, argues Zagorsky. According to him, the problem might stem not from these accusations, but from the OSCE failure to fulfill the mission of creating the whole picture, bringing together facts and avoiding cherry-picking – the flaw that was common for both the Russian media and their Western counterparts.

Meanwhile, the OSCE officials argue that finger-pointing at the organization for flaws during the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis is tangential because it diverts from the major problem: violation of the basic principles of international law.

“The case of Ukraine is unfortunately very clear. Russia has violated international law, it illegally annexed part of Ukraine and invaded Ukraine. This is not acceptable. I don’t presume that the West is perfect and Russia is not,” Ruperez said, pointing out that recognizing the independence of Kosovo was also illegal. “Yet I don’t think that any of the OCSE countries can be accused of what Russia can be accused.”