Opinion: Burning Bridges?
Sebastian Schäffer, Managing Director, Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM), Vienna; Secretary General, Danube Rectors’ Conference (DRC); Associate Fellow, Centre for Global Europe, GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava
*The views expressed in this piece are of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official position of GLOBSEC.
The saying goes that the first casualty of war is the truth. I always found the expression to be a bit cynical, though it is quite excessively used in headlines and social media posts. No different was it after 24 February 2022, when the Russian Federation launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine.
If one had been following the public announcements of the Russian President and the highly bizarre session of Russia’s National Security Council, as well as the debates on TV, it would have been clear that the truth was already long dead (although I and many others would argue that the war already started in 2014, which makes it somewhat correct). In any case, my main argument is that we should not mourn the death of the truth, but rather we should ask why we have been lying to ourselves.
Specifically why have we been lying about the effectiveness of multilateralism, theories of interdependence as well as the end of history, which would prevent conflict and war in Europe? Even more frustrating is that we continue to lie to ourselves that it would be possible to negotiate with the Kremlin, that it is only a war with Ukraine and we are not part of it, as well as that the OSCE is a suitable organisation to guarantee security on the continent.
Given the current body of evidence, we must accept that supranational governance does not function in this regard and it is entirely our own fault. The fact that we are also still using unanimity when it comes to foreign and security policy in the European Union is only further proofs. A reform of the UN Security Council is long overdue but has never honestly been discussed with the intent to actually yield results. Its five permanent members have been no longer contemporary for quite some time now, apart from the fact that a participating party in a war should not have veto power if this council should properly serve as the last authority on global security (which definitely does not only apply to the Russian Federation, to be perfectly clear).
Unfortunately, the OSCE is no exception and has become more and more dysfunctional over the recent years. Reaching a compromise regarding appointments to fill positions has been almost impossible. In meetings, the countries read statements to each other without engaging in real discussions, let alone dialogue. A transformation of the organisation has also been discussed, including the question of whether it is overburdened with expectations. The OSCE has certainly made important contributions to mediate conflicts. One positive example is the normalisation between Latvia and the Russian Federation regarding inter-ethnic conflicts, although it might be put to question whether the situation would have remained stable after the mission was ended (in 2001), in spite of Putin and the lack of NATO membership for Latvia at the time of the agreement.
The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) certainly has a lot of merits, especially with regards to the election observation missions. With its political coverage, preparation of reports, creation of manuals, as well as training guides and offers, it has substantially contributed to democratic development. It is an invaluable source for local authorities, NGOs and election workers, which has also directly contributed to European integration.
However, also here the question remains whether it is actually possible to prevent backsliding solely through naming and shaming. For all the wrong reasons Hungary stands out and, set a negative precedent in 2019. For the first time in the history of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index, an EU Member State was downgraded from free to partly free. While one can hardly blame ODIHR for it, it is first and foremost the EU and its other Member States’ fault to have let it come this far. It is again only possible to prevent developments in cooperation with other organisations. If these organisations are not willing or able, or simply don’t exist (for instance in the United States), decades of democratic development can be reversed regardless of the observation.
One of the most important conflicts the OSCE is tasked with, and certainly destined for, is Transnistria, the separatist region in the Republic of Moldova. Negotiations over the status question mediated by the (at that point still) CSCE started in 1994. In 2018, the Special Representative announced that out of the “package of eight” priorities within the 5+2 talks on the Transnistrian settlement process, all will be finalised by the end of that year. By 2020, five points had essentially been solved, since then the willingness to further cooperate due to several factors (elections, pandemic, Russian aggression against Ukraine) from both sides has been limited.
Overall, the efforts have certainly helped to alleviate the situation in Chișinău. However, Tiraspol remains the capital of a de facto state and the Russian army is ipso facto present in Moldova. In the current situation, an escalation of the war with Ukraine cannot be ruled out and worrying developments indicate that the next “frozen” conflict in a post-Soviet state could be thawing.
Once again, only another multilateral format might be able to prevent a reanimation of conflict. Of course, this is certainly also due to the unwillingness of the member states of the OSCE, but then the question needs to be asked: does it still have any relevance or agency as an organisation? Can we afford international cooperation with limited output in times of rising ‘minilaterlisms’ with similar limited results? There is definitely more success on the micro level when it comes to the implementation of projects and this deserves recognition. However, on the macro level, including conflict regulation and prevention, this is very narrow.
Can all the positive aspects not be achieved in a different format, or rather within an existing one? French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) his idea of a two-tier Europe. As Ukraine has applied for membership of the European Union, even though integration could take decades, he proposes a community of democracies as an alternative, wherein former members could also participate. This indicates a general openness, and while it remains to be seen what it would actually look like, it might be worth thinking of possibilities for integrating the OSCE into such an alternative.
Definitely, not all members would be able to join, but several layers in this second or alternative tier should definitely be explored. It is also clear that, under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine how the Russian Federation could be part of it. And after Russia’s exit from the Council of Europe, we should be carefully deliberating how not to burn all bridges with Moscow. However, how constructive is the cooperation within the OSCE anyway?
There is no easy answer and it will take much more than just a paragraph to explore the potential of Macron’s idea, and even more so a possible merger with the OSCE. But what is definitely true is that we need fewer multilateral formats and more multilateral outputs. 24 February 2022 has been widely described as a watershed moment for Europe amongst others by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. Renovation (read: reform) is sometimes more expensive than rebuilding. From the ashes of burnt-down international orders and organizations might rise something new and appropriate for the 21st century. And maybe the bridges we have to burn for this can light the way for us. After all, we might then be able to revive the truth and hopefully tell it to ourselves, even if it is inconvenient.
 The author would like to thank Fiona Faas for her support in research for this article as well as Jack Gill for his valuable comments
 see Bollow 1999, https://ifsh.de/file-CORE/documents/jahrbuch/99/Bollow.pdf
 see Gawrich 2014, “Demokratieförderung von Europarat und OSZE: Ein Beitrag zur europäischen Integration”
 see https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/freedom-world/2019
 see https://www.osce.org/chairmanship/382879?fbclid=IwAR2eIqBRIv7nud0FFaJxHknwMxmoX_mhN2xd_7cj1Ab6QHn9mvLaNaBEZ0g
 Scholz: https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/policy-statement-by-olaf-scholz-chancellor-of-the-federal-republic-of-germany-and-member-of-the-german-bundestag-27-february-2022-in-berlin-2008378