James Sherr
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

The summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that convened in Astana on 1-2 December will contribute nothing to the organisation's reputation or importance.

For much of the OSCE's 35 year history, its reputation has belied its importance. Those who believe that 56 participating states cannot agree about anything beyond platitudes have found many of the organisation's annual ministerial meetings grist to their mill. The Astana Commemorative Declaration's reiteration, under Kazakhstan's chairmanship, of the 'core principles' of 'human rights' and 'fundamental freedoms' could not stand in greater contrast to the imprisonment of Kazakhstan's human rights leader, Yevgeniy Zhovtis; the testimony of other regime critics at pre-summit conferences; and the curbing of liberties exercised by NGOs during the summit itself.

Yet the OSCE is not a lampoon of European security. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act established a link between security and human rights, as well as a set of solemn commitments that proved instrumental to the dissolution of the Cold War order. Subsequent acts have provided a web of undertakings that legitimise what for three centuries the Westphalian order deemed illegitimate: scrutiny of a sovereign state's internal affairs.

The OSCE remains the primary framework for conventional arms control: a mechanism now deadlocked by Russia's 'suspension' of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) provisions, but far from broken. Its Field Operations have rendered 'conflict resolution' a dispiriting but far from hopeless pursuit. Not least important, the OSCE's Secretariat and its three specialised institutions - on national minorities, press freedom and election monitoring ('Democratic Institutions and Human Rights') - have acquired considerable autonomy and, with that, effectiveness. This normative framework has not rid Eurasia of realpolitik, duplicity and brutality, but it has rendered them open to exposure, limitation and sanction.

For these reasons, Russia and the hardened nomenklaturist regimes of Central Asia take the OSCE seriously. Kazakhstan embarked on its 2010 chairmanship in the calculation that by adorning itself in the mantle of OSCE principles, it would have no need to observe them. In the short term, the calculation has paid off, but in the long term it could prove as precarious a gamble as the Soviet Union's similar calculation after 1975.

Whereas the democratically inclined Russia of the 1990s hoped the OSCE would supersede NATO as Europe's pre-eminent security organisation, Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has sought to cut it down to size, trimming its soft security functions, curbing its internal roles 'east of Vienna', and denouncing its transformation into a 'vulgar instrument' for promoting the interests of democratically-minded states. In contrast to the OSCE sponsored Corfu process, Russia's proposed European Security Treaty would confine interstate discussion to matters of hard security on the basis of 'equal zones of security', rendering implicit the 'spheres of influence' that the Astana Commemorative Declaration condemns. Not surprisingly, President Medvedev used his time in Astana to promote this treaty, as well as the 'modernisation' of the OSCE on the basis of a charter that would 'bring order' to the work of its specialised structures through their strict subordination to participating states.

Despite Kazakhstan's chairmanship, these projects gained no ground in Astana. That is good news for the incoming Lithuanian chairmanship, whose more activist agenda might be felt not only in the traditional spheres of conflict resolution and human rights, but energy and cyber security. The resistance aroused by this agenda is certain to enhance the OSCE's newsworthiness, if not its effectiveness.