The OSCE makes an important contribution to security and peace in Europe. Germany assumes a leading role here.

picture-alliance/dpa - OSCE

In the 1960s and 1970s, Europe was dominated by a political and military confrontation that is scarcely conceivable today. In 1977, around 2.5 million troops, more than 38,000 tanks and some 10,000 nuclear warheads were deployed on the continent. The smallest incident could have triggered a full-scale conventional war or even a nuclear conflict that would have literally meant the end – at least 
of Central Europe. An integral element 
of this confrontational situation was the goal of German reunification. But even in the early 1960s, some people began to suspect that this confrontation would 
not advance the cause of either peace in Europe or German reunification.

The first person to coin a catchphrase 
expressing this idea was Egon Bahr – then a close aide of Berlin’s Governing Mayor Willy Brandt – who in his July 1963 speech in Tutzing spoke of “change through rapprochement”.

The main idea behind the CSCE was initially controversial. 
It ended up changing Europe

This constituted the basic idea behind the policy of détente, which in 1975 was to 
result in the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) – an inclusive, cooperative process based on common principles and norms that was to overcome not only the confrontation but, ultimately, also the political system of the Eastern bloc.

However controversial this idea was in­itially, especially in the West, it changed Europe permanently. The major political changes that took place between 1989 and 1991 – the end of the communist system and of the partition of Europe and Germany – were only possible without bloodshed because of the frame of reference provided by the CSCE process. In the words of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who 
as Federal Foreign Minister accom­panied and helped shape this process from 1974 to 1992: “Cooperation, it turned out, achieved more than acceptance of the confrontation.”

This basic idea is still valid today. The 
Organization for Security and Co-oper­ation in Europe (OSCE), which was set 
up as the successor to the CSCE, has 
admittedly been strongly neglected – especially in the past 15 years – by its 57 member states, including a number of Western countries. Even 20 years after its name was changed from “Conference” to “Organization” at the 1994 Budapest Summit, the OSCE still has no international legal personality. In many cases, the 57 member states, which adopt resolutions by consensus, are able to reach only mi­nimal agreements. What’s more, the OSCE budget is slowly but steadily shrinking. Over the years, all this has led to the view – shared by some in Germany as well – that the OSCE has lost political clout.

The OSCE still has no international legal personality

On the other side of the equation are the undisputed achievements of the organ­isation, which is based in Vienna and run by Secretary General Lamberto Zannier from Italy. The OSCE still runs 16 “field operations” – in the Balkans, Eastern 
Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia – that regulate crises and in a wide variety of ways support efforts to establish the rule of law and democratic governance.

The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Astrid Thors, makes sure that minority rights are observed, thus preventing conflicts. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović never tires of condemning vi­olations of media freedom. And the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, which has been headed since July 2014 by former Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Michael Georg Link, is not only a globally recognised mark of quality in election observation but is also active in numerous areas relating to democratis­ation, the rule of law and human rights. The current crisis in Ukraine has particularly underscored the OSCE’s import­ance. During the crisis, strategic com­munication between Russia and the EU/
NATO broke down surprisingly quickly, and many Western governments, too, practically stopped talking to Moscow.

The OSCE is also actively 
involved in the difficult terrain 
of the Ukraine crisis

In this situation, the OSCE proved to be 
a framework in which the parties involved were able not only to continue talking to one another but also to agree on joint measures, some of them in completely new formats. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine with its up to 500-strong team ensures transparency, and a 1,000-member election observation mission monitored the proper conduct of the politically decisive presidential elections on 25 May 2014. In addition, the OSCE helped organise a national unity roundtable whose first meetings were co-chaired by Wolfgang Ischinger, former State Secretary at the Federal Foreign Office. ▪

Dr. Wolfgang Zellner heads the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE), which is part of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH).