OSCE today

Though the historical mission of the OSCE was completed, it’s work is still in progress towards the overall goal of an era and region democratic, free, at peace and unified/whole. The OSCE today occupies a unique place in international organizations in general and transatlantic security institutions in particular. It is the world’s largest and most inclusive regional security organization under Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations.

Since the early days of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), East-West relations have been reflected within the Organization. While there was a relatively calm period of cooperation during the 1990s that enabled the CSCE/OSCE to establish a plethora of structures and field operations, East-West tensions have increased again since the year 2000 and continued to hamper the OSCE’s ability to deliver.

One of the effects was a declining consensus about the normative foundations of the OSCE, especially of the human dimension documents adopted in the years immediately following the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe but also on other, hard security questions, such as the protracted conflicts or questions of arms control. This led to a period of declining relevance and to what some called a midlife crisis of the OSCE. 

This changed with the further dramatic decline in East-West relations; first in 2008 when the conflict in Georgia broke out, and then in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began its support for the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis highlighted both, the further deterioration in relations between Russia and the West, and the renewed relevance of the OSCE. 

This renewed relevance was further underlined by the establishment of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine in 2014, and the creation of the Trilateral Contact Group in 2015. 

The SMM today is the OSCE’s largest field operation. The SMM today is the eyes and ears of the international community on the ground in Ukraine. Its neutral and fact-based reporting is highly appreciated by the international community. The Trilateral Contact Group is the only international negotiation format that includes not only representatives from Ukraine and Russia, but also representatives of rebel groups. The OSCE acts as mediator and facilitator. 

Basic priorities

The basic priorities of the OSCE at present are:

  • Democracy: to consolidate the participating States’ common values and help in building fully democratic civil societies based on the rule of law and principles of “good governance”

  • Peace: to prevent local conflicts, restore stability, seek to resolve “frozen conflicts,” and bring peace to war-torn areas

  • Security: to overcome real and perceived security deficits and to avoid the creation of new political, economic, or social divisions by promoting a cooperative system of security

New activities

Despite stalemate on some of the larger political issues, the OSCE continues with “business as usual” on a large number of activities that seldom grab headlines, but which make a significant cumulative contribution to improved security throughout the region. These new activities help in the following ways:

  • Sixteen field missions that continue to monitor ongoing events and to assist in a wide range of conflict management tasks on the ground.

  • OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine: Largest field operation with 1,322 civilian staff members, among them approx. 763 monitors. 

  • Establishment of an Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk in 2014 that provides reliable information on the movement of civilians, military hardware and Russian convoys across the two border crossing points. 

  • Establishment in 2013 of an OSCE network of think tanks that provides outside perspectives on the OSCE’s work as an autonomous OSCE-related track II initiative. 

  • Creation in 2012 of a series of conferences entitled “Security Days” in order to better include perspectives of think tanks, academic institutions and media into the work of the OSCE. 

  • Since 2014 creation of the function of the Chair-in-Office Special Representatives on Youth and Security, representing the voice of youth within the OSCE and advising the CiO on youth policy issues. 

  • Creation of a Transnational Threats Department in the OSCE Secretariat to assist pS to improve their capacity to address issues such as to respond to the threats of terrorism and cyber/ICT security, to manage border security, and to build the capacity of law enforcement in improved police work within a democratic context that respects human rights.

  • The Forum for Security Cooperation is expanding assistance to states in monitoring and reducing the flow of small arms and light weapons across state borders and in decommissioning arms within their own territories. 

OSCE institutional challenges

In recent years, the OSCE has lost momentum built up after the end of the cold war, causing it to reassess its role in regional security. There are several major causes of this crisis:

  • Great power competition between the United States, Russia and China has led to a decline in the appreciation of multilateralism and cooperative solutions. The OSCE as an organization based on consensus and compromise is greatly affected by these dynamics. 

  • The tense relationship between Russia and the West continues to have a negative impact on the organization. For example, increased polarization between eastern and western countries has led to claims that the OSCE focuses too much on intervention in states “east of Vienna” while ignoring
problems in states “west of Vienna;” and further claims that the focus has become “unbalanced” in favor of human dimension and democratization activities to the neglect of security, economic, and environmental functions contained in the first two baskets of the Helsinki Final Act. 

  • Furthermore, the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 has led to the creation of two camps among western OSCE participating States. One camp argues that Russia has to be punished for its actions and that there cannot be business as usual as long as Moscow continues to occupy Crimea and supports the separatist movement in eastern Ukrainian. Another camp believes that engaging with Russia is necessary, even if there are points of disagreement. Those states argue that it is essential to recreate trust in order to prevent a further escalation of tensions. 

  • Furthermore, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh plays out frequently in the OSCE. Both states want to push their national agendas within the OSCE context. 


The crisis that has affected the OSCE has had several significant consequences for the operation of the OSCE. These dynamics have a negative effect on the atmosphere at the OSCE in Vienna and often poison negotiations, leading to a paralysis in the decision-making process. 

For example: 

  • Consensus has been increasingly difficult to achieve, and every Ministerial Meeting since 2002 failed to adopt a consensus communiqué. 

  • Participating States today are even more willing to block decisions and take negotiation processes in the OSCE hostage. This sometimes even leads to the procrastination in adoption of purely procedural decisions, such as conference agendas or appointments of senior positions. 

  • Since 2017 the appointment of senior positions in the OSCE, including the posts of Secretary General and Heads of OSCE Institutions, has been complicated by the fact that the four positions became part of a political package deal, which was not the case beforehand. This has greatly complicated the appointment procedure, because states try to push their own candidates into the various posts which has led to lengthy negotiations and to several months of leadership vacuum at the head of the OSCE in the years 2016-2017. 

  • In July 2020 the four senior leadership positions were up for extension for a second three-year term, which is usually a mere formality. In an unprecedented leadership crisis, the pS failed to reach a consensus decision on extending their mandates, though the CiO proposed stopgap measures to extend the posts on a technical basis, or to undo the “package” and to extend the posts individually. 

  • There has been significant conflict over the budget, and it is now common for budgets to be adopted well into the fiscal year. 

  • There is no agreement on a new set of scales of contribution that define how much each participating State pays into the OSCE budget. The last agreed scales of contribution expired in December 2017. 

  • Several key OSCE missions have been closed in locations such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Chechnya, Estonia, Georgia, and Latvia; and the mandates for other missions have been reduced from monitoring and reporting on the host governments' compliance with its OSCE political commitments to managing projects. In some instances, hosting countries even ask the mission to submit every single project proposal for approval. The OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre (and other thematic offices) at the OSCE Secretariat makes some attempts to compensate for this by working on country-specific issues from Vienna.

  • ODIHR (Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) has been placed under great pressure to make its work, including election monitoring, more “objective,” to expand its activities “West of Vienna,” and to avoid issuing reports that are likely to influence the outcome of domestic electoral processes in countries where it monitors, largely as a reaction to its perceived central role in the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine that created substantial concern in Russia, Belarus, and several other former Soviet states. 

  • In addition, some countries, such as Tajikistan and Turkey, have made attempts in recent years at reducing the impact of the OSCE’s work in the human dimension, and boycotted the HDIM in the past years. Turkey has blocked the adoption of the agenda on the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting for several years, pushing negotiations to the brink and in some instances almost leading to the cancellation of the event. Turkey views the OSCE’s registration process for NGO representatives at those events as going against its national interest. In its view, the OSCE is lacking detailed registration criteria that would limit access of groups that in its view are “terrorist organizations”. 

OSCE responses

In 2014, the OSCE Troika under the leadership of the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship, commissioned a report entitled “Back to Diplomacy”/Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project”. The report was aimed at understanding the root causes of the Ukraine crisis in particular, and the conflict between the East and the West and the crisis of European security more generally. 

The report concluded that the situation today is the most dangerous for several decades and made recommendations on organizing a robust process of active diplomacy, in keeping with the Helsinki principles, the idea of cooperative security and the vision of a “common European home”. Though the report helped pS to gain a better understanding of the situation, there was no concrete follow-up, due to the lack of a consensus view between the experts (there was no common but three different narratives: the views from the West, from Moscow and from the States in-between), and as the report was not commissioned by all 57 participating States. 

Since 2016, the OSCE Chair-in-Office has adopted the practice of convening an informal OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in the summer, in order to provide an opportunity for genuine dialogue among Foreign Ministers. The informal Ministerial Meetings are meant to help iron out differences early in the year and to prepare the ground for the official Ministerial Council meeting at the end of the year in December. 

The OSCE Chair-in-Office has adopted the practice of presenting documents representing the consensus of “most delegations” at annual ministerial meetings, thereby avoiding objections from Russia and a few other participating States.

ODIHR has increased its election-monitoring activities in Western Europe and North America, while resisting efforts to place political restrictions on its freedom of action in carrying out its mandate wherever it observes or assists in the elections process. This included ODIHR’s monitoring of the last few presidential elections in the United States, a process that overall was found to meet high standards for democratic elections. ODIHR has monitored numerous other elections in western states, including in Austria, Canada, Greece, Denmark, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.