The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, if Russia doesn’t strangle it first.

While the United States and Europe are focused on how to support Ukraine on the battlefield, Russia continues to steadily chip away at multilateral institutions designed to hold it and other governments accountable. The OSCE, created during the Cold War to promote dialogue on political issues between East and West, has an illustrious history of dissidents in Eastern Europe rallying around its founding Helsinki Final Act’s commitment to human rights. Renewed after the fall of communism around a vision of democratic cooperation and conflict prevention, the OSCE’s efforts have been increasingly stymied in recent years as Russia and other authoritarian member states have grown bolder at using their influence inside the institution to obstruct its efforts.

In the lead-up to the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting held in Skopje last week, Russia blocked consensus on key decisions on the organization’s future, including the selection of the next chair, the renewal of the mandates of key leadership positions, and setting the budget – all due to run out at the end of the year. Russia, along with Belarus, vetoed Estonia’s planned appointment as OSCE chair, agreeing only a few days before the meeting on an alternative selection of Malta, a non-NATO member, and on a short-term extension of the leadership positions at the meeting.

Russia’s actions at the OSCE are part of a broader pattern of authoritarian efforts to undermine the global system designed to promote accountability for human rights violations. Its actions also raise urgent questions about how multilateral institutions created at a time when the future was expected to be more democratic can fulfill this mission today.

Authoritarians Exploit Multilateral Institutions to Promote Their Narratives

The Skopje meeting of the Ministerial Council, the OSCE’s central decision-making and governing body made up of members’ foreign ministers, was the first time Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had attended since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That year, OSCE chair Poland prevented him from traveling to the meeting in Lodz because of the European Union ban on Russian flights into Europe. This year, OSCE chair North Macedonia temporarily opened its airspace to permit him to attend.

The foreign ministers of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine refused to attend the gathering as a result, warning that Lavrov wanted to use the platform to spread Russia’s lies about the war. They were right. In his speech, Lavrov repeated Russia’s false claims about the “ruling neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv” and blamed “NATO’s reckless expansion to the East” for the war.

North Macedonia’s foreign minister, representing the OSCE chair, argued that Lavrov’s attendance would not prevent criticism of Russia and said bluntly,  “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine flies in the face of all this organization holds dear.”  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew in for a pre-meeting dinner as a statement of support for the OSCE, leaving before Lavrov arrived, and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron declared, “The U.K. will continue to work with partners to isolate Russia for its attempts to undermine the OSCE’s principles.”

The EU issued a statement at the meeting calling on Russia “to immediately stop its war of aggression against Ukraine, and completely and unconditionally withdraw all its forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”  Non-EU members Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iceland, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, San Marino, and Ukraine also joined the statement, representing 36 of 57 OSCE members.

Diplomatic Ingenuity to Work Around Obstructionism

Why are OSCE members allowing Russia and Belarus to create such chaos?  Why not kick Russia out since it has violated the founding principles of the organization? After all, the Council of Europe expelled Russia from its own ranks in 2022. The OSCE likes to observe that it is the only organization that brings together the United States and Canada with all European states and all members of the former Soviet Union as equal members. Decisions are taken by consensus, a principle adopted at its creation and renewed in the 1990s at a moment when many foresaw a convergence on democratic values and cooperation.

As a result, the OSCE has no way to expel a member State, even one that violates its founding values, as long as the member can rely on at least one other vote of support, such as Belarus. When pressed before the Skopje meeting on what could be done, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OSCE Ambassador Michael Carpenter observed, “When one participating State or two violates all the rules, the only recourse for the rest of us is to condemn and isolate those violations of the Helsinki Final Act, to expose atrocity crimes…and to find ways to work around that.”

What does this mean in practice? OSCE defenders rightly observe that, despite Russian obstructionism, the organization has used its “Moscow Mechanism,” a procedure that does not require consensus, to investigate human rights violations committed by Russia in Ukraine. Its members also continue to support OSCE humanitarian projects on the ground in Ukraine through “donor-funded” initiatives outside of its formal budget.

One impressive workaround has been in democracy and human rights, known in OSCE parlance as the “human” pillar of security. After Russia blocked the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) from holding its statutory conference in 2021, that year’s OSCE chair Poland created the “Warsaw Human Dimension Conference” and passed the hat among members for contributions to support this “extra-budgetary” forum. The gathering enabled a discussion of the OSCE’s priorities on democracy and human rights with civil society leaders from settings such as Russia and Central Asia, among others.

Whereas Russia seeks to quash these civil society voices, the OSCE has found ways to elevate them. Many note that ODIHR creates a unique forum where activists have equal standing with government representatives to engage, unlike the United Nations gatherings attended by governments. As Carpenter noted, “NGOs get to speak out and get to hold their governments accountable for their principles and commitments in the Helsinki Final Act, in the Charter of Paris, and in other core OSCE documents.” The Warsaw Human Dimension Conference was funded again in 2023 and attended by 52 of 57 OSCE members and almost 1,500 civic activists from North America, across Europe, and Central Asia.

A Golden Opportunity Raises Hard Questions

Russia’s actions at the OSCE illustrate one of the most difficult challenges for multilateral institutions today – what to do when founding policies are being used to prevent these organizations from pursuing their fundamental values. This is true not only for the OSCE but also for the European Union, as it grapples with what to do about Hungary given the bloc’s rules requiring decision-making by consensus.

The OSCE’s 50th anniversary next year creates an opportunity for democracies to ask how best to advance the organization’s values today.  Few want to walk away, because of the longstanding commitment to dialogue. Former U.S. State Department official and scholar Rana Sui Inboden noted recently that the global human rights system is worth defending because “many nations lack domestic checks on abuse of power, and the international system serves as both a source of inspiration and a venue of last resort for citizens seeking justice and protection.”

That said, can the OSCE be equipped to do better than last-minute deals that allow it to survive, if diminished, to fight another day? When its members no longer share a vision for democratic cooperation, is this the moment to devote the time and leadership needed to create a new, third incarnation akin to its renewal after the fall of communism?

A number of ideas to reduce authoritarian influence have been explored. These include proposals to allow OSCE decisions to be made on the basis of “consensus minus one” or “minus two” (since Russia is not the only obstructing member State). In a similar spirt, the EU’s use of its Article 7 has allowed it to withhold funds from Hungary in a consensus-minus-one manner on the basis of “a serious and persistent breach of EU values.”

Specifying which decisions – budget or leadership decisions, for example – should be handled through alternative mechanisms — and how they might be made in a manner that reinforces the organization’s commitment to democratic values — could enable groupings like the OSCE to be more efficient while staying true to their principles.

The unfortunate reality is that it would almost certainly be impossible to modify the consensus principle by consensus. Yet in practice, the OSCE is already operating post-consensus by mobilizing in common cause to work around obstruction. The Civic Solidarity Platform, which organizes a civil society conference alongside the OSCE Ministerial Council, praised the organization’s greater use of non-consensual tools like the Moscow Mechanism as central to the implementation of the core Helsinki principle that “human rights problems are not an internal matter of States but a matter of legitimate concern for all other States.”

The Warsaw Human Dimension Conference highlights the potential for innovative solutions that can garner support from most OSCE members when authoritarians abuse its rules to prevent accountability. Might it be institutionalized perhaps as a partner for the OSCE that would not be dependent on the will of the rotating chair and unencumbered by authoritarian obstructionism?

Looking ahead, the OSCE should hope to emerge from its golden anniversary not just with a celebration of its past and condemnation of violations today, but with a plan for its future, in which the main concern at its meetings is not whether Russia is willing to attend, but whether a democratic Ukraine is.

IMAGE: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds a press conference during the two-day conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Skopje, North Macedonia, on December 1, 2023. Lavrov  fiercely criticized the OSCE, the world’s largest regional security group, whose meeting of foreign ministers, its central decision-making and governing body, he was attending, and he voiced indifference towards the organization’s future. (Photo by ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP via Getty Images)