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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

20 Years After Helsinki

Exactly 20 years ago, at the beginning of August 1975, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe convened in Helsinki, Finland. Every European country, except Albania, as well as the United States and Canada was represented. The culmination of the conference was the acceptance of the historic Helsinki Accord, which fixed a normative codex for the behavior of states in the modern era. Looking back, we can clearly see the positive role this accord played in strengthening European security and, eventually, overcoming the political division of the continent.

The CSCE was, and remains, a unique pan-European forum for the discussion of key problems of European politics and security. Under its auspices, regular, ongoing political consultations are held on any number of questions and problems are resolved long before they reach crisis proportions.

The Helsinki Accord embodied the expression of a complex approach to European security, a concept which, perhaps for the first time ever, was expanded to include economic and humanitarian questions on an equal footing with military affairs. The discussion of human rights and freedoms was given a firm foundation which did much to lift it out of the framework of the East-West confrontation. By obligating all participants to observe basic human rights and by tying this obligation to security and the development of cooperation, the CSCE emphasized that the foreign policy of a country that systematically violated the rights of its citizens could not be trusted by other convention members.

Furthermore, the Helsinki process advanced the democratization of international relations in Europe, in part by accepting the principle of decision-making by consensus. In the military sphere, the body has played an important role in a number of security agreements, including the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Open Skies Agreement and a whole system of military confidence-building measures. It is no exaggeration to say that these agreements laid the foundation for non-deterrence based military stability in Europe.

Today, this body (renamed in December 1994 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) -- like other European structures including NATO, the EU, the Western European Union and the Council of Europe -- is having difficulty adapting to the new realities of Europe in the post-Soviet, post-Cold War era. The December 1994 Budapest summit, however, represented an important stage in the organization's development and provided evidence that this forum is better able to adapt than the others. There it was decided to strengthen the organization's governing bodies and to expand the OSCE's ability to engage in preventative diplomacy and peacekeeping operations. A crucial first test of these decisions is the OSCE's activities in Nagorny Karabakh.

Nonetheless, experts remain doubtful that the OSCE can become the basic agency of collective security in Europe with authority to resolve all related matters, including military questions. Everyone, though, acknowledges that the OSCE has some clear advantages over NATO and the Western European Union. Most importantly, it already contains successful mechanisms for carrying out preventative diplomacy. Also, it has observation missions in virtually every region of the former Soviet sphere, from the Baltic States to Tajikistan.

The OSCE has demonstrated its potential with its mediating role in resolving the crisis in Chechnya. This achievement is all the more remarkable because the crisis is -- from the international point of view -- a purely internal matter for Russia. Nonetheless, this outside, international organization has been able to carry out several crucial functions. There is reason to believe that the OSCE can help resolve tensions in the Crimea and conflicts involving ethnic Russians in Estonia, Latvia and other post-Soviet states.

In short, the OSCE's ability to secure "soft security" across the Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian regions is far greater than that of NATO, the CIS or any other existing European body. Doubts concerning the OSCE center on whether it would be able to make the leap to "hard-security" issues. It is, of course, impossible to count on the effectiveness of any organization that has more than 50 members and requires a consensus to act. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the United States and the powers of Western Europe have every incentive and intention to continue relying on NATO. In fact, experience shows that the West is really interested in the OSCE to the extent that it enables the West to interfere in Russia's domestic affairs and in conflicts in the former Soviet Union.

Under these conditions, it is unlikely that Russia's proposals to transfer Europe's "center of gravity" to the OSCE and to give it coordinating functions over other structures including NATO and the CIS will be well-received in the foreseeable future. The proposed restructuring of the OSCE's leadership organs along the lines of the UN Security Council clearly does not correspond to the interests of any country in the world except Russia, which is now outside the main pan-European institutions and is striving to find a place in world affairs commensurate with its status.

In the meantime, although Russia's proposals for boosting the OSCE are justified and forward-looking, Moscow must not miss any opportunity to integrate itself further into other European agencies in order to advance its own security. Russia should go forward with the creation of missions -- including military ones -- in the "near abroad." It should pursue all options for creating a viable collective security arrangement within the CIS. And it must develop cooperative and productive relations with NATO and the Western European Union. Now is not the time for isolationism.

Pavel Podlesny is a senior analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe and a consultant at the YuKOS Institute. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.