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The Role and Record of the OSCE in Negotiating Post-Soviet 'Frozen Conflicts'

Stephan M. Minikes, former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2001-2005)

Date & Time

Nov. 6, 2006
10:00am – 11:00am ET


At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Stephan Minikes, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said that several frozen conflicts in post-Soviet countries remain unresolved, despite intensive diplomatic efforts within the organization aimed at solving them. The conflicts in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh all exist in legal and political limbo at the moment, he said, and the situation is not likely to change in the immediate future.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe was founded after World War II in order to set up rules to govern conflicts. One of its main achievements was that all its members had an equal voice, Minikes said. However, this turned out to be its biggest weakness as well, he added. New countries used their vote as a wedge, according to Minikes, which led to several conflicts becoming frozen, including in Moldova's Transnistria region, Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region.

In Transnistria, Minikes said that economic and political factors are prolonging the conflict. Moldova and Transnistria fought a war beginning in 1992, which ended in 1996 with a formal treaty and Russian peace-keepers. Seven years ago, Russia specifically agreed to withdraw its troops, but has yet to act on that commitment. In Minikes' view, for Russia, the Transnistria conflict is "a convenient burr to put under the West's saddle." Too many people are making too much money off of Transnistria's unresolved legal status for there to be the necessary political will to resolve the conflict.

Addressing Georgia's separatist conflicts, Minikes said they share commonalities. Economic weakness and criminalization are becoming major problems in both regions following wars fought against the central government of Georgia. Russian-led peacekeeping troops have been stationed in each region since the fighting ended. However, the conflict in South Ossetia is being prolonged because of the continuing problems in the other separatist region, Abkhazia. The Abkhazia conflict is more complex than the South Ossetia conflict, because of the ethnic differences between the Abkhaz and Georgians, Minikes said. Furthermore, this ethnic division has deep historical roots.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh after both states attained independence from the Soviet Union. The region is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians, and is claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia brokered a peace deal, and, according to Minikes, little progress has been made since 1994.

The three frozen conflicts share several common factors, according to Minikes. First, in each case, the separatists won. Second, they will remain frozen until Russia wants to solve these conflicts, he said. Third, each separatist region is a de facto functioning state. Minikes said that one of the main reasons multilateral organizations such as the OSCE fail is lack of consensus among major members. He also said that he believes in building bridges rather than walls, because the alternatives to building brides are never long-lasting, and yield societies where people are not free and not able to prosper.

Despite the lack of progress in these particular frozen conflicts, Minikes believes the OSCE can continue to play a significant role in the contemporary world, filling a need for multilateral engagement across Europe. In recent years, he noted, the OSCE has focused on issues that need creative solutions, ranging from electoral reform and election monitoring, to human trafficking, reconciliation, and police reform, as well as immigration, migration, and religious tolerance. He said the organization needs constant and serious attention from participating states, as well as pro-activeness and strong leadership from the annually rotating chair.

"I have often heard it said that if OSCE did not exist, it would have to be invented," Minikes said. "The fact is, it does exist, and it has a mandate that can make it a powerful and important player in the international, multilateral world," he continued.

"Go to it," Minikes admonished the organization.


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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more

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