In the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash over eastern Ukraine, few people have been able to take charge of what has been, by all accounts, a chaotic and tragic scene. But one group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), has been able to send international observers to the site of the disaster.
"It basically looks like the biggest crime scene in the world right now," Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE team, told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Saturday.
To anyone following the Ukraine crisis, perhaps OSCE's involvement isn't a great surprise: They've been at the center of the crisis for some time now. But others might raise their eyebrows at the organization's prominent role in the plane crash investigation. For the past decade or so, the huge yet relatively obscure organization, founded at the height of the Cold War, had been in a period of declining importance. Now, with a horrifying plane crash, it's back on the front pages again, even making an unlikely star out of its deputy chief monitor, Alexander Hug.
But the OSCE occupies a complicated space in international diplomacy, and its greatest strength is also its potential weakness. Here's why.
The origins of the OSCE
The OSCE has its origins in the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, first held in 1973 in Helsinki, but the idea of a Europe-wide security organization had existed for years before it finally got backing from Moscow. As Henry Farrell noted on The Post's Monkey Cage blog, the talks in Helsinki, and later Geneva, lasted two years and focused on getting the Soviet Union to make certain human rights commitments in return for Western Europe accepting Eastern Europe's post-World War II borders. They eventually succeeded in this aim, and while many people thought that these human rights agreements would have little impact, they actually ended up being important when communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe.
In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the group's name was changed to the OSCE, and significantly expanding its role. It now has 57 members in Europe, North America and Asia, and represents more than a billion people. It's well-known for taking a role in conflict resolution, in particular playing a large role in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it tackles other issues too, including arms proliferation, human trafficking and election fraud.
The OSCE may not seem like a big deal compared to other regional organizations like the European Union or NATO – Richard Gowan, an expert on the organization and a New York University professor, recently described them as "the perennial also-ran among Europe's security institutions."
However, they have one key strength which those institutions lack: Russia is a member.
In theory, this means that the group is an important way for Russia, Europe and the United States to mediate their problems. But things don't always go smoothly. Since the early 2000s, Russia has followed a more nationalist bent and frequently complained about the OSCE. President Vladimir Putin publicly criticized the body in 2007 during a speech in Munch:
What do we see happening today? We see that this balance is clearly destroyed. People are trying to transform the OSCE into a vulgar instrument designed to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries. And this task is also being accomplished by the OSCE's bureaucratic apparatus which is absolutely not connected with the state founders in any way. Decision-making procedures and the involvement of so-called non-governmental organisations are tailored for this task. These organisations are formally independent but they are purposefully financed and therefore under control.
Partly due to Russia's mixed feelings about OSCE, the group has generally lost importance over the past 10 years or so. This year, with the Ukraine crisis bringing world attention to Eastern Europe again, its back in the spotlight.
A messy history with Ukraine
What was it that the OSCE had done to anger the Russian president? One obvious factor was the OSCE's role in Ukraine's 2004 "Orange Revolution," where election monitors from the group helped spark anti-government protests after they cast doubt upon the validity of Viktor Yanukovich's election win. Russia has since been accused of attempting to undermine the OSCE and shift its work away from election monitoring and human rights towards other tactics it finds more palatable, such as terrorism prevention.
Given the nature of the crisis that engulfed Ukraine late last year, the OSCE was a logical mediator – the group had experience protecting minorities, which may have put ethnic Russian's in the country's east at ease, and it could claim to act neutral in a way that the E.U. or NATO could not. It also had significant experience in Ukraine, and in particular in Crimea. However, the frosty relations the body had with Moscow have clearly made its work difficult.
It wasn't until late March, that Putin consented to the OSCE sending a mission to eastern Ukraine, though Russia was careful to make clear that Sevastopol and Crimea would not be included in that mandate as they were now part of Russia. When the OSCE actually went to east Ukraine, they had problems, however. OSCE monitors were blocked by separatists, and a number were taken hostage.
The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a terrible moment in the Ukraine crisis, and clearly an important one. The accepted consensus at this point appears to be that the plane was shot down by a missile shot by pro-Russian separatists, who apparently thought they were targeting a Ukrainian cargo plane. For that hypothesis to be proved, investigators will need access to the site of the crash. Equally important, friends and relatives of those who died in the crash may want their loved ones to receive a proper burial and generally be treated well after their death. Multiple reports from the crash site suggest this may not be happening.
This weekend, OSCE observers accompanied a team of Dutch experts to the crash site for the first time. While there were reports that the team initially had their path blocked by separatists, the experts expressed a positive, though extremely muted, reaction after their visit. “It was satisfactory,” Peter van Vliet, the leader of the Dutch team said, adding that the bodies could probably be identified.
A spokesperson for the OSCE told The Post that the job of the monitors would not be to assign blame for the incident, but to "report on the security situation in the areas, to report on the repatriation process and how the site is being secured and evidence protected ahead of the arrival of investigators." Even given that limited mandate, there's certainly a lot of work to do. Right now, much of the attention is focused on the train that will be used to transport the bodies. Renewed fighting is said to have damaged the tracks, casting doubt on when the bodies could be transported. It's a good example of how complicated the situation in eastern Ukraine remains.
It's an important role. Earlier this year, American officials had hoped that the presence of the OSCE would provide an "off-ramp" for Ukrainian tensions. Clearly that didn't happen, though there's a chance it could still.