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18 September 2015

Time for a Helsinki 2.0.? Part II: Learning from the Past

What the Helsinki negotiations can teach the German OSCE chairmanship for 2016

The war in Ukraine has challenged the basic principles underlying the European security order. Within the OSCE, the newly established ‘Panel of Eminent Persons’ was tasked to develop broader political recommendations for the future of European security in the OSCE area and will present their final report in November – but the expectations are modest, to say the least. The interim report was sprinkled with footnotes from the Russian representative Sergey Karaganov, in which he distances himself from the common language found among all other fourteen members of the panel (including the Kazakh representative). This gives grounds for doubts whether Russia is seriously interested in a post-Helsinki process.

In a recent article, Sergey Karaganov judged dismissively the prospects for a reform of the OSCE, which belongs to the ‘defunct institutions and approaches’ in Europe which are ‘withering away’. Instead, he proposes that a post-Helsinki process should give credit to the new geopolitical realities and include China in a ‘alliance of greater Europe’, a ‘new community based on its own principles which may not necessarily repeat the Helsinki ones’, including ‘common recognition of the unrecognized’ (by which he means Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, possibly Eastern Ukraine), a principle of ‘non-external interference’ and with ‘non-liberal leader democracy’ as the ‘dominant sociopolitical system of the future’.

This is a typical Russian negotiation technique: widen the playground if you don’t think you can win, or, as Karaganov puts it: ‘if a problem cannot be solved in the given context, you need to go beyond it’. Negotiating a new ‘Eurasian order’ with Russia and China, two anti-liberal states, and with the exclusion of the United States, is of course an impossible task and would render the efforts of the Panel of Eminent Persons futile. It is a little bit like proposing to solve world peace first before one can start working on smaller problems and resembles previous Russian policy proposals, which were always marked by bold ‘grand thinking’ – from ‘Lisbon to Vladivostok’ – but always lacked concrete implementation power and skill when it comes to the nitty-gritty of how to make it work.

Given these doubts about Russia’s willingness to engage seriously in a post-Helsinki process, the Western approach must be fundamentally different to Russia’s: Instead of discussing a new ‘grand bargain’ on the basis of Russian demands and establishing ‘new principles’ for a Helsinki/OSCE 2.0, the aim should be bring Russia step by step and patiently back to the rules-based Helsinki order.

There is nothing wrong with the principles of Helsinki and the Charter of Paris that guided Europe safely through the end of the Cold War. They did not pass their expiration date forty years later, but they are not legally binding and therefore dependent on the commitment of the signatory parties. With its actions in Ukraine, Russia has basically revoked its consent. A post-Helsinki process is therefore necessary in order for those principles not to remain an empty shell. However, rethinking Helsinki should not take place on the basis of Russian demands – not as a means to re-negotiate the European spheres of influence – but by putting forward own demands and setting red lines. How not to negotiate on Russian terms, that is what the Helsinki negotiations 1973-75 can teach us.

Back then, for the Soviet Union the most important aspects of the negotiation process were the inviolability of borders and the acceptance of the domestic political status quo. Both demands found their way into the Final Act, but with two important caveats: the concession that borders can be changed by peaceful means and consent, which proved an important loophole in 1989; and the human rights provisions of basket three, which were a reference point and source of empowerment for human rights movements in Moscow and elsewhere.

The Western negotiation technique to achieve these milestones was to transform the Soviet rhetoric of pan-European cooperation into practical measures for broadening and normalizing relations between peoples rather than states. By shifting the diplomatic agenda, the West forced the Soviet Union to negotiate on unfamiliar terrain. ‘Competing procrastination’, which means waiting until the other side is under pressure to deliver domestically, and the complex basket structure of the negotiation process allowed for individual bargains and more far reaching final accords than initially expected. This resulted in the Final Act being a compromise both sides could sell to their domestic audiences. For the West, it represented a political code of good behavior, supporting self-determination, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and an implicit rejection of Brezhnev’s doctrine of limited sovereignty given the participation of the satellite states.

The departure points in 1973, when the negotiation process started, and of today, are strikingly similar, but the environment of détente was more conducive to an agreement back then than the situation of today. No one would have started a Helsinki Process in August 1961 when the Berlin wall was built. That makes the challenge for the Panel of Eminent Persons and the German OSCE chairmanship in 2016 even more difficult.

Germany will have to bring the post-Helsinki process and the reform of the OSCE forward. As the example of the Helsinki negotiation process has shown, apart from questions of collective security, in particular conventional arms control, strengthening the third human rights dimension can be an important negotiation lever. Instead of conceding voluntarily to Russian demands to accept the semi-autocratic political systems, Russian ideas of a pan-Eurasian space, ‘a community of greater Europe’, should be transformed into a question of fundamental freedoms, interaction and limiting barriers for people-to-people contact.

A smart negotiation technique is to now lay the groundwork, the loopholes and sources of empowerment for the future, instead of retreating from the fundamental principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charter.


Read Time for a Helsinki 2.0.? Part I: More Yalta than Helsinki 

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