Expert: The New Maltese OSCE Chairpersonship Will Face a Tough Test in Moldova

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Anton ŠVEC
The main task in our country for the small Malta taking over the OSCE Chairpersonship will be to preserve peace and stability amid a very likely aggravation of relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol
Appointing the OSCE Chairperson in the new year was an extraordinary challenge for the 57 member-states. While Finland’s candidacy for 2025 was agreed well in advance, the decision for this year remained pending for many months. Russia strongly opposed Estonia, accusing Tallinn of “absolutely Russophobic approaches”. For a long time, the option of shifting the Finnish chairpersonship for a year was considered. A variant with Austria, which adheres to the policy of neutrality and in whose capital the organization’s headquarters is located, was also discussed. The option of Malta was largely spontaneous, including for the smallest Mediterranean island state itself. So, Valletta will predictably need time to get on the inside and take some action in the OSCE area of responsibility. Meanwhile, last December, member states adopted decisions on key positions in the organization to maintain the OSCE continuity and functionality. All high-ranking officials – Secretary General Helga Schmid, Director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Matteo Mecacci, High Commissioner on National Minorities Kairat Abdrakhmanov and Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro – have retained their posts until 3 September 2024. On 1 January, the newly appointed OSCE head, Malta’s Minister for Trade, Foreign and European Affairs Ian Borg, outlined the priorities of the Maltese Chairpersonship in 2024, summing them up as a “collective intention to save the organization”. In his view, the OSCE’s survival is crucial amidst the ongoing critical challenges. He called it a “unique” security association and a platform for dialogue, while expressing for the record a commitment to work to protect the fundamental principles and commitments enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. This year, priority will obviously be given to Ukraine: “the need to end Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine while seeking solutions to assist Ukraine and its population” is specified. Ian Borg plans to place the topics of human rights and human security at the top of the agenda of promoting conflict resolution in the OSCE area. Additionally, in keeping with the tradition and trends of recent years, attention will be paid to gender issues, youth, women and their participation in building peace and security. Ian Borg did not mention Moldova in his speech, noting only the general intention to “support the OSCE presence on the ground”. This is a rather significant moment for our regional context, as the prospects for the field mission’s work in our country remain uncertain - its mandate has been extended again for only six months. While still an influential and largely non-alternative security forum in the Euro-Atlantic zone (partly in Asia), the OSCE is nevertheless losing its position in the field. Over the past two decades, field presence in Georgia, Belarus, Chechnya, Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Baltic States were discontinued. With the onset of the hot phase of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, numerous OSCE structures in Ukraine closed their activities. After the dismantling of Nagorno-Karabakh, the missions in Baku and Yerevan were cancelled. The so-called “OSCE Minsk Group” has been almost eliminated as there was no room for employing political tools to resolve the conflict. The OSCE field operations remain massively present in the Balkan state, with centers and programme offices in Central Asian states. Meanwhile, the OSCE Mission to Moldova, with offices in Chisinau, Tiraspol and Bender, remains one of the most numerous and directly involved in resolving the frozen conflict on the Dniester. From 25 January, when Minister Ian Borg is planning the official inauguration of the Maltese Chairpersonship (including the announcement of a 5+2 special representative), Malta will, one way or another, have to deal with the Moldova-Transnistria negotiation process which faced certain indifference from a number of its predecessors. The latest bursts of activity date back to 2019 when Slovakia organized (albeit unsuccessfully) a round of the 5+2 format and an annual review conference on confidence-building measures in Bavaria. In the following years, amidst first the pandemic and then the conflict in Ukraine, the negotiating platforms, in fact, came to a standstill. This was also largely due to the tactics of Maia Sandu/PAS, who obviously do not seek to communicate with Tiraspol, focusing on involving the region in the country’s legal field. This state of affairs, with all its advantages, is associated with a high probability of further aggravation of relations between the two banks of the Dniester and the loss of tools for controlling the situation by the OSCE. Chisinau quite openly voices opinions that the reintegration process does not require direct negotiations with international participation, and that the 5+2 format with the key role of the OSCE should be replaced by informal dialogue platforms under the auspices of the European Union. The current leadership of the country does not perceive the OSCE and its field presence as a relevant political arbiter (since Russia still has an equal voice in the OSCE), considering it possible to provide it with solely a police function, only if Moscow agrees to transform the peacekeeping mission in the Transnistrian region. Meanwhile, the picture in the negotiation process is getting increasingly worrisome. The agreements of the so-called “Berlin Plus package” are not actually implemented by the parties. The central authorities make no secret of their intention to abandon the entire historical package of agreements that have defined cooperation with the left bank for many years, i.e. to destroy the status quo. Such a radical approach, despite a tempting political prospect, especially in a dwindling window of opportunity given the changing dynamics of the conflict in Ukraine, may well affect the OSCE’s priorities for maintaining calm in this region of Europe. Already this year, serious contradictions have emerged between Chisinau and Tiraspol over the issue of collecting import duties from Transnistrian entities. We can assume that tensions will continue to grow. For the OSCE, including its Mission to Moldova, the current political season will be a symbolic examination on ensuring peace and predictability in our country. Both the extension of the Mission’s mandate and the value of the OSCE as a forum for cooperation and security on the European continent in general will depend on whether the organization can cope with this challenge. The task in this regard is large-scale and non-trivial, and whether small Malta will be able to deal with it is a big question.