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The OSCE in Central Asia: A New Strategy

To access this report in Russian, please click here.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) emerged in a wave of euphoria surrounding the events of the late 1980s in the former Soviet bloc. Building on the achievements of its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), it has played a key role in state-building and democratisation in many areas of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The five newly independent Central Asian states that emerged from the collapse of the USSR were original members of the organisation but movement towards democracy and open economies has been much slower than in Europe. As a result, in Central Asia the OSCE is present in five states with non-democratic systems of government that frequently flout the commitments on which the organisation is built.

Many of these states are weak and have not yet developed strong civil societies. Socio-economic disaffection is high. Political exclusion has provoked radicalisation among fringe Islamist and other groups, who have sometimes turned to violence. The consolidation of power by small elites has excluded others from the political process, thereby stirring political tensions.

Despite the region’s obvious needs, Central Asia gets only a tiny fraction of OSCE attention. The organisation devotes less than 5 per cent of the total budget to its missions and programs in the five states, and the former have only about 30 international officers, out of a total OSCE field presence of nearly 3,500. This low level of staffing is partly the result of resistance on the part of Central Asian hosts reluctant to see more resources committed to monitoring their behaviour. But it also illustrates a lack of interest among other participating States in a region that until September 2001 seemed often remote and unimportant.

Discussions and reports on the role of the organisation in Central Asia are not new. Until now little has really changed. However, the new global security environment is forcing the OSCE to think hard about its own future. As the European Union (EU) grows and takes on additional foreign policy tasks, and NATO expands and adopts more of the “soft” security issues that were once the OSCE’s preserve, the OSCE is increasingly seeking a new purpose for itself.

At the same time, Central Asia is facing considerable change. The increased international presence is undermining some old certainties about the region, and there is a new opportunity for engagement. The OSCE still faces a difficult political environment, and host governments often view it with considerable suspicion. But a window has opened, at least briefly. In many ways, the OSCE, with its unique mandate and membership, is much better placed than individual states or other international organisations to take advantage of these changes and respond rapidly to events.

This report focuses on three issues:

  • establishing a long-term strategic concept of what the OSCE is for and what it can accomplish in Central Asia;

  • increasing OSCE influence with and importance to host governments in the region; and

  • making changes to structure and staffing to enable OSCE to carry out its tasks.

Given its structural constraints – a one-year chairmanship, annual mandates for missions in some states, and short-term secondments of staff – it is not surprising that the OSCE has failed to develop a long-term strategy in Central Asia. But it is vital that it has a clearer vision of what it is for and what it wants to do. The primary strategic focus should be conflict prevention. The potential for conflict stems from a wide range of sources, but mainly from poor security policies, declining socio-economic opportunities, and authoritarian political cultures and institutions.

A new strategy would strongly emphasise efforts to develop more effective approaches to security in each state; to build up economic development potential at all levels, and to expand political pluralism. This requires activities and projects that cross the three classical OSCE dimensions: politico-security; economic and environment; and the human dimension. It will require more work on the economic dimension (and a much clearer idea of what it is), and in political and military affairs, but brought together with key elements of the human dimension to produce the comprehensive security concept on which the OSCE is based.

To have real impact, however, the OSCE needs to build up its influence with governments in the region. One way, after completing its strategy review, is to make its activities more relevant for their societies. But it also needs to link its activities to those of institutions with greater resources. There is increasing understanding in international financial institutions that government lending or international investment is worse than useless without commensurate changes in political structures and economic policy. Closer coordination with donors and lenders, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the EU would provide real leverage for the OSCE.

Changing the focus of the OSCE in Central Asia cannot be done without changing its central structures and the way that missions work in the field. The very different demands on missions in Central Asia from those in post-conflict situations in the Balkans should be reflected in more support from central institutions. A more viable secretariat with a real core of regional expertise would enable analysis and planning to feed better into activities and programs. More coordination between disparate institutions would produce better policy. Staff recruitment and training need to be improved.

The OSCE is an organisation whose decisions are reached by consensus among 55 participating States. Understandably, achieving change is a struggle. But if participating States are serious about the organisation making a difference in Central Asia, political will needs to be mustered for a significant shift in emphasis. The alternative is for the OSCE to fade into irrelevance, as the political paths of Central Asian states take them further away from the ideals on which the organisation was founded.


To the OSCE Chairman-in-Office:

1. Make Central Asia a major priority, using high-level as well as regular diplomatic missions to the region to raise the OSCE’s credibility and visibility with host governments.

2. Set up an inter-institutional working group to develop priorities for Central Asia, including the Secretariat, field missions, ODIHR and HCNM, and the Conflict Prevention Centre, and where appropriate, outside experts.

3. Use this working group, in consultation with field missions, both to develop long-term strategies and coherent twelve-month work plans with prioritised and interrelated projects that cross the classical OSCE dimensions:

(a)      the economic dimension should be expanded and its focus shifted towards political aspects of development, including rule of law, governance, and corruption;

(b)      the politico-military dimension should increase its emphasis on policing issues (with special attention on small arms and light weapons and drugs trafficking), on border procedures and good offices to delimit borders, and on involving civil society involvement in security issues;

(c)      the human dimension must retain its strong role in monitoring and reporting on human rights issues, while working more closely with the other two dimensions;

4. Focus on a few areas of real significance for conflict prevention that involve follow-up and long-term commitment, including:

(a)      border projects promoting freedom of movement, effective security and cross-border trade;

(b)      bringing international experience to bear on corruption as an obstacle to economic growth and political reform;

(c)      security sector programs that direct attention to the real problems of unreformed law enforcement agencies and provide training on internationally accepted procedures and standards;

(d)      continued emphasis on human rights and democratisation, with more effort to promote development of effective political institutions, including opposition parties, and real political dialogue;

(e)      greater emphasis on rule of law in business through programs to support legislation and its implementation/ enforcement for small and medium sized businesses, such as judicial enforcement of contracts, and, more generally, on developing the legal expertise of institutions;

(f)       increased attention to Central Asian media in order to foster a more professional, objective and independent press; and

5. Create additional leverage for the OSCE by developing much closer relations with donor and lender organisations, in particular with the EU and the EBRD, as well as the ADB.

To the participating States:

6. Develop a Central Asian Support Fund, administered by the Secretariat that upon application from the field missions will assist projects, in particular those in the first and second dimensions.

7. Convert the Forum for Security Cooperation into a real security body for the OSCE that groups policing issues, border issues and other first dimension areas into one coherent group.

8. Develop the economic dimension by strengthening its mandate to include rule of law and good governance issues, with commensurate staffing and regional expertise.

9. Strengthen the role of the Secretary General as probably the only way to give OSCE the visible leadership it needs.

10. Improve the quality of staff at all levels in missions through better recruitment procedures, training, and gender balance.

11. Establish a new procedure for appointing heads of missions which emphasises appropriate qualifications over political loyalties.

12. Establish an expert group via the “Moscow mechanism” to report on Turkmenistan’s observance of OSCE commitments.

13. Propose a partnership agreement with Afghanistan as a means of improving cross-border cooperation.

To the High Commissioner on National Minorities

14. Adopt a more proactive stance towards Central Asia, including early visits to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

15. Provide legal expertise on draft laws relating to national minorities as they are raised/ discussed in each country.

16. Encourage the integration of nationality issues into existing projects and activities of field missions and other OSCE institutions.

Osh/Brussels, 11 September 2002


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