A Review of the Swedish 2021 Chairpersonship of the OSCE


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has 57 participating States (pS) throughout wider Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North America with a combined population of 1.3 billion. OSCE is the largest regional security organisation in the world under Chapter VIII of the Charter of the United Nations. With its origin as a long-term multilateral security conference during the Cold War it rests on a set of 10 core principles adopted 1975 as the Helsinki Final Act. These include hard security principles, such as the inviolability of frontiers and peaceful settlement of disputes, as well as economic and environmental rights and human rights. The Final Act has since been complemented by additional agreements in all three dimensions of OSCE´s comprehensive security; the (first) politico-military dimension, the (second) economic and environmental and the (third) human dimension. OSCE adopts all decisions by unanimity, or consensus, and its decisions are politically, but not legally binding.

The constraints

Sweden inherited some twenty so-called frozen conflicts from the 2020 Albanian chairmanship, including the aftermath of the renewed Armenian-Azeri armed conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in 2020; the serious conflict in eastern Ukraine and the acute democratic deficit in Belarus following the rigged elections there. This combined with the open confrontation between the Russian Federation (RF), a key OSCE player, and NATO and EU member states, including over Ukraine, generally allowed little room for compromises. 

Today´s realpolitik is a far cry from the give and take of the founding principles of the Helsinki Final Act. This should also be seen in the context of preceding years erosion among larger states, including in the US under Donald Trump, on the value of multilateralism as such. 

Diverging actions among the participating States in 2020 led to the replacement of the heads of all the four OSCE permanent institutions, including appointment of a new Secretary General, Helga Schmid. The main function of this key post is to support the rotating political chair. Already well known in Stockholm, Schmid came to work closely and effectively with Ann Linde, who already had seconded Swedish staff to reinforce key functions, including at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

The continued dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia often hampered the Swedish Chair´s efforts on administrative questions, including reaching agreement on the 2021 budget, which could only be adopted in August. This, as in 2020, in particular impacted negatively on the OSCE field operations, which for two thirds of the year had to make do with existing activities but were unable to start any new projects. 

While the 2020 Albanian Chairmanship had to really restrict physical meetings due to covid-19 and worked mostly virtually, the Swedish CiO was able to combine virtual with physical meetings and it also arranged two special retreats for senior delegates. Ambassadors now say that this helped allow the informal and personal consultations that has been a hallmark of OSCE conference diplomacy. However, senior delegates still underline that infection risks continued to reduce personal interactions at the Vienna conference centre, which is the traditional venue for gradually building consensus on controversial issues – which is the key function of the annual Chair. For the concluding ministerial meeting Sweden restricted delegations to six persons to minimise Covid infection risks. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also contributed to disagreement about the agenda for the Annual Security Review Conference (ASRC) and led to it not being held in 2021. This is one of the main meetings of the politico-military dimension activities held every year and attended by senior specialists from capitals. It reviews arms control issues, current crises and conflicts, as well as more thematic conflict prevention questions and transnational threats. Thus, it is the key OSCE event on hard core security matters. Since no consensus could be reached on discussing Nagorno-Karabakh at the meeting the whole event was cancelled, much regretted by Minister Linde.

The CiO subsequently arranged a visit to Sweden for military advisers from 33 participating States to discuss the OSCE Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security (CoC). However, the aim of this study visit was specifically restricted to highlight how the Code of Conduct could be implemented in concrete action, including in relation to the UN agenda on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and peacekeeping missions. Stockholm at the time again underlined that “gender equality is one of the main priorities of Sweden´s Chairpersonship of the OSCE”. 

The equally important annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) was also blocked from being held as usual in 2021, this time by the Russian Federation, despite sustained efforts by the Swedish Chair and many other delegations to reach an agreement on holding it as usual in Warsaw. HDIM is regularly attended by up to 1,500 participants from all 57 pS and by many civil society actors and organisations and it functions as an annual meeting place on current human rights issues. A compromise formula worked out by the Swedish Chair and supported by a majority of pS was still rejected by Russia, meaning that also this key event had to be cancelled in 2021.

This again illustrates the severe backtracking on vital commitments made over 40 years ago and on the veto ability of a single state, or just a few states, in a consensus organisation. It also demonstrates the erosion of CSCE/OSCE fundamental principles at a time when their application and cooperation among states are more needed than ever. This lack of agreement also meant that the Swedish Chair time and time again had to try solving this sort of crises, rather than focus on concrete conflict resolution work.

The conflicts

As CiO, Ann Linde travelled systematically during the year, including to all OSCE conflict areas, making some 20 visits in all. She went to Ukraine twice, including personally visiting the Line of Contact in Eastern Ukraine. She also visited the Russian Federation for talks, to Moldova to discuss the Transdniestria question, South-Eastern European countries, South Caucasus states and Central Asia. Wherever she went she visited OSCE field activities and met the local OSCE Heads of Mission and their teams, as well as civil society representatives. Democratisation, gender issues and human rights were throughout her key speaking points, as well as personal support for OSCE´s field operations and their mission members.

Ukraine was clearly a top priority conflict country for the Swedish Chair during 2021. The OSCE had at the beginning of the year three different field activities in Ukraine, including the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Kyiv, which supports Ukraine´s reforms and helps the country to address its crisis-related challenges through different projects. 

The Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was deployed in 2014 following a request by Ukraine and is an unarmed, civilian mission, present on the ground in all regions of Ukraine. Its main tasks are to observe and report in an impartial and objective way on the situation in Ukraine and to facilitate dialogue among the conflict parties; that is, working to promote conflict prevention and resolution. SMM currently consists of close to 700 monitors from more than 40 participating States, plus local staff, and is presently the largest OSCE field operation. During the second half of 2021, its daily patrols were repeatedly denied access to locations along the Line of Contact by local military and its technical observation assetswere frequently attacked from the ground, limiting its ability to report to Vienna, which the mission does daily.

There is also a function as OSCE Special Representative to the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), which meets on the Minsk Agreement on the Conflict in eastern Ukraine.

When Sweden took over as CiO there was also a small OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, deployed following a request by the Russian Federation in July 2014. This mission observed 24/7 and reported on the situation at these two checkpoints and on the movements across the border to provide early warning of any military buildup and provide transparency along this segment of the Russian-Ukrainian border. The mission had to close on 30 September 2021 when Moscow no longer agreed to its activities. Thus, OSCE lost an important reporting stream from the ground just as RF increased its military presence considerably along the Ukrainian border, so a clear setback for OSCE conflict prevention.

Despite these substantial OSCE resources devoted to conflict prevention and crisis management in Ukraine the military buildup on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine continued unabated during the latter part of 2021. This is now the most acute crisis that the 2022 Polish OSCE Chairman faces.

Belarus remained on the Swedish agenda following the 2020 elections there, which had led to a special OSCE reporting mechanism being triggered which clearly showed that these elections had been manipulated. Human rights continue to be systematically abused in the country.

CiO Linde visited South Caucasus to support OSCEs work in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Tbilisi, she highlighted OSCE support for resolving the political challenges that Georgia continues to face including due to the annexation of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia, Ajara and South Ossetia, as well as domestically. In Yerevan and Baku she continued discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K). As Swedish Chair, Linde, like previous CiOs since 1996, was assisted by her Personal Representative on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference, Polish Ambassador Andrzej Kasprzyk, one of the organisation´s real conflict veterans. Regrettably there were again skirmishes and ceasefire violations along the N-K Line of Contact just before the Ministerial Meeting in December and some analysts question OSCE´s effectiveness in contributing to settle this conflict.

CiO also visited Central Asian capitals and the OSCE missions there highlighting their work on democratisation, human rights, as well as the need to counter transnational threats. In South-Eastern Europe, Ann Linde expressed her continued support for the work of the missions in the region on peaceful resolutions of disputes and capacity building.

The Stockholm Ministerial Meeting (MC)

The concluding ministerial meeting at the Scandinavian XPO Conference Centre at Stockholm/Arlanda from 2-3 December was attended by some 50 foreign ministers and high level OSCE delegates. Following a difficult year with little consensus being achieved, the meeting was arranged in a new format with a focus on “quality over quantity”. This entailed that all negotiations on a host of specific issues, including in the Forum for Security Cooperation on politico-military questions, were halted in Vienna on 30 November. This meant that ministers did not continue negotiating numerous topics as has happened at past MC meetings.

Despite restricting the size of delegations, some 1,100 delegates attended the MC in Stockholm. As usual, ministerial statements were made, but some 200 bilateral meetings and discussions were also arranged to allow time for informal talks and thematic discussion, for example on conflict prevention. The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, had a 30 minute long bilateral meeting, which was regarded as a positive step at an important time.

Only two ministerial decisions were adopted in Stockholm. One – a first of its kind for OSCE – was on working together to deal with the challenges caused by climate change. CiO Linde proudly described this decision as “truly ground-breaking”. A Ministerial Statement on the Negotiations on the Transdniestrian Settlement Process in a “5+2” format was also adopted and could prove constructive given the new liberal Moldovan government in Chisinau. The OSCE Special Representative for the Transdniestrian Settlement Process subsequently met with Russian representatives already on 29 December to follow up on the MC statement.

Ministers also agreed in Stockholm that Finland would chair the OSCE in 2025, symbolically 50 years after the adoption of the Helsinki Final Act. This following the present Polish Chairmanship 2022, North Macedonia in 2023 and another state in 2024 yet to be decided on after Estonia´s candidature was blocked.

Poland´s Chairman-in-Office, Minister for Foreign Affairs Zbigniew Rau, declared that Poland will focus on making progress towards a peaceful resolution of conflicts, in line with OSCE principles and commitments. He also underlined that Warsaw´s “goal will be to continue efforts to rebuild confidence and trust, as well as act as an honest broker and mediator between participating States”.

This OSCE clearly needs. Senior OSCE insiders generally divide chairmanships, firstly, into those that act as “custodians” of the OSCE norms and principles, working like “super delegates” to solve issues and conflicts on the long OSCE agenda. Secondly, those that more pragmatically focus on acting as a go between and facilitator of dialogue, rather than promoting specific solutions. The same seasoned observers now hope that Poland actually will be able to fulfill this second role constructively, even if conflict parties in the end decide outcomes.


What the OSCE area needs is a fundamental restart of dialogue primarily between the United States and the Russian Federation and their respective allies. The US will have to be committed to such a dialogue for it to have real political traction. While only small steps may initially be possible, it is critical that Western states and Russia recognise that global realities truly have changed compared to 1975. Real pragmatic and continuous dialogue is now crucial – and urgent – to prevent renewed armed conflicts breaking out in the OSCE area, especially over Ukraine. The recent news that the United States and the Russian Federation will meet this month in Europe, including at the OSCE in Vienna, is a step in the right direction.