Swiss take to small stage to escape isolation

OSCE supervisors counting votes in the 1996 elections in Bosnia which helped stabilise the war-torn Balkan region Keystone

Switzerland takes over the presidency of the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation next year. It will try to use chairmanship of the institution to its advantage, despite the OSCE’s dwindling pulling power.

This content was published on November 22, 2013

The task is not new to Switzerland since it headed up the Vienna-based organisation nearly 20 years ago. But the challenges it faces are daunting – local conflicts in southeastern Europe and the Caucasus region, as well as necessary institutional reforms amid tensions between the United States and Russia, two major OSCE member countries, at odds over disarmament.

Nevertheless experts say it is a win-win situation for Switzerland, a country that has been under international pressure notably over tax issues and is struggling over relations with the European Union. Winning allies and respect can certainly do no harm.

“The chairmanship will raise the profile of Switzerland’s traditional role as a negotiator and mediator,” says Christian Nünlist of the Centre for Security Studies at the Federal Technical Institute of Technology in Zurich.


Switzerland had no plans to apply for the task, according to foreign ministry officials. It was strongly encouraged by other member states to succeed Ukraine at the helm of the OSCE.

To break a possible impasse, Switzerland then suggested a two-year co-chair with Serbia which was the main contender for the rotating presidency in 2014. The joint lead is a novelty in the history of the organisation.

“It is a calculated risk Switzerland is taking and the two consecutive chairmanships will give the organisation more continuity,” says Thomas Greminger, Swiss ambassador to the OSCE.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter formally leads the OSCE as of January 1, followed by his Serbian counterpart in 2015. Coincidentally Burkhalter will also hold the rotating Swiss presidency next year, a role that will allow him to hold face-to-face talks with other heads of state in line with diplomatic protocol.

Nünlist believes that Switzerland will use its chairmanship to mend relations with co-president Serbia, tarnished since 2007 after the Swiss became one of the first countries to recognise the breakaway Serbian republic of Kosovo as an independent state in 2008.

“The presidency will strengthen Switzerland’s role as an impartial mediator in southeastern Europe,” he says.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Founded in 1975 as a dialogue and negotiating platform between eastern and western countries, the OSCE now comprises 57 members and aims to strengthen security and stability.

Neutral Switzerland is taking over the rotating presidency of the OSCE on January 1, 2014 together with Serbia. It will also co-chair the organisation in 2015.

Switzerland led the OSCE for a first time in 1996.

The Vienna-based OSCE is not to be confounded with the OECD – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – a forum to discuss economic and social policies.

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The period at the helm of the OSCE will provide an international stage for a new generation of Swiss diplomats as the country is preparing its application for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, according to experts.

For its part, the OSCE celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2015, is likely to benefit from the Swiss presidency because of the good bilateral relations between Bern and Moscow. As a neutral country Switzerland has stayed outside political and defence alliances.

The organisation can also hope that the Swiss chairmanship could see a revival of compromise policies – package deal tactics with incentives for all parties involved - that were particularly successful in the first few years of then-known Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE).

Not least, Serbia, is likely to continue to move closer to European integration.


Foreign Minister Burkhalter has been highlighting Switzerland’s traditional role as a “bridge builder” in the run up to January, playing down expectations of a breakthrough under Swiss auspices.

Heidi Grau, head of the OSCE unit in the foreign ministry, adds that Switzerland’s priorities include reconciliation in the western Balkans and southern Caucasus, boosting human security and human rights, as well as fostering regional cooperation and offering good services.

“We don’t want it to be a flash in the pan,” says Grau, adding that Switzerland is seeking sustainable solutions.

She stresses the complex structure of the OSCE. “Leadership is important, but leadership is not enough in an organisation whose policies are based on consensus decisions”.

As a neutral country Switzerland evidently has a vital interest in stability and security for Europe and its neighbours, Grau continues. The Swiss presidency is likely to boost bilateral ties with numerous OSCE countries, including four out of five permanent members of the UN security council as well as eight members of the G20 most important economies.

However, she dismisses a direct link between OSCE presidency and a Swiss seat as non-permanent member in the top UN body in 2023/24.

The Swiss chairmanship will ideally defend the human commitments of the OSCE to ensure full respect for human rights, the promotion of democracy building and the rule of law, according to Greminger.

Swiss contribution

The government has earmarked just over CHF16 million ($18 million), including a contribution towards security costs for the organisation of an OSCE ministerial meeting in the city of Basel in December 2014.

Geneva will host one of three planned OSCE parliamentary assembly meetings next October.

The Swiss parliament is to discuss the proposal during the regular budget debate in December.

The cabinet appointed three senior foreign ministry officials to beef up Switzerland’s staff at the OSCE during the presidency.

Gérard Stoudmann and Angelo Gnädinger will act as special delegates for the Balkans and for the southern Caucasus region respectively. Fred Tanner was named advisor to the OSCE secretary general in Vienna.

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Security council

At a domestic level, Switzerland’s OSCE commitment does not appear to cause political opposition.

Parliament has come out in favour of the OSCE chair and looks set to approve a CHF16 million ($18 million) financial contribution, according to Andreas Aebi, speaker of the foreign affairs committee in the House of Representatives.

“It is an important contribution of Switzerland for the greater good of the international community,” he says.

Aebi acknowledges the public image of the crisis-ridden OSCE has suffered over the past few years, but he stresses Switzerland’s reputation as a mediator in the world and the role of the organisation as election observer and promoter of democracy.

However, Aebi and his rightwing Swiss People’s Party are firmly opposed to the notion that the OSCE chairmanship should be a training camp to pave the way for a greater role of Switzerland in the UN.

For his part, security expert Nünlist cautions against linking the commitment for the OSCE and the candidacy for the exclusive 15-member UN body. After all a possible seat is ten years away, he points out.

He adds the Swiss foreign ministry is aware of the high expectations, the pitfalls and the opportunities of the OSCE chair.

Not least Switzerland has built up a reputation from its first OSCE presidency in 1996 as it led efforts to implement a peace agreement that brought an end the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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