BACKGROUND: The OSCE Ministerial Council, which consists of representatives from all 56 OSCE Participating States, appoints the Secretary General for a maximum of two three-year terms. The Secretary General acts as both the representative of the annual Chairman-in-Office (CiO), the country selected to hold the OSCE’s rotating chair, and as OSCE Chief Administrative Officer. The incumbent is Ambassador Marc Perrin de Brichambaut of France. He assumed his position in June 2005 and, following his one-time reappointment, must leave office at the end of June 2011.
The Turkish government is strongly backing Ersin Erçin for the position of OSCE Secretary-General. Erçin is currently President Abdullah Gül’s special envoy for European security and recently ambassador to Brazil. He previously served in a range of foreign ministry positions in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Erçin is no stranger to the OSCE, having served as deputy permanent representative to the Organization in Vienna from 2001 to 2004. When he visited Washington in July 2010 to meet with U.S. officials and lobby for his candidacy, Erçin told the Atlantic Council that the OSCE needs a strong Secretary General who not only manages the organization for the chairman-in-office but also uses his authority to avert and manage OSCE-related problems independently.
Citizens from Austria, Italy and Portugal are competing with Erçin for the position. Lamberto Zannier is a career diplomat from Italy. He is presently in charge of the U.N. mission in Kosovo and previously headed the OSCE's Conflict Resolution Centre. Portugal’s Joao Soares is the former head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Ursula Plassnik is the former foreign minister of Austria. Her candidacy is controversial since it violates a long unspoken rule that the OSCE host country does not propose candidates for senior posts within the Organization. The OSCE headquarters is located in Vienna.
Never before has Turkey assumed a high post within the OSCE. Accordingly, Ankara is pushing hard for Erçin’s appointment. Erçin has been campaigning for the office for months, beginning even before the official nominating phase had begun. He and other Turkish officials argue that the current wave of unrest in the Middle East only underscores the importance of having a person from a country “east of Vienna” in charge of the organization. They also maintain that a Turkish diplomat can best understand the diverging perspectives of the Organization’s West and East European members and identify ways to mitigate these differences. More darkly, they hint that denying Turkey the coveted position would risk further alienating Turks from traditional European institutions and encourage Ankara to look eastward to new partnerships with Russia, China, in Central Asia, and in the Middle East.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has sought to set aside past animosities between Ankara and Athens and has been one of the first and strongest backers of Erçin. The leaders of Greek Cyprus and Armenia have been less gracious. Turkish diplomats have lobbied these governments not to veto Erçin, who has sought to assuage concerns that he will act as a stocking horse for Turkey within the OSCE by emphasizing his aspirations to become a neutral bureaucrat. “I will not be the representative of Turkey,” he told the media last month, “but will be the representative of all 56 members.”
The fact that all of Erçin’s opponents are EU nationals only underscore how Turkey’s strained relations with the European Union result in Turkey’s valuing its ties with the OSCE. Indeed, the same logic governs Ankara’s view of NATO. Just last month at a panel of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan criticized the EU for presenting itself as a “big peace project” with an “open-door policy” while in actuality “one of the big themes about why Turkey cannot become a member of the European Union is because it is a Christian club.”
The previous OSCE Secretary-Generals have all been from EU member states: Germany, Italy, Slovakia and France. Meanwhile, until last year’s chairmanship of Kazakhstan, the countries of the former Soviet bloc had become increasingly alienated from the OSCE due to their belief that it has neglected their interests. Specifically, they have complained that the OSCE has become preoccupied with promoting free elections in the countries of the former Soviet bloc and paid insufficient attention to promoting its economic and security dimensions, which are especially important to countries not belonging to the EU or NATO.
IMPLICATIONS:Yet, it is the human dimension issues pertaining to his home country that are most harming Erçin’s candidacy. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media is empowered to warn the 56 OSCE Participating States when they are violating journalists’ freedom of expression and other press freedoms, which is guaranteed by the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE agreements. Like her predecessor, the current incumbent, Dunja Mijatovic, has issued several complaints against Turkish government policies.
For example, in its current form, “Law 5651: Regulation of Publications on the Internet and Suppression of Crimes Committed by Means of Such Publication,” commonly known as the “Internet Law of Turkey,” not only limits freedom of expression, but severely restricts citizens' right to access information. The Turkish government enacted Law 5651 in May 2007 following concerns about defamatory videos available on YouTube regarding Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic. Turkish authorities also cited concerns about the availability of obscene content on the Internet and websites that provide information about suicide or illegal substances deemed harmful or inappropriate for children. But in practice, application of Law 5651 has been used to deny access to thousands of websites and therefore made it difficult for users to access numerous modern file-sharing or social networks like those that protesters have been using recently in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries.
In June 2010, Mijatovic urged the Turkish authorities to restore access to YouTube and other Google services such as Google Translate and bring Law No. 5651 in line with international standards on free expression. The alleged reason behind the block is an unsettled tax dispute between the Ministry of Transport and Communication and Google, the owner of YouTube. In her letter, Mijatovic cast doubt on the reason and claimed that over 5,000 websites have been blocked in Turkey during the preceding two years.
Mijatovic has also expressed growing concern about the increase in the number of lawsuits threatening Turkish journalists with imprisonment. She wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu complaining that “currently there are more than 40 journalists in prison, and hundreds of others are facing lawsuits with potential imprisonment if convicted.” Mijatovic further argued that criminal sanctions for exposing official secrets should only apply to the officials who have a duty to protect the secrets and not to journalists and other non-officials.
The EU has also raised concerns about Turkey’s media policies. The European Commission's most recent annual report on Turkey's progress toward EU membership, published in October 2010, said Ankara needed to do more to protect freedom of expression and the press. The recent imbroglio over Hungary’s controversial media law, whose government had to repeal this restrictive law after assuming the EU’s rotating presidency, underlines that the EU is not likely to turn a blind eye to similar restrictions of the freedom of the media in Turkey.
CONCLUSIONS: Kazakh diplomats required several years to overcome the opposition to their country’s becoming the first Central Asian country—and also the first former Soviet republic—to assume the position of rotating OSCE CiO for the year 2010. The opponents’ main public argument was that Kazakhstan needed to make further progress in upholding democratic principles and human rights at home before taking charge of the main organization tasked with promoting these values throughout Europe and Eurasia. They considered it improper to select a country that had never held a free-and-fair multiple party democratic election according to Western standards as head of Europe’s pre-eminent regional democracy organization. They also worried that Astana’s close ties with Moscow would result in Kazakhstan’s serving as Russia’s “Trojan Horse” to advance the Kremlin’s agenda within the OSCE. In the end, Western governments decided that Kazakhstan was too important a country to alienate over the OSCE issue. They also hoped Kazakhstan’s selection could impart new momentum into the OSCE, whose role in European affairs has declined in recent years.
The same logic may now apply in Turkey’s favor. Many Western governments worry that the current Turkish government is moving away from its European orientation and that alienating Ankara by denying a Turkish national the OSCE post would further this drift. Turkey remains an important country for Europe’s energy strategy. In addition, having a Turkish national in such a prominent position could help Ankara’s efforts to resolve some of the protracted conflicts between the Organization’s members and bolster Turkey’s campaign to induce Russia to end its noncompliance with the OSCE-affiliated Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Yet it is probably all too optimistic to hope that the appointment of a Turkish national to the head the OSCE would encourage the Turkish government to move its media policies closer to OSCE standards.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".