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13 January 2012 OPINION: Awaiting the Irish Spring: Richard Giragosian holds great expectations from the incoming Irish Chairmanship of the OSCE

Friday, 13 January 2012

Richard Giragosian holds great expectations from the "Irish Spring," as the start of the Irish chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) offers a fresh degree of optimism from the promise of an innovative Irish approach to conflict transformation in the South Caucasus.

For the past two decades, the primary international organization empowered to promote stability and security in the former Soviet Union has been the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world's largest security body. In addition to dealing with the frustratingly erratic course of democratization and reform and a record of disappointing elections in the post-Soviet states, the OSCE's "Minsk Group" has been the sole mediator of the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

In recent years, the OSCE Minsk Group has been roundly criticized for failing to garner any breakthrough in the "frozen" Karabakh conflict. Although that criticism is, at least partly, unfair, given the complex nature of that conflict, there is a new degree of optimism from a one-year Irish chairmanship of the OSCE. More specifically, this optimism stems from the promise and potential of an "Irish Spring," offering a new, fresh and more innovative Irish approach to conflict transformation.

At the start of this year, Ireland assumed the Chairmanship of the OSCE, pledging to "address protracted conflicts, promote Internet freedom and strengthen co-operation between the 56 OSCE participating States." Under the stewardship of the new Chairperson-in-Office, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, there are expectations for a slightly different approach to leveraging the OSCE as an instrument for stability and security. Although the Irish chairmanship will naturally carry forward the work of last year's rotating OSCE chair, Lithuania, it is Ireland's unique experience in conflict transformation and resolution, bolstered by a role as a trusted and impartial mediator that drives the appeal of an "Irish Spring."

As articulated by Irish Deputy Prime Minister Gilmore, Ireland "will seek to build on this momentum through supporting existing processes, including the Minsk Group on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and the Geneva Discussions dealing with the August 2008 conflict in Georgia," and will "draw on our own experience of conflict resolution in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process to advance these processes and facilitate engagement by all parties." Another promising and potentially more innovative priority issue for the Irish will center on the freedom of expression and the freedom of the media in the digital age, with a focus on "the potential of the Internet to inform and empower people" and working closely with civil society organizations and business to safeguard these freedoms online.

The OSCE Minsk Group: Too much "Minsk," too little "Group"

Clearly, short-term breakthroughs or achievements for the one-year Irish OSCE chairmanship will be neither immediate nor immense, especially as the Irish are inheriting a complicated legacy of OSCE frustration and failure. But in terms of one of the more daunting shortcomings within the OSCE portfolio, "protracted conflicts," the Irish offer something new. And as the sole mediator of the Karabakh conflict, the so-called "Minsk Group," there is an obvious need for a fresh approach.

For too long, the clumsily-named Minsk Group has been too closely associated with Minsk, in terms of a lack of transparency and an overly secretive process, with not enough of an emphasis on the "group," with a format flawed by an insufficient circle of stakeholders and constituents, and with civil society involvement and support both too meager and far too marginal.

In this context, it is the Karabakh conflict that offers the Irish a unique opportunity to make a mark in international diplomacy and to make a difference in transforming the conflict. This potential transformative role as a true "agent for change" stems from the capacity to leverage the Irish experience, which is rooted in the fact that Ireland understands "all too well the devastating cost of conflict," but also recognizes that only "through negotiation, compromise and the dedication and imagination of the two Governments involved, and leaders on both sides of the divide, a lasting settlement was achieved in relation to Northern Ireland."

This Irish accomplishment was also hailed as an experience that can be of direct "benefit in facilitating the efforts which are needed to resolve outstanding conflicts in the OSCE region, using the tools of peaceful negotiation and agreed formats and respecting fully the principles of international law." And although stressing that "each conflict situation is different," the new Irish chairmanship will seek to share that experience to "assist and encourage those engaged in seeking lasting settlements to conflicts in our region."

The coming year offers a notable degree of fresh optimism, but also reflects raised expectations from this "Irish Spring." And with presidential elections in 2012 in each of the three countries chairing the OSCE Minsk Group, it only seems likely that no one in Paris, Moscow or Washington will be able or willing to invest any real geopolitical capital in the distant South Caucasus.

But fortunately, the Irish are already off to a good start on meeting such expectations, with two recent appointments. The first appointment, naming Ambassador Pádraig Murphy as Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the South Caucasus, endows the Irish chairmanship with a venerable and talented diplomat with vast experience, including a previous tenure as Ireland's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Germany, Spain and Japan.

The second move was a reappointment, returning Andrzej Kasprzyk to the post of OSCE Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office on the Conflict Dealt with by the OSCE Minsk Conference, a role as difficult and complex as its official title. With this reappointment, Ambassador Kasprzyk continues as the OSCE Personal Representative, a post that he has held since 1997, making him the one person within the Karabakh peace process with any substantial institutional memory. Thus, at the least, one can expect an interesting time as an "Irish Spring" comes to the South Caucasus.


* Richard Giragosian is the director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia (


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