• 2002-03-28
The complex terrain of international diplomacy can seem inaccessible to anyone outside the insular world of organizations like the OSCE. Yet their officials can still cause harm by making the simplest of slips of the tongue.

Both Latvia and Estonia have found that having an OSCE mission in the vicinity is a black mark that's hard to ignore. It implies there are serious difficulties related to internal security that need an international helping hand.

The two countries finally got rid of their missions in December. From the experience of their uneasy relationship with the OSCE, some politicians in the Baltic states - Estonia's Toomas Hendrik Ilves, for example - have suggested changing the tone of the organization so it doesn't become such a burden to well-meaning countries in transition.

The often volatile internal problems of small nations can easily be misread and insensitively handled by outsiders who haven't done their homework properly. The undiplomatic comments made by the OSCE's Gerard Stoudmann are a case in point.

One problem is that the OSCE tends to apply the same standards wherever it goes. It tells Estonia, a country with a large female contingent in its diplomatic corps, to fix its gender problems. It tells Latvia, a country trying to keep a fine diplomatic balance between a large Russian minority and hardline nationalists, that Russian should be a second state language. Sometimes the OSCE is more trouble than it's worth.

Generally, it does a good job. With 4,000 staff in over 20 missions in small-scale hotspots in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and 55 participating nations from Europe and North America, it's an influential organizations able to poke into holes even the UN can't reach.

But it can just as easily upset the people it's trying to protect. Most Armenians think it's prejudiced against their country and acting in the interests of the U.S. and Russia, because it unsubtly criticized their last presidential elections. Chechens distrust the OSCE - the only organization with a mandate for real influence in the conflict in Chechnya - for ignoring their persecution. Belarusians trying to get President Lukashenka to hold fair elections think the OSCE too conformist, and are frustrated with the lack of progress.

The Baltic countries are in the clear compared to these troubled places. But inexperienced officials like Gerard Stoudmann still have the potential to cause upset and division where there was none before.