Trying to solve the protracted Soviet-era conflicts of Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and the Transdniester was among Belgium's top priorities when it assumed the rotating leadership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2006.
Despite Belgium Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht's anticipation that his chairmanship would bring "new opportunities," the year brought no substantial progress on any of the three conflicts.
Spain, which led the OSCE throughout 2007, did not make conflict resolution a top priority. Its efforts focused primarily on the fight against terrorism and environmental issues, among others. But Finland, which assumed the organization's leadership at the beginning of this year, intends to turn the spotlight back on the so-called "frozen conflicts."
Addressing the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna on January 10, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva said conflict prevention and conflict management would "lie at the core of [the Finnish] chairmanship."
"I will use every opportunity to make progress on regional issues in close consultation with all parties," he told the panel.
In a program that was circulated among OSCE ambassadors, Kanerva said he would seek "to create enabling conditions for the peaceful resolution of regional conflicts" and "encourage all the parties to resume negotiations in order to find feasible political resolutions of the conflicts."
Georgia's Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili last October said Finland's firm stance against Russia when it held the rotating presidency of the European Union the previous year gave him reasons to hope that substantial progress would be made on the South Ossetian conflict in 2008.
But with presidential elections scheduled in Armenia and Azerbaijan later this year, Finland's task will certainly not be easy -- even though its diplomats are generally believed to be more familiar with the Soviet-era "frozen conflicts" than their Belgian or Spanish counterparts.
In comments made to Baku's Day.az, an electronic daily, Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on December 7 said that because of Helsinki's longtime involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks he was looking forward to the upcoming Finnish chairmanship. But he implicitly warned against setting expectations too high, saying that "elections always make the atmosphere of negotiations more sensitive."
In the years 1995-1996 Finland co-chaired the Minsk Group of nations that has been mediating in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks on behalf of the OSCE.
Kanerva told the Permanent Council he had appointed Heikki Talvitie to assist and advise him during his chairmanship. Talvitie has served as Finland's Minsk Group co-chair and the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus. Another former member of Finland's Minsk Group co-chairmanship team, Ambassador Terhi Hakala, has been in charge of the OSCE Mission to Georgia since October.
Talking to reporters in Vienna last week, Talvitie said he believed there was a "momentum" in Nagorno-Karabakh and that "there might be one" in South Ossetia. However, he said Finland should be "realistic" as to what it could expect to achieve in the region.
A member of the Finnish delegation told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity that the new chairman-in-office will concentrate his efforts on trying to improve the work of the existing negotiation mechanisms in which the OSCE is involved, in particular that of the Joint Control Commission (JCC), a quadrilateral body co-chaired by Georgian, South Ossetian, North Ossetian and Russian representatives. "We're not trying to make a big fuss about our role, but if we can help in a technical way that will mean a lot in many other ways," the Finnish diplomat said.
Negotiations between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali are stalled. Georgia accuses Russia and South Ossetia of blocking the implementation of all decisions made within the JCC framework and demands that the negotiation format be changed.
The JCC met in a plenary session only once last year. The October meeting produced no results, notably because of Tbilisi's insistence that Dmitri Sanakoyev, the head of the recently created pro-Georgian provisional administration of South Ossetia, be recognized as a fully-fledged party to the peace process.
Asked by EurasiaNet whether Finland would consider engaging with Sanakoyev, Talvitie remained non-committal. "Sanakoyev is a new element. Let's see in the future if he fits into the picture," he said.
Beyond the frozen conflicts, Kanerva said in his program that Finland's chairmanship would also encourage the OSCE to build stronger relations with its Central Asian member states with a view to helping them combat human trafficking and the smuggling of arms and drugs. With this respect, he says, the organization should put a "specific focus" on border security and management.
In his address to the Permanent Council, Finland's chief diplomat pointed out that his country already had contributed more than 500,000 euros ($745,000) to projects aimed at enhancing the security of the Tajik-Afghan border.
One of the few achievements of the OSCE Ministerial Council that took place in Madrid in November was a consensual decision to step up the organization's engagement with partner state Afghanistan, with a special focus on securing its borders with the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Madrid decision followed the launching of an OSCE project to train Afghan anti-drug police.
Kanerva last week invited Kazakhstan and Lithuania -- which are due to take the helm of the OSCE in 2010 and 2011, respectively -- to join the organization's current troika "in developing ideas for long-term activities."
The troika is the OSCE's main political decision-making institution. It consists of the chairman-in-office, its predecessor, and its successor. Kanerva suggested that representatives of the future "quintet" meet in Finland this year "to identify possible common priorities for the purpose of better planning."
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.