OSCE Summits are meaningful for their symbolism since all the negotiations have gone on before, and it is important to look beyond the words to what the symbols may mean as new policies. The OSCE grew from the desire of Soviet policy makers to have a multilateral blessing on what had already been negotiated bilaterally with the United States, France, and the Federal Republic of Germany — a double status quo in Europe. The first was a territorial status quo as manifested by the principle of the inviolability of frontiers that had been set at the end of the Second World War and a social status quo based on the concept of peaceful coexistence as the existing social, trade and political order had come to be known. The long negotiations leading to the first Summit in Helsinki in 1975 were carried out during three years in Geneva during which compromises were reached. 
Nongovernmental organization representatives had played an important role in creating the atmosphere that allowed the negotiations to start since originally the idea of a multilateral conference was thought to be only a Soviet aim. NGOs also had some impact on the negotiations through discussions with the government negotiators in Geneva — the Nordic States being the most “NGO friendly”.
The emphasis of the NGOs was on what came to be called “the third basket”. Basket one was security — basically the issue of frontiers and the recognition of East Germany as a legitimate State. Basket two was trade, and basket three was anything else and was named “the human dimension”. At first, the human dimension was largely limited to the right of some people to leave the Soviet Union, basically women who had married Western Europeans. The term human rights was never used and the human dimension , the Soviet Union insisted, had to be seen within the framework of strict national sovereignty — the “right of each participating State to determine its laws and regulations and non-intervention in internal affairs”.
With this narrow understanding of the human dimension the first Summit was held in Helsinki in 1975. However the “winds of change” had already started to blow in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Prague Spring had met a brutal frost in August 1968, but the idea that change was possible persisted. There was a feeling that national legislation and international treaties could be used to insist that States live up to the agreements they themselves had made. Thus in Moscow in May 1976, the Moscow Helsinki Group was created by 11 people who had been already active on freedom of speech issues. Similar groups were created in areas of the Soviet Union that later became independent countries: Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Armenian Helsinki Groups and later groups in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The next significant OSCE Summit was that of Paris in 1990 organized by President Francois Mitterrand of France. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a symbolic end to the two founding principles of territorial and social status quo. The Charter of Paris was a symbolic end to the Cold War and was designed as a blueprint for what some hoped would be a Eurasian confederation.
The next significant meeting was not a Summit but a review conference on the human dimension in Moscow in September 1991, a short time after the coup against Mikail Gorbachev. I attended as an NGO representative. There was still material from the barricades with wreaths for the young killed during the failed coup and red, white, and blue Russian flags flew over public buildings in place of the Soviet flag. As I wrote at the time, “Slowly some of the governments are willing to consider NGOs as partners — very junior partners to be sure — in the process and not as potential troublemakers to be kept at a distance with parallel sideshows”. It is likely that the OSCE process will grow in value. NGOs can play a role, but much more cooperation among NGOs is necessary if we are to have an impact on this still government-dominated organization.
There is potential for a greater contribution of NGOs in the OSCE processes. Given the failures of the OSCE to impact the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there might be a door slightly open as the OSCE looks East.
This effort at pan-European NGO cooperation had started at the first Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly in Prague in October 1990 in which I had participated as a speaker on conflict resolution networks appealing for an “early warning system”. Another speaker Adam Michnik, a Polish activist, had warned that “The Greatest threat to democracy today is no longer communism. The threat grows instead from a combination of chauvinism, xenophobia, populism and authoritarianism, all of them connected with the sense of frustration typical of great social upheavals”.
This combination of forces quickly led to the end of hopes for a pan-European confederation, and the OSCE’s energy was taken up with conflicts, linked to the break up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Some, not very effective, measures were made by the OSCE to deal with minority issues, monitoring elections, improving the effectiveness of NGOs and improving government services — all useful but few, if any, with a strong impact on the society of the member States. The Helsinki Citizens rarely knew that they were also citizens of the OSCE.
The next significant Summit was in Istanbul in 1999. While the formal sessions were largely devoted to confidence-and–security-building measures within the OSCE area, the unmentioned hope and the symbolism of meeting in Turkey was to enhance security and cooperation in the Middle East — an area with which Turkey has historic links. The Middle East has few institutions with the membership of such key States as Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thus a Middle East version of the OSCE designed to resolve differences, find difficult compromises and enhance the security of all would be a good thing. Unfortunately, the Middle East States did not understand the symbolism, and no Middle East security and cooperation institution has been yet created. In fact, the Middle East has grown more troubled since 1999. With the failure of the Istanbul Summit, summit conferences were given up, and the OSCE has played no significant role in Middle East issues.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has never tried to avoid the limelight. Thus when Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian State to chair the OSCE, Nazarbayev had no objections to hosting a Summit. With a new capital and futuristic buildings, Kazakhstan was happy to organize a Summit. Again, the other States agreed not because there had been any real improvement in the OSCE agenda but because of the symbolic setting.
Today, the OSCE States are focused on the conflicts in Afghanistan and their possible spill-over into Central Asia and beyond within the OSCE States. Already Afghanistan has a large share of the opium/heroin market. There are two main drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan. One is through the Balkans, the other through Central Asia. The OSCE has responded by providing training for customs officials, border management officials and anti-narcotics police. However, the experienced diplomats who service OSCE Summits recognize that opium production is not the only problem in Afghanistan. It is not clear what the OSCE secretariat is able to do. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is likely to be a more direct actor in the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia. But a multi-track approach is probably best as the current situation seems only to grow worse.
The OSCE remains very much a governmental organization. Unlike the United Nations where the UN Secretariat members come from a wide range of backgrounds, the OSCE Secretariat is made up of national diplomats or other national civil servants such as the police. Many will return to national posts after serving at the OSCE. There is less a spirit of being world civil servants than there is at the UN. Again unlike the UN which has long-serving NGO representatives who are in active, nearly daily contact with diplomats, at OSCE meetings there are a majority of new NGO faces at each large conference, and there is little or no interaction between NGOs, Secretariat and national representatives at the main OSCE headquarters in Vienna. There is potential for a greater contribution of NGOs in the OSCE processes. Given the failures of the OSCE to impact the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, there might be a door slightly open as the OSCE looks East.