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Back from the brink: OSCE Ministerial Council in Skopje takes decisions on OSCE leadership

Stephanie Liechtenstein
Analysis04 December 2023

The 30th OSCE Ministerial Council meeting took place in Skopje, North Macedonia, amid the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine, and an escalation in tensions between Russia and the West that have threatened the survival of the OSCE.

In the run-up to the meeting, the Foreign Minister of North Macedonia and OSCE Chairman-in-Office Bujar Osmani described the OSCE Ministerial Council (OSCE MC) in a series of posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, as a “monumental event shaping the future of international co-operation,” where the future of the OSCE would be decided.

A more realistic description would be that in Skopje, the OSCE was essentially pulled back from the brink of death but it still looks shaky. The decisions made at the meeting keep the OSCE on life support for a few months, but don’t provide a stable long-term solution for the organization’s leadership crisis and do not solve its bigger problems.

The most significant decision taken at the OSCE MC was the appointment of Malta to chair the OSCE in 2024. The solution, that emerged in Vienna three days prior to the Skopje MC meeting, puts an end to a months-long crisis that risked leaving the OSCE without political leadership.

After lengthy negotiations, the OSCE MC also agreed by consensus to extend the mandates of the top four OSCE leadership posts, but only for nine months rather than for another three-year term.

This pregnant pause in the search for top OSCE leaders means that OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Kairat Abdrakhmanov, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM) Teresa Ribeiro and Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Matteo Mecacci will be able to continue their work until Sept. 3, 2024.

But Malta will have to invest significant time and energy into finding a stable solution for the top four posts right from the beginning of its chairmanship in 2024. This will be a complicated task to say the least, given the enormous rift between Russia and the West, which will make it almost impossible to agree by consensus on possibly four new personalities to fill the posts after the respective mandates expire next autumn.

Lavrov present in Skopje

In contrast to last year’s OSCE MC meeting in Poland, for this year’s meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was granted an entry visa by North Macedonia, and the EU flight ban was temporarily lifted to allow his plane to fly across EU airspace. (TASS reported that Lavrov’s plane flew over Turkey and Greece to reach North Macedonia).

This prompted the foreign ministers from Ukraine, Poland and the three Baltic states to boycott the conference.

Lavrov held meetings on the margins of the OSCE MC with the foreign ministers of Hungary, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Austria. The Austrian Foreign Ministry was quick to clarify that its meeting with Lavrov was informal and happened upon the request of the OSCE and in coordination with the OSCE chair of North Macedonia to talk about the extension of the mandates for the four top leadership posts.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Skopje on Nov. 29, on the eve of the OSCE MC meeting, and took part in a dinner hosted by Osmani. Blinken left Skopje before the formal opening of the OSCE MC on Nov. 30, thus avoiding any potential contact with the Russian delegation and its foreign minister. Nevertheless, Blinken’s presence in Skopje on the eve of the OSCE MC can be interpreted as a signal of America’s continuing support of the OSCE.

Lack of a budget is ‘truly unsustainable’

In her opening remarks, OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid shared her reflections after her three years in office.

“I have seen the stranglehold that consensus-based decision-making can bring when not paired with the spirit of compromise,” she said. “I have seen the hardship posed by the lack of an approved budget and the impact of insufficient resources based on more than a decade of zero nominal growth.”

Schmid also referred to the evacuation of OSCE staff in the wake of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and the “devastation” she felt when she learned that an OSCE staff member had been killed during Russian shelling.

She also said she feels “ongoing anguish” over the three staff members of the former OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine who have been detained by Russia since April 2022.

Despite all the challenges, though, she said the OSCE has “much to offer.” She mentioned the development of a 77 million-euro program in support of the five Central Asian states that are “dealing with the implications of the brutal Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.” She also highlighted the Support Program for Ukraine, which is entirely funded via extra-budgetary contributions from 30 states and the EU.

Schmid expressed gratitude to the many states that provided extra-budgetary contributions to these and other projects but added that they are no “substitute for a fixed budget.” The OSCE has not adopted a formal budget since 2021, a situation which Schmid described as “truly unsustainable.”

She said that this year, in order to compensate for inflation and other rising expenses, the OSCE had to set up “a special fund” to supplement core operating costs. “I am truly grateful to the participating states who have contributed to this fund — which is the only way we could avoid insolvency in 2023,” Schmid said. “This is no way to run an organization.”

Strong condemnation of Russia in the plenary

During the opening plenary, Foreign Minister Osmani expressed clear words of condemnation: “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine flies in the face of all that this organization holds dear, the Helsinki Final Act, and other key documents that underpin the European security architecture and its unwavering commitment to human security.”

Osmani continued: “This war undermined trust, dialogue and our capacity to deliver. Above all, it devastated the lives of ordinary people, their right to live freely, trembling with fear of war and warlike circumstances.”

During the plenary session, the overwhelming majority of OSCE participating states condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and expressed full support for Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A number of foreign ministers, among them German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Xavier Bettel, addressed Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov directly.

Bettel, who did not read from pre-written remarks, looked straight across the room at the Russian delegation and said: “To start a war is easy. To finish a war shows how leaders are. It is never too late to see that you did a big mistake. You did a big mistake.”

Looking at the Russian delegation, Baerbock said: “Stop this war, which is also a war against this organization. Stop the unspeakable suffering that you have brought on the people (of Ukraine).”

Many foreign ministers also called for the unconditional release of the three OSCE staff members still detained by Russia.

The overwhelming majority of OSCE participating states welcomed Malta as the next OSCE chair while at the same time expressing appreciation for Estonia as well as regret that Russia had opposed its candidacy.

Rasa Ostrauskaite, the EU’s Permanent Representative to the OSCE, called on Russia to “immediately stop its war of aggression against Ukraine, and completely and unconditionally withdraw all its forces and military equipment from the entire territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

She added: “Today in Skopje, we want to reaffirm that Ukraine’s security is Europe’s security. The EU will stand unequivocally with Ukraine and its people for as long as it takes.” She also referred to the 85 billion euros in financial, economic, humanitarian and military support that the EU had mobilized for Ukraine.

James O’Brien, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, who represented the U.S. in Skopje after Blinken’s early departure, said that Russia’s “further invasion of Ukraine is a complete affront to civilized standards, to international law, and to the principles on which this organization is based. … I add my voice to those of my colleagues calling for Russia to stop its violations of the basic principles of the organization, but I am not sure that they are yet willing to listen.”

Ukraine’s Ambassador to the OSCE Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk held up a small box of grains and said that they had been “burnt by Russia with the Iranian drones in Izmail.” He added: “Russia has destroyed hundreds of thousands of tons of grain, thus depriving families around the globe of essential food.”

He referred to the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933, saying that the world needed “a vaccine against attempts to weaponize food, including through the recognition of the Holodomor as an act of genocide.”

He said that Russian forces must leave Ukraine and that the integrity of the entire country must be restored. “We like no others need peace, but not at any price,” he stressed.

Russia says the OSCE has become an ‘appendage of NATO and the EU’

Lavrov was in the plenary hall during most of the opening statements but then left the hall for most of the time. He returned to read out his own statement. While he was speaking, a number of other delegates left the room in a sign of protest.

Lavrov categorically rejected all criticism leveled against Russia and repeated many of the well-known accusations against the West, mirroring his OSCE MC speeches from previous years.

He accused the West of failing to make use of the “historical opportunity” after the end of the Cold War to turn the OSCE “into a platform for broad-based pan-European cooperation,” based on “equal and indivisible security in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic region.” In this context, he denounced once again NATO’s enlargement to the East, saying that “Western political elites … made a shortsighted choice in favor of NATO rather than the OSCE.”

He also made an implied threat against Moldova. “A list of sabotaged attempts to resolve urgent problems of Europe based on OSCE principles also includes the Dmitry Kozak Memorandum that could have achieved a reliable settlement in Moldova 20 years ago,” Lavrov said. “At that time, NATO and the EU unceremoniously torpedoed the document that had already been initialed by Chisinau and Tiraspol. … In effect, Moldova is destined to fall the next victim in the West-unleashed hybrid war against Russia.”

He concluded his speech by saying that the OSCE had been “reformatted to become an appendage of NATO and the EU” and that it was “on the brink of the abyss.”

In his closing remarks for the OSCE MC, North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani evoked what he called the “spirit of Skopje” and said it should stay with the OSCE as the organization will “encounter more serious matters” that have implications for millions of people in the OSCE area.


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