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Is The OSCE Meeting In Skopje A Triumph For Russia?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands before a meeting on January 21, 2022, in Geneva.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands before a meeting on January 21, 2022, in Geneva.

There were two big questions looming over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting in Skopje, which on November 30-December 1 will bring together the foreign ministers from the 57 members of the Vienna-based security body.

Firstly, would Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov show up? And secondly, which country would take over the one-year rotating chair for 2024, an issue that has deeply divided the organization? Ahead of the meeting, Russia appears to be coming out on top, using its veto to get the chair it wants for next year and raising its profile in the only major organization in Europe in which it is still a member.

On the first question, it's worth recalling the OSCE ministerial meeting in the Polish city of Lodz in December 2022, which Poland barred Lavrov from attending. Warsaw -- the OSCE chair in 2022 -- justified the move due to Lavrov being on the EU sanctions list after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier that year. Poland acted alone, announcing the ban weeks ahead of the meeting in a move the country's Interior Ministry had the legal right to take.

The same right applies to North Macedonia, the current chair of the OSCE. The Balkan EU candidate has aligned with all of the bloc's sanctions on Russia so far, including individual measures against Russian officials and the closing of EU airspace to Russian aviation. But there is a catch: The EU has only imposed an asset freeze on Lavrov, not a visa ban. Even if there had been a visa ban, it can be waived (as can a flight ban) by EU member states and aligned countries such as North Macedonia to allow leaders and diplomats to attend international gatherings.

What all of this means is that Lavrov can come to North Macedonia without the country reneging on its legal or political obligations. North Macedonia has already confirmed it will allow Lavrov's flight to land, and Bulgaria has granted permission for the plane to cross its airspace en route to Skopje. Several sources at the OSCE with knowledge of the situation but who are not authorized to speak on the record have indicated that the Russian delegation coming to Skopje might include up to 85 people, including the foreign minister's personal doctor, his deputy, Aleksandr Grushko, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, a large security detail, and 24 Russian journalists.

While Skopje appears to have taken the decision to allow Lavrov to attend the meeting on its own, it will likely be welcomed by many OSCE members, some of whom have argued it would be beneficial to have the Russian foreign minister in Vienna. In addition to the opportunity to raise concerns about the war in Ukraine, OSCE diplomats have indicated Russia's presence would be useful in agreeing and finalizing next year's chair and in filling four key senior positions in the organization, including that of the secretary-general, whose mandate is up for renewal at the end of the year.

The first issue -- regarding the OSCE chair for 2024 -- is mostly already solved. For a while, Estonia was the only candidate for the top job in 2024, having applied back in 2020. But Russia has rejected Tallinn's candidacy in the past and did so again this year. Moscow has argued it doesn't want another NATO country as chair in 2024, following North Macedonia and Poland. According to Moscow, officials from NATO member countries were constantly haranguing Russian officials about the war in Ukraine at the weekly OSCE Permanent Council, where the ambassadors meet. (Despite Russia's objections, Estonia did not withdraw its candidacy, having received full backing from the 26 EU countries who are also members of the OSCE.)

With the meeting rapidly approaching, OSCE diplomats and staffers in Vienna were getting antsy about the possibility of entering 2024 without a chair, especially given how important the position is in leading meetings, setting priorities, and brokering deals among member states. Normally, the OSCE chair is decided at least a year in advance via unanimity among member states. It would be unprecedented for the OSCE to enter a new year without a country at the helm.

Enter Malta, a country that is not a member of NATO, is militarily neutral, and -- most importantly -- is an acceptable choice for Moscow. Worries in Vienna were likely soothed on November 27 as Malta agreed to take over the OSCE's presidency for 2024. Lavrov will still have to confirm Moscow's approval in Skopje, along with the four senior OSCE positions up for grabs.

Did Western countries hand Russia a victory by caving into Kremlin demands and snubbing Estonia?

Possibly, although an argument could be made that the West isn't caving but rather calculating. The writing on the wall for Tallinn became increasingly obvious when a November 10 policy note from Washington to EU member states, seen by RFE/RL, underlined that while "the United States appreciates Estonia's willingness to serve as 2024 chair and supports Estonia as a principled and capable candidate for a future chairpersonship….Russia has made clear it will not join consensus on another NATO member as chair." The frantic rush to find a country to lead the organization was understandable perhaps, with the U.S. policy note remarking that a "failure to [find a chair] is a victory for Russia."

In the end, it looks like the OSCE will survive for at least another year. But some -- including the disgruntled trio of Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine -- will wonder at what price, noting that Moscow has obstructed progress on several key OSCE initiatives in recent years, notably three field missions to Ukraine and the entire organization's budget for the last two years.

With Russia in attendance and a perception, held by some members, that Moscow is getting its own way, the optics in Skopje aren't ideal for Ukraine and its supporters. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has already indicated he won't be coming and others might well follow suit.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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