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The chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has vowed not to let the world’s largest security body “collapse” as vetoes by Russia in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine leave it in a state of paralysis.
The OSCE was founded in 1975 as a forum for western powers and Russia to discuss security issues. But it has become increasingly moribund as Moscow blocks vital decisions on a new budget and the election of a new figure to chair the 57-member institution from next year.
Bujar Osmani, the North Macedonia foreign minister and current chair of the group, said Russia’s “zero-sum game approach” that has escalated since the start of the war in Ukraine, had “paralysed the institution”.
Osmani’s mandate expires in December and his replacement requires unanimous backing from OSCE members, including Russia. Moscow has blocked the only candidate, Estonia’s foreign minister Margus Tsahkna, whose government is a staunch ally of Ukraine.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Osmani said: “The biggest challenge is the political leadership because the organisation . . . cannot function without a chair”.
Russia believes “it is in its interests to make the OSCE dysfunctional,” said Ian Lesser, vice-president of the German Marshall Fund, a US think-tank. “[Estonia] is obviously in the first rank of those who oppose Russian behaviour in Ukraine”, he added.
Russia has refused to co-operate with the organisation or contribute to its budget this year; Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s Duma, said in April: “we should not pay for what we did not take part in”, according to news agency Interfax.
While Osmani supports the Estonian candidate — who is opposed only by Russia and Belarus — he said he could offer to continue in his role “as a last resort”, adding “we will not allow the organisation to collapse”. But such a move would still require Russia’s approval.
“There is no doubt that the OSCE is in the biggest crisis of its history,” Estonia’s Tsahkna said, adding that the organisation required all members to respect the principles that Russia was “gravely violating”.
“We have not been able to agree on a budget for several years, we have no agreement on top positions of the OSCE, we have not elected a chairman-in-office for 2024 or 2026,” he said.
The crisis comes as Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine shows no sign of ending and after Russia last week brokered a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, the territory in the south Caucasus Mountains disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan, who are both OSCE members.
In 2022, the OSCE stopped its monitoring mission in Ukraine. It had been observing security in the OSCE member country since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but this stopped when Moscow blocked an extension to the missions in March last year. Russia has also illegally detained OSCE staff members in Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.
Russia has allowed the mandate for the OSCE mission in Moldova to be extended for only six months, instead of the usual one-year period, according to a European Council statement in March that condemned Russia’s behaviour towards the organisation.
Russian aggression and the OSCE’s institutional gridlock have raised questions over the organisation’s purpose. Its malaise comes after the formation last summer of the European Political Community, a 57-member organisation for European strategic discussions championed by French president Emmanuel Macron that excludes Russia.
The OSCE’s secretary-general is Helga Schmid, former head of the EU’s diplomatic services, and the EU provides more than two-thirds of the organisation’s €140mn annual budget. But privately some EU officials have suggested that the EPC currently offers a more effective arena for security discussions than the OSCE, without the obstructive presence of Russia.
Osmani said he had proposed “creative solutions” on both the budget and the 2024 chair that had not yet been accepted, but he declined to give further details. “I think we have a few more weeks to work on finding consensus and then after that deadline we will need to start to adopt decisions,” he said.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels