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Is a Russian veto on leadership about to provoke the downfall of the OSCE?

Article by Dr Cornelius Friesendorf and Prof. Stefan Wolff

November 9, 2023

Is a Russian veto on leadership about to provoke the downfall of the OSCE?

The survival of the world’s largest regional security organisation—the 57-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—is under threat from Russian ambitions to upend the existing international order.[1] Whether, and how, the OSCE will continue is likely to be decided on 30 November and 1 December, when OSCE Foreign Ministers convene in Skopje, under the current Chairpersonship of North Macedonia, for their annual Ministerial Council.[2]


Some might argue that not much would be lost if the OSCE were to perish in Russia’s war on multilateralism. However, this misjudges the important role the OSCE has played in the past, setting standards on issues from election observation to minority rights and the fight against human trafficking. Nor would the OSCE be without use in the future: the organisation’s arsenal of confidence and security-building measures remains relevant for reducing the risk of an unwanted escalation of the war in Ukraine. In the event of a ceasefire or peace agreement, the need for a civilian peacekeeping mission could conceivably be met by the OSCE. Other protracted conflicts in Moldova, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, too, require careful management in the shadow of the war against Ukraine.


None of this, however, will be relevant if the OSCE is left without leaders, and Russia has already vetoed the only current candidate for the 2024 Chair, Estonia. At the top of the agenda at the Skopje Ministerial Council will therefore be the question of which country should take over the chairpersonship in 2024. If the participating States fail to agree on a Chair for next year, the consequences will not be insignificant. More than any other international organisation, the OSCE relies on its Chair, to broker consensus, set priorities, lead meetings and fill key posts. Without one there is a danger that it will become rudderless and ineffectual.


However, a Russian veto is not inevitable. The Kremlin has long viewed the OSCE as a threatening Western instrument for democratising post-Soviet states. Yet, Moscow also considers the OSCE as a forum for its own propaganda and for gathering information on Ukraine’s Western supporters. Threatening and using vetoes is also a useful tool for the Kremlin to retain some influence in the European security architecture.


For now, a showdown in Skopje is likely because Estonia has declined to withdraw its candidacy.[3] With the European Union (EU) supporting this position, an earlier offer by Austria to step in had no chance of being taken up.[4] Discussions that are apparently under way with Malta to be a potential alternative will face the same hurdle.[5] At a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on 26 September, Russia showed only limited willingness to compromise.[6] According to Alexander Lukashevich, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the OSCE, Russia is open to alternative candidates, as long as they are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This means that there is at least the potential for Austria’s candidacy to be revived or Malta’s be considered as a last-minute solution at the Ministerial Council meeting in December.


Any such eleventh-hour deal will likely depend on whether the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, is able to attend the meeting in Skopje. An added complication is whether Russian government representatives like Lavrov, who are subject to Western sanctions, will be granted entry permits and overflight rights to participate in person.[7] Thus, supporters of the OSCE also have a choice to make: do they stick to lofty principles, or do they swallow a pragmatic compromise to enable the survival of the OSCE?


One might argue that the organisation will endure somehow even if this issue of next year’s chair is not resolved. After all, the OSCE has muddled through since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Yet, such optimism is ill-advised. Should there be no agreement by the end of the year, North Macedonia, with the support of NATO and EU members among the participating States, might declare that it will continue in the role out of a sense of responsibility to the OSCE. The aim would be to keep the OSCE running until Finland takes over the Chairpersonship in 2025, the year of the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), the predecessor of the OSCE.[8]


In such a scenario, Russia would likely refuse to recognise North Macedonia as Chair and try to persuade other participating States not to do so either. The Kremlin could even withdraw from the OSCE and pressure others to follow suit, thus effectively spelling the end of the organisation as an inclusive forum for east-west security dialogue.


Hence, the search for an alternative candidate has to remain a priority and appears to be high on the agenda of the current Chair, Bujar Osmani, the Foreign Minister of North Macedonia.[9] Malta, whose potential candidacy was revealed by Security and Human Rights Monitor (SHRM), has yet however to officially declare its intentions and is unlikely to do so unless there is an agreement that Estonia will withdraw its bid, thus clearing the way for EU support.[10] Similarly, some indication from Russia that it would at least not veto a Maltese Chair for 2024 will likely be necessary for Malta to step up officially.


These complications and the fact that we are now less than four weeks away from the Ministerial Council meeting brings us back to Austria as an alternative. Vienna as the host of the OSCE’s headquarters could take over certain Chair functions on a provisional basis, likely in consultation with North Macedonia and Finland, the properly elected Chairs of 2023 and 2025. This would not require a formal, and thus vetoable, decision. The pro-Ukrainian alliance would be able to argue that it had not bowed to the threatened Russian veto. And given Austria is a non-NATO member, it would fulfil one of Russia’s conditions for alternative candidates.


Any such compromise will require careful preparation, including dialogue via backchannels between key western capitals and Moscow. Moreover, any compromise will also need to be palatable to Ukraine, which, like every OSCE participating State, also has the power to veto decisions. In light of the ever more visible signs of a fraying western consensus on support for Kyiv, the key players in Washington, Brussels, London, Paris, and Berlin may decide that preserving the pro-Ukrainian coalition is more important than the OSCE. While this is not an either-or choice, it remains unclear whether supporters of the OSCE east and west of Vienna can muster the political will to defend the organisation against Russia’s destructiveness.


Dr Cornelius Friesendorf is Head of the Centre for OSCE Research (CORE), Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg (IFSH). Previously he worked as a senior advisor for an EU police reform support project in Myanmar and as a researcher for institutions including Goethe-University Frankfurt, the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance, and ETH Zurich. He holds degrees from the University of Zurich, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and the Free University Berlin. His research focuses on the OSCE, Western-Russian relations, and security sector governance and reform. He also analysed asymmetric war (publications include How Western Soldiers Fight, Cambridge University Press 2018) and strategies against drug trafficking and human trafficking. Cornelius is co-editor of OSCE Insights, a series of policy briefs published in English and Russian and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions. He speaks German, English, French, and Russian.


Stefan Wolff is a Professor of International Security and Head of Department, Political Science and International Studies, at the University of Birmingham, co-coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, and Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre. A political scientist by background, he specialises in the management of contemporary security challenges, especially in the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts, in post-conflict state-building in deeply divided and war-torn societies, and in contemporary geopolitics and great-power rivalry, especially in the post-Soviet space.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


[1] OSCE Homepage, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), see:

[2] OSCE Chairpersonship, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), see:; OSCE Ministerial Councils, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), see:

[3] ERR News, Estonia not withdrawing OSCE chairmanship candidacy, September 2023,

[4] Stephanie Liechtenstein, How creative diplomacy has averted a collapse of the OSCE – until now, Security and Human Rights Monitor, July 2023,

[5] Stephanie Liechtenstein, Exclusive: Malta under consideration to become OSCE Chair in 2024, Security and Human Rights Monitor, November 2023,

[6] Statement by Mr Alexander Lukashevich, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation, at the 1443rd (Reinforced) meeting of the OSCE permanent Council, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), September 2023,

[7] 30th OSCE Ministerial Council to be held in Skopje, North Macedonia, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), November 2023,

[8] Helsinki Final Act, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), August 1975,

[9] Official X (Formerly Twitter) of Bujar Osmani, November 2023,

[10] Stephanie Liechtenstein, Exclusive: Malta under consideration to become OSCE Chair in 2024, Security and Human Rights Monitor, November 2023,

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