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The challenges facing Malta’s chairpersonship of the OSCE

Article by Prof Stefan Wolff

February 5, 2024

The challenges facing Malta’s chairpersonship of the OSCE

When Malta was confirmed as the OSCE’s Chairpersonship-in-Office (CiO) at the Skopje Ministerial Council in December 2023, the inter-governmental organisation’s prospects for survival increased.[1] After all, protracted negotiations over the next Chair—a role without which the OSCE cannot function—had dragged on for months and raised the spectre of the OSCE’s possible demise.[2] With Russia adamant in its opposition to Estonia’s candidacy, Austria was briefly considered as a possible alternative before Malta emerged as the frontrunner, after Moscow signalled its preference for a non-NATO member to take on the role.[3]


Yet, while a Chair is essential for the survival of the OSCE, it cannot guarantee its functionality. As primus inter pares, it is primarily responsible for co-ordinating the political dialogue of the participating States and their consultations on ongoing OSCE business.[4] Apart from the Chair, the other top-four leadership positions—Secretary General, High Commissioner on National Minorities, Representative on Freedom of the Media, and Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—have had their mandates only renewed for an unprecedented, and awkward, nine months, rather than the customary three years or at least hoped-for 12 months. While senior positions like those of the Director of the Conflict Prevention Centre and of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Affairs have been filled, that of the Director of the Office of the Secretary General remains vacant, and two of the OSCE field operations are currently only led by acting heads. Nor has the OSCE had an agreed budget since 2021; instead, it is surviving on monthly allocations based on the last agreed budget, and increasingly on extra-budgetary contributions from predominantly western participating States and the EU, including for the OSCE Secretariat Extra-Budgetary Support Programme for Ukraine.[5]


For the last two years the OSCE’s profound institutional crisis, which had been brewing in the decade since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, has played out against the background of the war in Ukraine. While Russia’s war of aggression has been the main issue on the OSCE’s agenda, there has been no shortage of conflict and instability elsewhere across the OSCE region. Kazakhstan saw turmoil just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan experienced significant unrest in Karakalpakstan and Gorno-Badakhshan.[6] Despite some recent progress, there are still unresolved border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which escalated into major violence as recently as September 2022.[7] Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh by force, displacing many of the territory’s Armenian residents in the process.[8] Tensions, fuelled and exploited by Moscow, have also grown in Moldova, including with the separatist Transnistrian region.[9] Moreover, there are recurring tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.[10]


Little wonder then that Malta’s priorities as CiO are focused on strengthening the resilience of the OSCE and enhancing security across the region.[11] These priorities, set for the year ahead, are ambitious by any measure, and even more so in light of the challenges that the OSCE and its participating States face. They can be read as a call for political dialogue and action, while they also reflect the deep contradictions that the organisation as a whole is dealing with. While it is absolutely essential that the CiO should “aim to facilitate and deliver decisions that leave the organisation more prepared and flexible to meet current and emerging challenges”, it is hard to see how this will be possible while Malta also vows to “continue to demand Russia’s full and immediate withdrawal from the entire territory of Ukraine.” The commitment to “condemn breaches of our commitments, and help ensure accountability” is laudable. While not inevitable, it is likely to signal the continuation of the “no business as usual” approach which has sought to isolate Russia in the OSCE, rather than a carefully managed balance between calling out Russian violations of international law and maintaining open lines of communication with Moscow.


There can be no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in 2014 and then escalated into a full-scale war of aggression on 24th February 2022, was a grave breach of international law and the Helsinki Decalogue. However, it would be a fantasy to assume that the OSCE is a community of like-minded states when it comes to the interpretation of what exactly the Helsinki commitments mean. In fact, when the OSCE’s forerunner, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), was established in 1975 it was precisely with the acknowledgement that participating States did not see eye to eye, and were often actively opposing each other, on many of these issues and that a forum for dialogue was needed to mediate and mitigate disagreements.


The war in Ukraine is an unprecedented crisis for the OSCE and thus a significant challenge for the CiO to manage, making business as usual impossible.[12] Yet the continued survival of the Organisation as Europe’s only all-inclusive platform of security dialogue will require at least some business being conducted, and ideally more sustainably so than over the past years. The Organisation needs to arrange contact and dialogue between its participating States on issues where this is possible. Malta’s approach offers some hope that this might be possible across all three dimensions of the OSCE.


In the politico-military dimension of the OSCE, work on the inclusion of women and girls has been one of the areas in which it has been very active over the years and where it has an eminently qualified and highly engaged Senior Adviser on Gender Issues in Lara Scarpitta. Work on gender as a cross-cutting issue is also more generally an important area for the OSCE, including in relation to the economic and environmental dimension and the human dimension. In this sense, it is an issue that both exemplifies the importance of the OSCE’s comprehensive approach to security and the possibility of the continuation of at least some business across the organisation.


This is particularly important in relation to the human dimension where participating States are frequently at loggerheads with each other. The refusal of Belarus and Russia to accept OSCE election observer missions cannot have come as much of a surprise, but it is another attempt at normalising the gradual shutting down of the third dimension—something that is, and should continue to be, strongly resisted.[13] ‘Using’ gender issues to keep the third dimension alive may seem cynical, but it is an essential tool that the OSCE has available and should use to keep the human dimension relevant, not least because it also has real benefits for women and girls. Malta’s emphasis on “combating and preventing violence against women” is therefore highly welcome, as is the connection being made with “OSCE efforts to combat trafficking in human beings.”


On the other hand, priorities in relation to the economic and environmental dimension are somewhat underwhelming. While there is an apparent intention to continue work on the climate-security nexus—an area in which participating States managed one of their last, jointly-adopted Ministerial Council decisions in 2021—the OSCE’s hitherto prominent connectivity agenda seems to have been dropped completely.[14] This is all the more surprising as the OSCE area not only faces serious connectivity challenges as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine but also significant new opportunities, including the notably renewed interest in the Middle Corridor connecting the EU and China.[15] That said, the continuing focus on combating corruption is to be welcomed, not least because it also dovetails with necessary reforms, particularly for Ukraine and Moldova in the context of their EU membership aspirations, where the OSCE also has some potential of offering support.[16]


Much of what Malta will be able to achieve in keeping the OSCE functioning and relevant across the range of priorities will be accomplished through the remaining field operations in participating States across southeastern Europe and in Central Asia. These missions, as well as the one in Moldova, have provided an important operational backbone for the organisation. Despite the often-contentious rhetoric around their continuation, participating states both east and west of Vienna, including the field operations’ host-states, generally appreciate the contribution that the OSCE makes in the field on a day-to-day basis to strengthening the resilience and security of states and societies in the OSCE area. This is not to underplay the challenges that field operations are facing—from the attraction and retention of qualified personnel, to the management of extra-budgetary projects, to the constraining interpretation of their mandates by host-states. Malta’s commitment “to provide support to our Field Operations and strengthen their capacity to assist host authorities in implementing OSCE principles and commitments”, in this sense is also an important contribution to keep the OSCE as a whole alive. This is the bare minimum of what will be required from the CiO, and even then, Malta is likely to face resistance from many host-states who will continue to interpret existing mandates narrowly and seek to limit OSCE activities to fit their own domestic agendas.[17]


Ultimately, whether Malta can succeed in living up to the promises that its priorities imply for the OSCE, and for Euro-Asian and Euro-Atlantic security more generally, will be down to factors well beyond the control of a small Mediterranean island state. Having empowered Malta to serve as the OSCE’s CiO in 2024, the Organisation’s participating States must now enable it to act on the Maltese Chairpersonship’s priorities. If they do not or if they allow some to frustrate efforts to salvage what is left of the OSCE as a multilateral forum, they will be culpable in contributing to the OSCE’s further slide into irrelevance. This would deprive Europe of a mechanism to manage security threats and challenges at a time of an increasingly volatile and rapidly deteriorating geopolitical situation.


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


Credit: OSCE/Mikhail Evstafiev


[1] OSCE Chairmanship, OSCE Chairman-in-Office Osamni announces Malta as 2024 Chairpersonship, extension of senior officials following 30th Ministerial Council, OSCE, December 2023,

[2] Stefan Wolff, Ukraine war: Russia’s hard line at European security meeting ratchets up tensions another notch, The Conversation, December 2023,; Dr Cornelius Friesendorf and Prof. Stefan Wolff, Is a Russian veto on leadership about to provoke the downfall of the OSCE?, FPC, November 2023,

[3] Stephanie Liechtenstein, How creative diplomacy has averted a collapse of the OSCE – until now, Security and Human Rights Monitor, July 2023,; Stephanie Liechtenstein, Exclusive: Malta under consideration to become OSCE Chair in 2024, Security and Human Rights Monitor, November 2023,

[4] Primus inter pares is a Latin phrase meaning first among equals.

[5] OSCE Secretariat Extra-Budgetary Support Programme for Ukraine, OSCE,

[6] Patrick Jackson and Simon Fraser, Uzbekistan Karakalpakstan: At least 18 killed in unrest over right to secede, BBC News, July 2022,; RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, What’s Behind The Tumult In Tajikistan’s Restive Gorno-Badakhshan Region?, RFE/RL, May 2022,

[7] RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service and RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Kyrgyz, Tajik Security Officials Say 90 Percent Of Border Agreed Upon, RFE/RL, December 2023,; Reuters, Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict death toll nearly 100, September 2022,

[8] Michael Ertl, Nagorno-Karabakh: Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenians explained, BBC News, September 2023,

[9] Stefan Wolff, Ukraine war: Moldova could be the first domino in a new Russian plan for horizontal escalation, The Conversation, March 2023,

[10] Stefan Wolff, Kosovo government must take most of the blame for the latest violence, but any long-term solution will require a constructive response from Serbia as well, The Conversation, May 2023,

[11] Malta’s OSCE Chairpersonship 2024, Strengthening Resilience, Enhancing Security, OSCE, January 2024,; OSCE Chairmanship, Malta begins its OSCE Chairpersonship with a vision for strengthening resilience and enhancing security, OSCE, January 2024,

[12] Stephanie Liechtenstein, Foreign Minister of Malta Ian Bord promises to ‘do whatever it takes’ to keep OSCE ‘alice and functioning’ as he outlines 2024 OSCE priorities, Security and Human Rights Monitor, January 2024,

[13] OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Decisions not to invite OSCE observers to parliamentary elections contrary to Belarus’ international commitments, OSCE, January 2024,; OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Russian Federation flouts international commitments once again with decision not to invite OSCR observers to presidential election, OSCE, January 2024,

[14] OSCE, 28th OSCE Ministerial Council, December 2021,

[15] Directorate-General for International Partnerships, Global Gateway: EU and Central Asian countries agree on building blocks to develop Trans-Caspian Transport Corridor, European Commission, January 2024,

[16] Tetyana Malyarenko and Stefan Wolff, Supporting Recovery, Reintegration, and Accession: Opportunities and Challenges for the OSCE in Ukraine, in OSCE Insights, eds. Cornelius Friesendorf and Argyro Kartsonaki (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2024),

[17] Cornelius Friesendorf, The OSCE’s midlife crisis, IPS Journal, July 2023,

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