At the start of the OSCE ministerial meeting in Skopje on November 30, all eyes were on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who became the focus of media attention after he was allowed to arrive in North Macedonia's capital despite sanctions.
The controversy surrounding the presence of the Russian delegation stemmed from Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions imposed on the country. North Macedonia’s authorities had made significant efforts to secure Lavrov’s presence in an attempt to unblock progress on decisions critical to the OSCE’s future, but the Russian foreign minister took a combative tone in his address to the meeting, lashing out at the West, and left the venue immediately afterwards.
North Macedonia, current holder of the rotating OSCE presidency, permitted Lavrov to participate in OSCE ministerial meetings during a period of complex geopolitical circumstances and challenges faced by the organisation.
The foreign ministers of the Baltic states, Ukraine and later Poland, opted to boycott from the summit due to Lavrov's participation, seeing the presence of the Russian minister as “an opportunity for propaganda”.
Journalists and videographers anxiously awaited Lavrov, who was the last of the foreign dignitaries to arrive, and refrained from making any statements before the meeting commenced.
The 30th OSCE Ministerial Council is set to deliberate on the organisation's future and the challenges it confronts. Key decisions include the election of the chairman for 2024, with a consensus reached that Malta will assume the presidency. The agenda also encompasses crucial matters such as budgetary considerations and appointments to key positions within OSCE institutions.
Responding to inquiries about whether Lavrov's arrival signalled a triumph for Russia, North Macedonia's Prime Minister, Dimitar Kovacevski dismissed the notion.
Kovacevski argued that this was not a diplomatic victory for Russia, but rather a triumph for the OSCE, whose very functioning had been called into question.
“With this, the OSCE would continue to operate effectively,” he said.
“Just as the OSCE assisted Macedonia 30 years ago, today North Macedonia is playing a crucial role in supporting the OSCE, ensuring its continued status as the largest regional security organisation in Europe,” Kovacevski said.
The prime minister acknowledged the challenges faced by the OSCE during North Macedonia's presidency, citing the “unjustified aggression and war” initiated by Russia against Ukraine. Despite these difficulties, Kovacevski affirmed North Macedonia's commitment to supporting the OSCE's mission, thereby contributing to regional security and stability.
Concerning Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries withdrawing their participation due to Lavrov’s presence, Kovacevski remarked that each country has its own means of expressing dissent.
Among the few who addressed the media before the start of the ministerial meeting, Austria's Foreign Minister, Alexander Schallenberg expressed his approval of the decision to permit Lavrov to attend the OSCE meeting in Skopje.
"Dialogue must not shy away from engaging with the Russians," Schallenberg told journalists, emphasising that the Western inclination to exclude Moscow from the dialogue posed a “life-threatening” risk.
“I completely understand, especially our Ukrainian friends who chose not to attend, but I believe that this organisation is still necessary. It serves not only for addressing particularly challenging relations with Russia but also for fostering dialogue in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Hence, we require this platform for communication, and given the state of global relations, I believe the future demand for the OSCE will only increase,” stated Schallenberg.
Lavrov lashes out at the West
Lavrov delivered a robust speech, expressing concerns about the organisation's future, which he attributed to the actions of Western countries.
Lavrov said that currently there aren’t grounds for optimism and claimed the OSCE is essentially transforming into an extension of Nato and the European Union.
The Russian minister alleged that the Western countries are conducting a “hybrid war” against Russia and that the EU has evolved into an “aggressive political project”.
Following his speech, the Russian Minister promptly exited the meeting while some delegations boycotted his address, rising and leaving the conference.
On the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Meeting, Lavrov engaged in bilateral discussions with several ministers including the foreign affairs ministers of Armenia and Hungary, Ararat Mirzoyan and Peter Szijjarto, respectively. Additionally, Lavrov held a meeting with his colleague from Austria Alexander Schallenberg.
He also met the foreign ministers of North Macedonia and Malta — the current and future chairmen of the OSCE.
Following the bilateral meeting with Lavrov, Sziijarto said on social networks that Hungary will continue collaborating with Russia in the energy supply sector.
The Hungarian minister said that the country’s foreign policy is grounded in national interests, rejecting any external pressure.
“The two most important news in this regard: The gap walling works in Paks were completed last night, which means that we built 2.7 kilometres of gap walls at record speed, so it remains a realistic goal that the new units of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant will be producing at the very beginning of the 2030s.
“Regarding natural gas and oil supply, colleague Sergey Lavrov assured us that Russia and Russian companies will fully fulfil and respect the contracts concluded with us. All deliveries are on schedule and will remain so,” he said on X network.
North Macedonia had opened its airspace for the Russian minister’s flight, despite being part of Western sanctions on Russia.
Lavrov arrived in Skopje late on November 29 on a flight via Greece and Turkey as Bulgaria at the last moment opted to close its airspace to the Russian plane due to the presence of the spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, who is included in the sanctions list.
Zakharova said that the Bulgarian decision was “stupid”.
"This is the first time in our history that instead of closing its airspace to a plane, a government has … prohibited a person from being on board this plane while it crosses its airspace. This is how far Russia haters have gone in their malicious stupidity. But this is what we read in an official statement from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry: Yes, you can cross Bulgaria’s airspace, but Maria Zakharova cannot be aboard that plane," Zakharova said in a Facebook post.
Meanwhile, several top Western diplomats left Skopje before Lavrov arrived.
Kovacevski had a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Skopje ahead of the OSCE ministerial meeting win November 29. However, after an informal dinner, Blinken departed Skopje for Israel, deliberately avoiding a meeting with Lavrov. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and EU High Representative Josep Borrell also left Skopje before Lavrov's arrival.
The OSCE Ministerial Meeting is the most significant political event held in Skopje since North Macedonia, formerly known as Macedonia, declared independence in 1991.
The heightened police presence underscored the need for security, with police officers positioned around the Boris Trajkovski sports centre, the venue of the OSCE meeting, and various other locations in Skopje.
To facilitate the meeting, the main street leading to the venue was closed to traffic, and November 30 was declared a non-working day for the public administration to prevent potential traffic disruptions.
Around 1,000 delegates representing 76 delegations from 57 OSCE member countries and partner nations have been participating in the council.
Israel-Hamas conflict discussed
While Lavrov’s attendance has grabbed the headlines, other critical issues were also on the agenda.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also gave a statement to media before the start of the ministerial meeting. Cohen emphasised that Israel, following the release of hostages and the conclusion of the truce, intends to persist in its efforts until Hamas is eradicated.
"The responsibility for the October 7 hostage massacre, the subsequent war, and the suffering of the people of Gaza lies solely with Hamas ISIS. Our commitment is to continue the fight until we secure the release of all our hostages and eliminate Hamas. Global unity is crucial to liberate Gaza from Hamas ISIS and prevent such acts from occurring elsewhere in the world," Cohen stated.
Serbia to veto Kosovo’s membership
Most of North Macedonia’s neighbours are members of the OSCE, but Kosovo, which is not recognised as independent by several OSCE member states, is not among them. Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, aspires to join the organisation.
However, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia Ivica Dacic stated in Skopje, following his participation in the plenary session of the OSCE Ministerial Council, that Kosovo will never attain membership in the organisation. He said that Serbia will oppose such a scenario.
Responding to the mention by the Albanian minister of foreign affairs during the session that Kosovo should join the OSCE, Dacic reminded journalists that decisions within the organisation are reached through consensus. He reiterated that Kosovo's membership in the OSCE is an impossibility since Serbia will not agree to such a proposition.
The OSCE Ministerial Council will end on December 1. The OSCE chairman and Foreign Minister of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani announced that Malta will take over the OSCE's rotating presidency in January 2024.