SKOPJE: The world’s largest regional security body convened in North Macedonia on Thursday amid controversy, with Ukraine Poland and the Baltic states boycotting the summit in protest at the presence of Russia.
Created in 1975 as a forum for dialogue between the Eastern and Western blocs, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – of which both Russia and Ukraine are part – is operating with great difficulty and tensions are running high, particularly over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow continues to block decisions on elements such as managing the OSCE’s budget and reaching consensus on rotating chairmanship.
Earlier this week, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania said they would boycott the annual ministerial conference due to the expected presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Poland said Russia’s presence was “unacceptable”.
“We just cannot ignore the fact that the Russian minister of foreign affairs will be present at the table of the organisation that is supposed to build peace and security in Europe,” Polish Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek told reporters on Wednesday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Skopje on Wednesday for a pre-summit dinner with representatives of other OSCE states, was not in attendance on Thursday.
He was in Israel, seeking to extend the truce in Gaza.
Lavrov arrived in North Macedonia on Wednesday evening and was expected to address the summit in the capital Skopje later on Thursday.
Late on Wednesday, the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said he understood the unease of some states but welcomed the decision by North Macedonia to allow Lavrov to participate, saying it aligned with the “common objective of keeping multilateralism alive”.
“It will be a good occasion for him (Lavrov) to listen directly from the participants at this meeting why Russia is being condemned and isolated,” he told reporters.
After months of negotiations, Malta on Monday agreed to take over the organisation’s rotating presidency next year, instead of NATO member Estonia – who the Kremlin openly rejected.
The ruling is expected to be ratified during the two-day ministerial meeting.
On Wednesday, Russia accused Western countries of trying to stop its officials from attending the summit.
“We see attempts by part of the West to do everything possible to hinder our country’s normal participation at this meeting,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
She went on to accuse some countries – without naming them – of threatening “the very existence of the organisation, just to satisfy their ambitions”.
Ukraine, in turn, wants the OSCE to expel Russia, as the Council of Europe has done, warning the body faced a “slow death” if Moscow remains a member.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the OSCE has issued several reports on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by Russian armed forces.
Borrell is also attending the meeting but has said he will not meet Lavrov directly.