Two big questions loom over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting in Skopje on November 30-December 1, which will bring together the foreign ministers from the 57 members of the Vienna-based organization.
Firstly, will one of them — Russia’s Sergei Lavrov — show up? And secondly, who will take over the one-year OSCE rotating chair for 2024 after North Macedonia?
The two questions are somewhat linked. Lavrov was barred from attending the ministerial meeting in the Polish city of Lodz last December, with Poland — the organization’s chair that year — justifying the ban by saying that he was on the EU sanctions list after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The thinking this time around — at least among some member states — is that it could be useful to have Lavrov in the Macedonian capital. The OSCE remains the only larger political organization in Europe in which Russia is still a member, having been expelled from the Council of Europe last year.
Apart from potentially confronting Lavrov over Ukraine, OSCE diplomats might desire the Russian foreign minister’s presence in Skopje to help solve the problem of who should take over the chair of the organization next year.
Estonia is the only candidate — having applied already back in 2020 — but Russia has always rejected this and is set to do so again this year. The argument Moscow has put forward is that it doesn’t want another NATO country as chair — following on from North Macedonia and Poland — and has accused both countries of constantly bringing up “Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine” at the weekly OSCE Permanent Council, where ambassadors to the organization meet. In various OSCE forums, North Macedonia and Poland have rejected the idea that there can be “business as usual” as long as the conflict goes on.
Deep Background: Normally, the chair is decided at least a year in advance via unanimity among member states. It would be unprecedented for the OSCE to enter a new year without a country at the helm — a scenario that could even usher in the demise of the entire organization.
It has already been decided that Finland will chair the OSCE in 2025, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) — the predecessor of the OSCE — that aimed to improve relations between East and West and which committed the Soviet Union to formally observing human rights and international law. The decision for Finland to chair in 2025 was made well before the country became a NATO member.
So, how to solve this impasse?
Estonia is so far not withdrawing its candidacy and has received full backing from the other 26 EU member states — including the bloc’s foreign ministers when they met in Brussels on November 13. Speaking to RFE/RL after the meeting in Brussels, Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said: “We cannot normalize relations with the aggressor. We must continue the international isolation of Russia and must not submit to its provocations and blackmail. I am glad that the EU unanimously supports Estonia.”
It will be interesting to see if this position prevails in the run-up to the Skopje meeting. The united EU stance on Estonia has so far prevented the search for alternative chairs, especially among non-NATO EU members. Perhaps the most natural choice would be Austria, as it already hosts the organization in Vienna. But there have also been talks between 2024 chair North Macedonia and Malta about the possibility of Valletta picking up the OSCE baton at the last minute, even though the country’s small diplomatic service might struggle.
From what I understand from sources familiar with the issue who wish to remain anonymous, it appears that Russia has rejected another possible candidate, Kazakhstan, from chairing, or North Macedonia continuing in the hot seat for another year. If Russia doesn’t get its way, then it could walk away from the OSCE, a scenario that many member states are keen to avoid.
One concern is that if Russia left, other countries — particularly from the former Soviet bloc — could follow, in solidarity with Moscow. At the same time, the organization is also keen to avoid being without a chair, especially as the yearlong role is key for the daily functioning of the organization.
Ahead of the Skopje meeting, pressure could increase on Estonia to withdraw its candidacy. A policy note from the United States directed to EU member states, which was seen by RFE/RL, underlines that “the United States appreciates Estonia’s willingness to serve as 2024 chair and supports Estonia as a principled and capable candidate for a future chairpersonship.” The note adds that “Russia has made clear it will not join consensus on another NATO member as chair” and that the “OSCE urgently needs to identify a country capable of gaining consensus to serve as chair in 2024. A failure to do so is a victory for Russia.”
It is also worth considering the presence of Lavrov himself at the ministerial meeting in Skopje. Last year, Poland acted on its own and stopped him from entering the country several weeks in advance, saying he was on the EU’s sanctions list. The same could apply to North Macedonia, which as an EU candidate country has aligned with the EU’s sanctions on Russia. But there’s a catch: The EU has only imposed an asset freeze on Lavrov and not a visa ban. And even if there were a visa ban, this can be waived by EU member states and aligned countries in order for the Russian foreign minister to attend international conferences. Lavrov could, in other words, be welcome in North Macedonia without the country violating any legal or political obligations.
EU foreign ministers also discussed Lavrov’s presence in Brussels last week. Some — notably from the Baltics states — expressed shock at his potential invitation, but others — such as Germany — said that everyone should be there and everyone should speak to him.
Some OSCE members, particularly from Western Europe, are hoping that Lavrov’s presence would be an opportunity for dialogue, even if it’s just discussions on internal OSCE matters, such as the question of extending the mandate of the secretary-general.
Ukraine and others, however, are warning of giving in to Russian pressure. They have noted how Moscow has obstructed several important OSCE initiatives in recent years, such as blocking three field missions to Ukraine and, for the last two years, the entire OSCE budget.
Will EU Citizens Stay Warm This Winter?
It was supposed to be Russia’s most powerful weapon against the EU after last February’s invasion of Ukraine: the threat that the bloc’s citizens would freeze over the winter.
While energy prices did soar at the end of summer and early fall in 2022, mostly due to a scorching heat wave and Russia squeezing gas supplies. The media was full of stories of how badly the EU would cope, painting dire scenarios for the winter of 2022-23 and warning about potential blackouts for private households and industries. Fast forward a year and the doom and gloom is nowhere to be seen — neither in the media nor among political circles in the European Union. The consensus seems to be that EU citizens will be warm in their homes and workplaces this winter, in what could be described as one of the bloc’s true success stories in recent years.
Deep Background: At the start of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022, imports of Russian gas by pipeline made up 40 percent of all EU gas imports. Today, that figure is down to 13 percent. The EU has blocked 90 percent of Russian oil from entering the bloc and is starting to completely phase out purchases of Russian coal. This created a price shock in the summer of 2022, with gas prices peaking at 294 euros ($320) per megawatt hour (MWh) in August that year and electricity prices reaching 474 euros per MWh around the same time.
So far this year, the average price in the EU for gas has been 44 euros per MWh and 107 euros per MWh for electricity — a considerable drop that has led to the EU fulfilling its target of having its gas storages 90 percent full two months before the November 1 deadline. These storages are now around 99 percent full, making blackouts this winter unlikely, even in the event of a Russian cutoff or a prolonged cold snap.
How did the EU achieve this? Well, the bloc reduced gas demand by around 15 percent compared to last year. Partly this was due to households and companies consuming less due to higher prices, plus the winter of 2022-23 and fall of 2023 were fairly mild. Another contributing factor was the installation of over 3 million heat pumps across the EU in 2022 alone, which has helped to slowly lower gas consumption for the generation of power.
The main challenge for the EU has been to find alternative energy sources to replace Russian gas. In this regard, Brussels has fared reasonably well. One of the issues that made the energy crisis so alarming over the summer of 2022 was that over half of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were shut down due to maintenance work. Now, many of those are back online, alleviating the problem to a certain extent. According to the European Commission, there has also been record use of solar power and offshore wind farms. While these renewable sources are helping, the main lifesaver for the EU has been the purchase of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with imports from the United States increasing sixfold since last year.
The EU has driven LNG prices down by having the European Commission organize three rounds of joint purchasing of the gas, instead of having individual member states competing to bid. The EU has also been lucky that LNG demand in China has shrunk due to slowed economic growth there, meaning that tanks carrying LNG could quickly be rerouted from Asia to Europe.
This means that the EU now has excess reserves going into the winter, with some LNG tankers functioning as offshore storage facilities. Some gas is also being kept in Ukraine, which has some of the largest gas stores on the continent and are far from the front lines of the war.
The problem with the LNG market is that prices are volatile and sensitive to all sorts of external shocks. In recent months, prices have shot up due to strikes at Australian LNG facilities, repair work at a large gas processing plant in Norway, and the war in the Middle East, which has stopped work at a facility off the Israeli coast.
There is also increased fear of sabotage, something that both NATO and EU officials are monitoring carefully since it appeared that in October a Chinese-registered vessel damaged an undersea gas pipeline connecting Estonia and Finland. It hasn’t been established yet whether this was intentional or not.
There is also an elephant in the room. While the EU has cut a lot of Russian pipelined gas, it has in the same period increased its purchase of Russian LNG by 40 percent. About 15 percent of all EU LNG imports now come from Russia, with Portugal and Spain using a considerable amount as the Iberian Peninsula is something of an energy island with very few interconnectors to the rest of the EU. The reality is that the Kremlin will continue to enjoy a share of the EU energy market. Despite repeated calls, Russian LNG will not be sanctioned by Brussels. In a proposal for new EU sanctions on Moscow, seen by RFE/RL last week, there are no proposed measures on Russian gas, whether it’s shipped via pipeline or as LNG.