Malta was the only Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) candidate nation whose one-year chairmanship could have been agreed upon by all 57 member states, including both the United States and Russia, some international media outlets report.
Malta has replaced Estonia at the eleventh hour as the 2024 chair nation after Russian and Belarus vetoed Estonia's scheduled taking on of the role.
The deadline for an agreement, in the event reached in Vienna Monday, was the end of this week, while the OSCE, the world's largest security body, ran the risk of looking like an increasingly irrelevant organization if this impasse were not resolved.
Meanwhile, the impending attendance of Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, at a meeting later this week at which Malta's ascension to the position is set to be formalized, has also attracted media attention, due to the current security situation.
OSCE chair nation changes each year
The OSCE chair rotates to a different member state – of which there are 57, including Russia – on a yearly basis, with the sitting country's foreign minister serving as chair. In this case, Malta's Ian Borg will be OSCE chairman-in-office throughout 2024, rather than Estonia's Margus Tsahkna.
While North Macedonia is the outgoing lead nation, Malta has not only now stolen a march on Estonia thanks to the Russian and Belarusian veto – unanimity is required on the chairing state – but is also set to retain its non-permanent UN Security Council (UNSC) seat to the end of 2024 (and will be council president from April), going on to assume the Presidency of the Council of Europe, for the fourth time, in 2025.
The Times of Malta reports that the Mediterranean island nation was the only country which could straddle the U.S.-Russia divide, as well as any differences between other member states, and obtain unanimity.
"Austria and other central Asian countries were proposed but Malta was the only country that enjoyed unanimous support from all member states," one source told the paper.
Malta in EU, not in NATO, has acted as peacemaker over recent conflicts
A source outlined the rationale behind Malta's appointment further by saying: "Malta is in the EU, [but] is not part of NATO, holds a seat in the UNSC and is respected for the positions it took on the Ukraine and Gaza wars," making it "therefore a good compromise for everyone."
Another source highlighted Maltese efforts in bringing together diplomats from across the world for peace talks, including at the third Ukraine Peace Summit which it hosted in Valletta last month.
While the agreement was made Monday in Vienna – with a deadline of the end of this week for finding next year's chair nation – it will still need formalizing, at a meeting due to take place in Skopje, outgoing lead nation North Macedonia's capital, on Thursday – a meeting to he attended both by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, as well as Russia's Lavrov, are among the high level diplomats expected to attend Thursday's meeting.
Estonia to boycott Skopje meeting if Sergey Lavrov present
Should Lavrov indeed be in attendance, Estonia, along with Latvia and Lithuania, will be boycotting the meeting, Foreign Minister Tsahkna said Tuesday.
Maltese Foreign Minister Ian Borg said after Monday's announcement in the Austrian capital that he was glad that "the name of Malta managed to garner consensus," adding that now "the real hard work begins."
Outgoing OSCE chairman-in-office, Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, described the move as a "huge decision," and thanked Malta for its "willingness to take on this vital role and to all colleagues for your flexibility and support."
North Macedonia foreign minister: OSCE is in safe hands
Minister Osmani, who in effect brokered the deal, told POLITICO he had attempted all possible solutions and had initially fully backed Estonia, yet ultimately had to find a compromise candidate.
He also said that keeping OSCE "alive, by keeping it functional … we will have an instrument," adding that with the new deal "the organization, I can say, is safe."
"I think OSCE will be the one to jump in if there will be peace in Ukraine," he added.
POLITICO reports that OSCE had been facing criticism in some quarters of having had its day, not least in an apparent failure to prevent the war in Ukraine.
Osmani also confirmed the attendance of Russia's Lavrov at the meeting in Skopje later this week, adding his country had granted all the necessary visa and travel permits and was now in talks with Greece and Bulgaria for overflight rights.
He could not disclose the detailed itinerary Lavrov may have, including meetings with any Western leaders that may go ahead..
Issue of new secretary general, three other top posts, still needs resolving
Elsewhere in the international media, Reuters notes that the OSCE deadlock reflects a confrontation between Moscow and Washington and supporters of both camps, which has intensified since the invasion of Ukraine 21 months ago.
Even Malta's appointment does not fully break the deadlock as the renewal of four top officials is still open, Reuters adds.
These appointments include Secretary General Helga Schmid, whose mandate expires on December 4, while no new candidates have been submitted to either her or any of the other three soon-to-be vacancies.
After Monday's agreement, Russia has however pledged to give its approval to those appointments once they come.
Tsahkna: Russia wished to 'derail' OSCE
Russia and Belarus had blocked Estonia's 2024 OSCE chairmanship even ahead of the February 2022 invasion, before reiterating this line last week.
Estonia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Margus Tsahkna (Eesti 200) had said Monday that while his country will not oppose Malta's nomination to OSCE chair, Estonia will still not withdraw its candidacy either.
Tsahkna added that Russia wants to "derail the OSCE."
Reform MP and chair of the Riigikogu's Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson said he has nothing against Malta "as a good partner" but the organization has given Russia decision-making power over its leadership while it is "waging a war to destroy Ukraine, an OSCE member".
The OSCE Permanent Council adopted a decision recommending that Malta chair the organization, local media reported. Following the proposal from current chair nation North Macedonia on Monday.
OSCE members Russia and Belarus last week vetoed Estonia's bid, ostensibly on the grounds that they do not want a NATO member to hold the chair.
The 57-member state organization needed in any case to reach a unanimous agreement at a meeting at or by the end of this week.
OSCE is a regional security-oriented intergovernmental organization comprising member states in Europe, North America, and Asia, tasked with arms control, the promotion of human rights, freedom of the press and free and fair elections among other responsibilities.
It was founded with the adoption of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 and is headquartered in Vienna.
Editor: Andrew Whyte
Source: Reuters, POLITICO, Times of Malta, ERR Uudised