"This corridor needs to be free! Please turn off your flashes," a North Macedonian press officer hectically screamed as more and more journalists and cameras began arriving in the already packed press room where Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was about to hold his press conference.
His presence alone at the annual ministerial conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, caused friction before the conference even started, leading to a boycott of the event by some members of the organization.
Lavrov's visit causes friction before and during OSCE meeting
Poland and the Baltic countries refused to attend the gathering, arguing it was "morally wrong" to sit at a table "with an aggressor who is committing genocide, full aggression against Ukraine," as Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna put it. Ukraine, understandably, stayed away as well.
With members from North America, Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Austria-based OSCE was founded during the Cold War to ease tensions and engage Communist and Western powers.
But now, it is paralyzed by Russia's ongoing use of the veto held by each member country. North Macedonia, the current OSCE chair, said Lavrov had been invited in an attempt to end the deadlock and secure the organization's survival.
OSCE paralyzed because of Russia
But the Russian diplomat shrugged off such concerns, as well as all the criticism leveled against his country in Skopje. In his press conference, Lavrov repeated platitudinous Russian complaints about the West in general, and also reiterated false accusations leveled against Ukraine and its supporters.
The Russian diplomat also repeatedly criticized the OSCE itself in Skopje, calling it an appendage of NATO and the European Union, and questioning whether it still made sense to revitalize it. Still, when asked by DW whether Russia was planning to leave the OSCE, he refused to give a clear answer.
Russia doesn't care about OSCE's future
"I said I was indifferent to the outcome of the current session of the OSCE," Lavrov said. Pressed further to answer the question, he deflected by questioning the journalistic integrity of the reporter.
"I know that in Germany, it's fine for government members to tell journalists what they should write, but we treat our journalists with more respect," Lavrov said.
Lavrov's appearance in Skopje had one big aim, said Mikhail Komin, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia wants to use every opportunity "to demonstrate that there is no international isolation, that Russia is not in isolation," he told DW.
Russia's target: Opinion in the Global South
"That's why they took part in the G20 or in the UN General Assembly," added Komin. Part of that strategy is also to maintain the ongoing competition between Ukraine and Russia — "the fight for the votes from the Global South countries," as he described it.
In Skopje, the Russian Foreign Ministry was eager to publish photos of every bilateral meeting Lavrov had held — even brief exchanges. Encounters with foreign ministers from Hungary, Kazakhstan or Armenia were clearly meant to signal they are still nations interested in what Russia has to say.
"An optical illusion," a senior Western diplomat told DW, asking that his name not be revealed so that he could speak candidly. "Of course, whoever would be willing to meet him, I'm sure he would plaster the room with the photos of their handshake. Because frankly, almost the entire room was unwilling to meet with him."
The diplomat pointed to the fact that there were very few ministers around when Lavrov delivered his speech at the gathering. He was speaking "to a room of more junior diplomats" who were just taking notes to keep record of what was being said.
In addition, the source told DW that — unlike some countries further away in Africa and Latin America — OSCE members such as Kazakhstan or Armenia understand full well that this is "an imperial war of conquest that Russia is waging against Ukraine. They have to be cautious in what they say. They don't want to provoke the wrath of their big neighbor."
Did Lavrov get what he wanted?
Despite all of that, Lavrov seemed to get what he had come for during his visit to North Macedonia — itself a NATO country. He delivered a speech at a big international gathering, hosted a press conference with a room full of reporters and got glossy photos of him meeting with friendly colleagues.
Was it worth it? In the end, OSCE members, including Russia, agreed to appoint Malta as the new chair of the organization and to extend the mandates of top positions at the organization. But it still has no budget — a rather meager outcome, it would seem.
"We have just witnessed another example of this ideological clash of competing narratives at the meeting in Skopje," Jamie Shea, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, told DW.
Can the OSCE bounce back?
Nevertheless, Shea argued that even though the OSCE has been sidelined in the current European security debate, it's still important for it to keep going.
"One day the war in Ukraine will end, and Russia and the West will need to reduce tensions, negotiate new arms control agreements and put European security architecture back together," Shea said. "The OSCE will come back as the forum where this bridge building will need to take place."
Edited by: Jon Shelton