At a wee-hours news conference December 3 in Astana, Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, tried to put a positive spin on what turned out to be a loopy Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit. But no matter how much Nazarbayev pushed the idea that the 56-member organization had achieved consensus, the proceedings on the summit's final day left an impression of profound, perhaps irreconcilable differences within the OSCE.
Ironically, philosophical differences over conflict-resolution methods sent the summit tumbling out of control. Disputes over terminology concerning conflicts within the OSCE sphere -- involving Georgia and the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; Nagorno-Karabakh; and Moldova's separatist territory of Transdniester -- were the greatest stumbling block in the way of formulating an OSCE declaration. Eventually, the watered-down version of the Astana Declaration did not contain an action plan that the United States had pushed hard for. Instead of outlining clear steps that the OSCE could take to reinvigorate its activities, the final declaration merely reiterated a need to foster basic and ill-defined democratization principles.
It took hours of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to produce even a watered-down final declaration. The summit had been scheduled to end at about midday on December 2. The wrangling forced President Nazarbayev to postpone his closing news conference for about half-a-day.
When he finally did appear before journalists after midnight, Nazarbayev did not try to hide the fact that participating states had not always seen eye to eye. "The fact that I am talking to you at 01:00 Astana time probably tells you that it was not easy to achieve consensus," he said. "There were particular objections over protracted conflicts -- different desires, different opinions. I consider that, despite this, we have achieved consensus." The OSCE's work in recent years has been marked by squabbles between Western member states and former Soviet republics over the pace and scope of democratization.
The Kazakhstani leader, who had hoped a successful summit would enhance his Central Asian nation's global profile, went on to cast the gathering as "a historic success that reflects the hopes of our peoples for a more secure future."
The diplomatic breakdown earlier in the day, however, raised questions about the OSCE's future viability.
Embarrassing revelations contained in US diplomatic cables, and publicized in recent days by the WikiLeaks website, appear to have hampered the ability of summit participants, in particular the United States and Russia, to work out their differences.
Russian officials were reportedly irate after the publication of one US diplomatic cable, in which a US diplomat in Tbilisi expressed the belief that Georgia was dragged into the war with Russia. That impression contradicted the conclusions of a probe commissioned by the European Union that placed greater blame on Georgia for starting the conflict.
The Kremlin also was miffed by cables that portrayed Russia as a "mafia state," and which derided Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev as "Batman and Robin." One cable also described Putin as an "alpha-dog."
Despite featuring in the Wikileaks documents himself, Kazakh Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Kanat Saudabayev downplayed the summit controversy as "troubles which happen from time to time in our work." He also insisted that the WikiLeaks cables would not damage Astana's relationship with Washington.
The dispute over conflict resolution overshadowed differences on political freedoms and human rights. US and EU representatives accused some member states of shortcomings in these areas. A commitment to upholding these rights and freedoms and stipulating that they are not solely the internal affair of member states remained in the final document.
Kazakhstan, which is the OSCE chair in 2010, had portrayed itself as a state that could bridge divides within the organization and tackle conflicts within the Soviet Union. Accordingly, some observers interpreted the summit's result as a blow to Astana's image.
However, other commentators argued that, despite the brinksmanship and the watered-down nature of the final declaration, Kazakhstan could still count the summit as an image-booster. Domestically, the gathering was played up in the press and appeared to play well with the public.
Hosting such a high-level meeting also should help secure Kazakhstan's position as a powerful regional player, argued Alice Mummery, a Kazakhstan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. "As one of the largest summits to be held in the Central Asian region, it will serve to reinforce the importance of Kazakhstan to political, security andeconomic policy making in the Central Asian region," Mummery told EurasiaNet.org.
The boost may not be long-lasting and have "only [a] limited impact on Kazakhstan's international image in the long-term," she added.
Any disappointment with the outcome might be attributed to the high expectations that Kazakhstan had placed in the summit, where it had hoped for a real diplomatic breakthrough that ultimately did not happen. "There will be disappointment among diplomats that no concrete outcome was achieved at the summit," Mummery concluded. "But it was, in a sense, over-optimistic to think that a summit could lead to an agreement on a wide-ranging agenda in such a short space of time. Diplomats will engage in face-saving exercise after the summit, but it is unfair to attach failure in this area to the Kazakh hosts."
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.