Not too long ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was held in the highest regard by President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration, in large part because Astana chaired the group in 2010. Now, the OSCE is an object of Kazakhstan’s contempt.
In the wake of last December’s deadly clashes in and around the western Kazakhstani city of Zhanaozen, critics contend that Nazarbayev’s administration has grown noticeably less tolerant of political dissent. As the foremost vehicle for democratization in Europe and Eurasia, the OSCE has drawn the ire of Kazakhstani leaders over the Vienna-based institution’s efforts to monitor elections and promote basic civil rights.
A recent tongue-lashing meted out by Nazarbayev underscored the shift in Astana’s attitude. “The ship called the OSCE is still lurching to one side,” Nazarbayev said on March 2 – a pointed sally delivered in a speech to Astana’s diplomatic corps.
Such talk is a far cry from Nazarbayev’s silver-tongued praise during Kazakhstan’s chairmanship, a diplomatic dream for which Astana lobbied long and hard. The chairmanship ended with Nazarbayev triumphantly hosting an OSCE summit, which he called “a great honor” that “increases our country’s authority in the world.”
Now his schmoozing with the OSCE is over. Instead, Nazarbayev seems to prefer lambasting election observer missions as used “for pressure by one group of countries on another.” Questioning a “mythical unconformity with standards of some sort,” he threatened in his early March speech to bar future OSCE observer missions. That threat came just days before Russia’s election chief accused presidential election monitors of espionage.
In January, Nazarbayev threatened to ban “experts hired by someone who criticize our elections” after OSCE observers found Kazakhstan’s parliamentary vote (which saw three pro-presidential parties and no opposition forces enter parliament) short of democratic standards.
“The Kazakh leadership very much sees itself treading its own unique path to democracy and this does not necessarily correlate with OSCE norms of democracy,” Rico Isaacs, an expert on Kazakhtani affairs at the UK's Oxford Brookes University, told EurasiaNet.org.
While officials in Astana tout the “Kazakhstani path,” critics view the term as shorthand for a political process that maintains a democratic veneer for international consumption, but which has many authoritarian components.
Nazarbayev may have interpreted the OSCE chairmanship as tacit approval for his policies, argues IHS Global Insight analyst Lilit Gevorgyan. His misreading of the OSCE’s intent may be playing a significant factor in Kazakhstan’s diplomatic stance today.
“When Kazakhstan landed the OSCE chairmanship in 2010 its president did not just hope to give a facelift to the country,” Gevorgyan told EurasiaNet.org. “Nazarbayev perhaps also assumed that the organization had tacitly approved his course for [the] economic and political model of development in Kazakhstan,” Gevorgyan continued. “Nazarbayev’s current frustration comes from the OSCE’s reluctance to see his achievements in the same way as the Kazakh president sees himself.”
With nationwide elections not now due until the 2016 presidential vote, “the Kazakh leadership currently does not need the approval of the OSCE,” added Isaacs. Kazakhstan has never held a vote deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
Nazarbayev’s anti-OSCE rhetoric is helping stoke concern among domestic critics that Astana is embracing a harder line against dissent amid arrests of opposition leaders and civil society activists.
The security services have been “given a green light to neutralize political activists and organizations critical of the authorities,” asserted activist Murat Tungishbayev, who has been interrogated under the Zhanaozen investigation.
Officials deny any crackdown, but concerns have been raised over several cases, including those against Alga! party leader Vladimir Kozlov and activists Serik Sapargali, Ayzhangul Amirova, Zhanbolat Mamay and Bolat Atambayev. They are accused of “inciting social discord” that sparked violence in Zhanaozen and facing 12 years imprisonment. A further 43 demonstrators face unrest-related charges, against only five police officers.
In a separate case, OSDP Azat party leaders Bolat Abilov and Amirzhan Kosanov are behind bars, jailed for 15 days on February 25 for organizing an unsanctioned rally in Almaty.
Vzglyad newspaper editor Igor Vinyavskiy is in jail too, accused of anti-constitutional activities in 2010. Suspicions that Vinyavskiy’s case is retribution for his paper’s Zhanaozen reporting were fuelled by vitriolic remarks made by presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev in the Liter daily on February 23. Yertysbayev accused Kozlov and Vinyavskiy of being part of a conspiracy, funded by Mukhtar Ablyazov -- a prominent critic of Nazarbayev’s -- that aims to carry out “a colored revolution” in Kazakhstan. Ablyazov, who vigorously denies Yertysbayev’s allegations, is now a fugitive from British justice in a London court battle with a Kazakh bank.
Kazakhstan’s tense political climate has not passed unnoticed at the OSCE: last month at a meeting of the Permanent Council, the United States expressed concern about freedom of expression and urged Kazakhstan “to ensure that all investigations are conducted transparently, respecting fundamental rights.” Kozlov and Vinyavskiy are described as “political prisoners” by the Parliamentary Assembly’s Human Rights Committee head.
Ultimately, realpolitik may temper Western reaction to Kazakhstan’s political crackdown and to Nazarbayev’s anti-OSCE stance.
“These [Western] international actors will want to find some kind of rapprochement with the Kazakh leadership – Kazakhstan remains far too important in geo-strategic terms for the West,” Isaacs said.
Western leaders understand that “stern statements by the West could alienate Kazakhstan,” said Gevorgyan. “While the West feels the obligation of highlighting the problems that they see with the Kazakh political system, at the same time they understand that the Central Asian republic could opt for partnerships with China and Russia, whose relations do not come with strings attached.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.