A geopolitical standoff, involving primarily Russia and the United States, garnered most of the attention at the early December summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Another important, though much less discussed outcome at the summit was the fact that it exposed deep rifts among Central Asian states. Hopes that Kazakhstan’s 2010 OSCE chairmanship could forge unity in a fragmented region now seem dashed. The rifts among Central Asian states are, if anything, widening, with disputes over water and energy serving as the main sources of acrimony. Existing problems have been exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis in 2010. Uzbekistan, which has long vied with Kazakhstan for regional leadership, played the role of diplomatic spoiler at the December 1-2 OSCE summit, hosted by Astana. Uzbek officials threw sand in the machinery in three ways: they criticized the OSCE’s reaction to the Kyrgyz crisis; rejected Kazakhstan’s OSCE reform proposals; and ruled out Tashkent’s involvement in collective efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan. President Islam Karimov was the only Central Asian president not to show up in Astana in person to tackle the pressing issues facing the region. Instead, Karimov dispatched his foreign minister, Vladimir Norov, who lambasted the OSCE’s reaction to June’s violence between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in southern Kyrgyzstan. Over 400 people are believed to have died in the violence. “It has to be acknowledged that, unfortunately, the OSCE and its structures played practically no positive role in warning of and neutralizing the bloody events in June this year in southern Kyrgyzstan,” Norov said. His comments were at odds with praise for Kazakhstan’s efforts offered by many delegates, including Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva. (The Kyrgyz provisional leader also hailed Karimov for temporarily accommodating 100,000 ethnic Uzbeks displaced by the violence). Analysts say the Uzbek criticism has some grounds: Although Kazakhstan helped broker a deal in April to enable the ousted president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to leave Kyrgyzstan after the collapse of his administration, Astana was less helpful to Bishkek in other respects. “Kazakhstan’s closure of the Kyrgyz border after April 2010 inflicted serious damage on Kyrgyzstan’s already ailing economy, and Kazakhstan's behavior, in general, during June was unhelpful,” Paul Quinn-Judge, the International Crisis Group’s Central Asia Project Director, told EurasiaNet.org. “Yet despite that the OSCE gave Kazakhstan a summit.” Astana’s reaction in June was low-key at best: President Nursultan Nazarbayev – who strives to cast himself as an elder statesman – made no personal intervention to end the ethnic strife. Meanwhile, a plan to dispatch an OSCE police mission to southern Kyrgyzstan remains in limbo. Quinn-Judge attributed the problem with the OSCE police mission to the organization’s cumbersome decision-making process, though a lack of leadership from the chair on this particular issue was a contributing factor. “It was not just the chair: OSCE’s surrender to Kyrgyz demands that it water down the police mission to the point of invisibility was just another example of supine behavior,” he said. “In the course of the year the OSCE seems to have reinforced its reputation as the weakest international organization, one that is much less than the sum of its parts.” Norov’s castigation of the OSCE was actually a veiled attack on another target, commentators said. “Singling out the OSCE is a way for the Uzbek government to take the shine off the prestige Kazakhstan has received for holding the OSCE chairmanship,” Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, told EurasiaNet.org. “So in one sense it is a fair statement, but the focusing on the OSCE, as opposed to the collective responsibility of all regional security bodies, allowed the Uzbeks to publicly decry Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in an effort to try and weaken Kazakhstan’s emerging status as the key Central Asian power,” Isaacs added. Isaacs also pointed to Karimov’s prickly relationship with Nazarbayev: “In personality terms, it is clear that the Karimov-Nazarbayev relationship has historically been characterized by tension and antagonism,” he said. “Any opportunity Karimov has to present his regional competitor in a less than flattering light was surely going to be taken up. This criticism of the OSCE is partly a coded attack on Kazakhstan’s chairmanship and, by default, Nazarbayev.” Norov also used the summit to repeat Tashkent’s call for an independent international investigation into Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic clashes. Tashkent suspects the objectivity of the two inquiries under way: a Kyrgyz investigation that is winding up its work; and a separate Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission chaired by Kimmo Kiljunen, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Central Asia representative. That inquiry was mandated by the Kyrgyz president and is due to report back in late January. Concerning the demand for an outside investigation, observers at the summit noted that Tashkent is exhibiting double standards: Uzbekistan has steadfastly resisted for the past five years calls for an international investigation into the shooting of protestors by security forces in the city of Andijon. Another strained relationship also surfaced at the OSCE gathering – the one between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Tajik President Imomali Rahmon complained bitterly of “obstacles and artificial barriers in the way of supplies of cargos and goods to Tajikistan” – a clear reference to Uzbekistan’s de facto blockade of Tajikistan-bound rail freight. The blockade threatens to have serious economic consequences for Dushanbe. A dispute over water rights appears to be at the heart of the Uzbek-Tajik trouble. Uzbekistan vociferously opposes the plans of Dushanbe and Bishkek to build power stations on regional rivers, saying that they will disrupt water supplies downstream, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan argue that they need to harness energy to counteract power shortages. Rahmon urged the OSCE to promote dialogue to solve Central Asia’s water, energy and environmental problems, but Kazakhstan’s chairmanship is not only ending without progress on the region’s hydropower dispute. Some analysts believe Astana’s OSCE leadership may have reinforced regional tensions, albeit unintentionally. “This lack of willingness to cooperate effectively to solve some of these wider regional issues may be down to a perceived clash of interests between states and the zero-sum attitude of some of the governing elites,” Isaacs said. “It seems the OSCE chairmanship has tended to crystallize these fault lines – especially with regards to Uzbekistan’s lack of willingness to cooperate with its neighbors.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.