President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration in Kazakhstan is hoping the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit, which opens in Astana on December 1, will enhance the Central Asian nation’s global prestige. But while Kazakhstan is already garnering praise for being an active OSCE chairman, international watchdog groups continue to criticize Astana for having a stagnant democratization record.
Among the 29 heads of state scheduled to attend the two-day summit are Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. At least 10 prime ministers will be attending, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Kazakhstan has served as the OSCE’s chair in 2010.
Participants are expected to discuss the future shape of the OSCE, conflict resolution, arms control and combating discrimination. Talks on regional security threats – including in Afghanistan, the South Caucasus and Kyrgyzstan – are also high on the agenda. In addition, Clinton will face a daunting challenge, trying to contain the fallout from embarrassing revelations contained in US diplomatic cables that were posted on the WikiLeaks website.
“The very fact that after an 11-year pause the Astana Summit was convened this year ... will help strengthen the OSCE, and consolidate trust and mutual understanding among the participating states," Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Kanat Saudabayev said in remarks quoted by an OSCE press release on November 30.
Domestically, Saudabayev has touted the meeting as a resounding endorsement of the personal stewardship of Nazarbayev. The summit is “the crowning glory of our president’s successful, effective OSCE leadership,” Suadabayev said, despite continued criticism of the country’s rights record. According to a report distributed by the Kazinform news agency November 15, he added that Nazarbayev “is among the most authoritative, respected world leaders,” echoing praise often lavished on the president at home.
The gathering is indeed a diplomatic coup for Kazakhstan, analysts say. “Holding a summit in Astana is a question of prestige, PR and international acknowledgement,” Aitolkyn Kourmanova, executive director of the Almaty-based Institute for Economic Strategies - Central Asia, told EurasiaNet.org. “It is of course a big event and it will surely end in some important decisions which will be regarded by Astana as its own personal achievement.”
Rico Isaacs, a lecturer in International Studies at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, says Astana secured the summit through a skillful performance as chairman. “The summit has to be seen as a success of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “I think that they’ve been given the summit through their own political skill in many ways, their own form of public diplomacy.”
It is also in the interests of world powers “to let Kazakhstan have its moment in the sun,” Isaacs added.
Meanwhile, Astana’s critics claim that Western states are allowing their interests in energy-rich Kazakhstan – which they value as a bastion of stability in a volatile region – to outweigh concerns about its record on democracy, human rights and press freedom, which the OSCE has a responsibility to promote under its “human dimension.”
“Questions of geopolitics and the economy today outweigh questions of the human dimension, and that’s obvious,” independent journalist Sergey Duvanov said on the sidelines of a non-governmental organization (NGO) forum in Almaty on November 23. “That’s the pragmatism of Western politics.”
International watchdogs have also raised concerns about Kazakhstan’s domestic performance. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on November 30 urging Astana’s partners to “intensify their engagement to make sure the government carries out human rights reforms.”
“The disappointing paradox is that Kazakhstan has been very active as OSCE chair, but took few if any meaningful steps to improve its own human rights record,” said Rachel Denber, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, said. “It could have led the OSCE by example, but instead let its human rights record stagnate.”
HRW urged Kazakhstan to lift restrictions on the media and freedom of assembly, as well as release journalist Ramazan Yesergepov and rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis. The two are currently serving prison sentences following what they contend were politically motivated trials. Authorities deny the accusations. [Editor's Note: Zhovtis is a board member of the Central Eurasia Project (CEP) of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in New York. EurasiaNet operates under the auspices of OSI].
Astana – which says it is democratizing gradually and denies systematic abuses – is focused on the international impact of a summit it views as a chance to improve regional security, promote non-discrimination and consolidate bridge-building efforts within the OSCE, where it has sought to mend rifts that have emerged in recent years. The internal squabbles have pitted a Russia-led faction of states against Western countries, with disputes centering on questions of democracy and human rights.
Astana has positioned itself as well-placed to tackle frozen conflicts within the former Soviet Union, and on November 30 OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut praised its active peacemaking efforts. However, this summit will test its diplomatic skills to the hilt.
Highlighting the limitations of the cumbersome OSCE decision-making process, which requires the consensus of the 56 member states, a police mission it pledged to send to southern Kyrgyzstan has not been deployed almost six months after ethnic violence erupted there.
The summit will inevitably produce a declaration, but analysts say the true test of success will be whether the gathering can produce tangible results. “If Kazakhstan can demonstrate some sort of outcomes, particularly regarding improving the security situation in Afghanistan, and possibly in southern Kyrgyzstan … I think it will be not just a PR coup, but an actual coup [for Astana],” Isaacs said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.