Kazakhstan has launched its 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe with ambitious pledges to bridge divides between East and West and to play a key role in promoting tolerance and conflict resolution. At the same time, Astana also threw down the gauntlet to the 56-member organization by calling its current trajectory into question and urging it to rise to the challenges of the 21st century.
As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Permanent Council met in Vienna on January 14, two weeks after Kazakhstan took over the rotating chairmanship, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev led calls for the organization to embrace change and to move with the times.
"A defining question for the future of the OSCE is whether it will be able to take shape as a structure recognizing the diversity of the world of the 21st century or remain an organization fragmented into blocs, in which the traditional West stands aloof from the space east of Vienna," Nazarbayev told delegates in a video address broadcast to the Permanent Council.
Kazakhstan, home to 140 ethnic groups and 40 religious confessions, prides itself on maintaining ethnic harmony at home. As the first former Soviet state and the first predominantly Muslim country to chair the OSCE, Astana has promoted itself as ideally placed to bridge divides between East and West and between the Muslim and Christian worlds.
Accusing the West of harboring stereotypes, Nazarbayev laid the onus firmly on the OSCE's western members to bridge the gap.
"Stereotypes about former Soviet republics continue to dominate the consciousness of some of our OSCE partners, although we have already been integrating into the international democratic community for almost two decades," he commented in his video address.
Kazakhstan has promoted itself as a joint chairman of the OSCE for all former Soviet states, but Nazarbayev's remarks may fuel concern among some members that a Russia-led bloc is seeking to undermine the OSCE's democracy-promoting agenda.
Astana's chairmanship has long been controversial due to questions over its own commitment to democracy: Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by the OSCE's observers from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The last parliamentary election in 2007 resulted in a single-party parliament when only President Nazarbayev's ruling Nur Otan party won seats in the lower house. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Ahead of its chairmanship, Astana reformed political and media legislation, but some observers accuse it of paying lip service to democracy on the international stage while suppressing political freedoms at home. "[N]aturally we will be glad of peace initiatives and the promotion of democracy and other OSCE ideals, but the main testing ground for all this is our own country," the Delovaya Nedelya weekly newspaper commented acerbically the day after the Permanent Council meeting.
The Kazakh government counters that it is fully committed to the OSCE's core values.
As Nazarbayev's video address was broadcast to the session, a small group of protestors gathered outside to draw attention to political and media freedoms in Kazakhstan. "Nazarbayev, Stop Persecuting Journalists and Human Rights Activists" read one placard.
Others drew attention to the jailing of Kazakhstan's most prominent human rights activist, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, on manslaughter charges following a trial marred by procedural violations; to the corruption trial of a former head of the Kazatomprom state nuclear company, Mukhtar Dzhakishev; and to the imprisonment of journalist Ramazan Yesergepov on charges of revealing state secrets. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Ironically, had the protestors undertaken a similar action in Kazakhstan, laws restricting the right to public assembly would have led most likely to their arrest.
Astana, whose motto for the OSCE chairmanship is "trust, tradition, transparency and tolerance," is determined to set aside controversy over its record on political freedoms and human rights and focus on its own agenda priorities for the chairmanship: the reconstruction of Afghanistan; fighting terrorism, the narcotics trade and human trafficking; promoting gender equality and intercultural dialogue; and resolving protracted conflicts.
With that last aim in mind, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev has announced plans for a peace-brokering mission to the South Caucasus, where the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved and where Russia and Georgia went to war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Keen to score diplomatic victories during the chairmanship, Astana is also lobbying to host an OSCE summit later this year. The organization has not held a summit for a decade and a meeting in the Kazakh capital would be a diplomatic coup for Nazarbayev, who told the Permanent Council that the 10-year hiatus since the last summit proved that "the consensual basis of the organization is, if not in a state of crisis, then in an extremely stagnant state."
The months ahead may witness some stormy debates between member states in Vienna as Kazakhstan voices frank criticism of the OSCE while making a commitment to usher in change. Astana's efforts to reinvigorate the organization are likely to test its diplomatic skills to the limit.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.