The OSCE Remains Divided over Kazakhstan's Chairmanship Bid
Now that constitutional amendments are in force and a new legislature in place, Kazakhstan is focusing on attaining a long-held goal: chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. Kazakhstan's democratization record has come under strong criticism this year, but Astana argues that past performance is not an accurate indicator of the country's future results as the OSCE chair.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev recently dispatched one of his close aides to OSCE headquarters in Vienna to present Kazakhstan's position. A decision by the OSCE 56 member states is expected to be made at a meeting in Madrid in late November. The OSCE originally had been expected to decide the matter in late 2006, but the organization elected to defer an assessment to give Astana more time to improve its stained democracy and human rights record. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. One year later there is still no consensus within the organization as to whether Kazakhstan is ready to assume the leadership position.
On September 20, Kazakhstan's State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev addressed the OSCE's Permanent Council, striving to bolster Astana's case. Nazarbayev's emissary devoted the larger part of his 30-minute speech to dismissing criticism prompted by the controversial changes brought to Kazakhstan's constitution in May, and by the disputed early parliamentary polls that followed in August. Last month's election saw opposition parties shut out from representation in the 107-member Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Western election monitors, including a mission from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, said the parliamentary voting failed to meet international standards. Kazakhstani opposition parties, meanwhile, accused authorities of manipulating the campaign environment. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While admitting that the polls were "not ideal," Saudabayev asserted before the OSCE's Permanent Council that the election campaign was "the most transparent, the most open, and the fairest Kazakhstan ever had since gaining independence." The opposition should blame its electoral defeat not on the government, but on the incompetence and lack of charisma of its leaders, he said in substance.
Addressing reporters after the session, Saudabayev said he was confident the OSCE would endorse Astana's chairmanship bid. Despite this expression of optimism, Kazakhstan's chances look pretty slim.
US Charge d'Affaires Kyle Scott reminded Saudabayev that "any country applying for the chairmanship of the OSCE must exemplify the principles of the organization."
"It is important for this organization, as well as for Kazakhstan, that it demonstrate fully this commitment by taking actions to advance democratic reforms, including passing election laws that comply with OSCE standards and implementing these in practice, direct election of local authorities, and an easing of registration requirements for political parties," Scott said.
Speaking on behalf of the European Union, the Portuguese representative voiced similar concerns, and urged Kazakh authorities "to ensure that opposition parties are given a public voice in the decision-making processes" and to make "tangible steps" in the protection and promotion of human rights, freedom of the media and strengthening of civil society. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Already last year the EU had warned that awarding Kazakhstan the OSCE's chairmanship could not come "at the expense of the organization's core values."
Astana is not isolated, though. It can count of the unconditional support of Russia and other Central Asian nations. Echoing Russia's claims that the OSCE pursues a double-standard on democratization, Saudabayev told reporters in Vienna that giving the chairmanship to his country would help convince critics of the organization that it is not made of "first-class and second-class" members.
It is an open secret that Moscow wants to make significant changes in the way the OSCE operates, and that the Kremlin hopes Kazakhstan's gaining the chair in 2009 would provide a significant boost to the Kremlin's plans. Russia has long been critical of the Warsaw-based ODIHR, which is responsible for monitoring elections and promoting democratization. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, ODIHR election observer missions have criticized most ballots that have taken place in CIS states as failing to meet international standards. In addition, those assessments have often been at odds with the observations of CIS monitoring missions, which tend not to find fault with the electoral processes in Central Asia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Moscow is seeking to place ODIHR under the direct supervision of the OSCE Permanent Council, which would have to approve all of the office's election reports. Since all decisions at the OSCE are achieved through consensus, this would effectively give Russia and other CIS countries a veto over ODIHR's election assessments.
During his speech in Vienna, Saudabayev told Permanent Council members that Kazakhstan, as a chair, would strengthen the OSCE by functioning as a bridge-builder between the West and the Islamic world, and between "the principles of democracy and those of realpolitik."
In comments that sounded as an attempt to placate the United States, which would like the OSCE to play a greater security role in Afghanistan, Saudabayev said Astana viewed long-term security in that country as a priority item of its foreign policy agenda. Kazakhstan "could become one of the main vehicles to implement initiatives aimed at enhancing the role of the [organization] in the post-conflict settlement process," Saudabayev said.
Whether Saudabayev's appearance will help tip the scales in Kazakhstan's favor remains uncertain.
Over the summer, Western media reports quoted purported Kazakh security documents indicating that Astana attempted to sway ODIHR observers during the 2005 presidential ballot. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Although Kazakh officials have described the documents as fake, the reports raised many eyebrows at the OSCE Vienna headquarters.
There seems to be an agreement among non-CIS participating states that, provided Kazakhstan can demonstrate its strong commitment to OSCE values, Astana should be offered to lead the organization not in 2009, but in 2011.
Already on December 4 of last year, Russia's Vremya Novostei daily reported that such a proposal had been made a few days earlier by the OSCE's then-chairman-in-office, Belgium Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, at a meeting with Kazakhstani officials in Minsk.
The United States also supports the idea of offering Astana the OSCE chair in 2011 if it shows more commitment to democracy. Kazakhstan being the only country that has applied for chairmanship in 2009, a negative decision at the Madrid ministerial council would probably make Greece -- which has applied for 2010 or 2011 -- the next candidate in line.
But for that to happen, the OSCE would have to secure the consent of Russia and other Central Asian states. Otherwise, further turmoil might await the organization as Finland prepares to take over its chairmanship from Spain.
Media reaction in Kazakhstan remains upbeat. A commentary published in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda on September 21 lauded Saudabayev's performance in Vienna, and went on to assert that "all 56 member states are not against our country's chairmanship."
Other media reports in the CIS alleged that Kazakhstan's recent trouble with a consortium of oil companies, headed by the Italian conglomerate ENI SpA, might be related to the OSCE chair issue. The Kazakhstani government and the ENI-led consortium continue to haggle over the development of the Kashagan oil field. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some published accounts suggest that Astana's concerns about Kashagan could dissipate if Italy became a strong supporter of Kazakhstan's OSCE 2009 bid. "Astana wants Rome's support," said a late August commentary published in Vremya Novostei. "Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration probably believes that Italy's support could influence the EU's joint position."
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