An American task force funded by the government of Kazakhstan to prepare a series of reports about the Central Asian country's upcoming OSCE chairmanship has completed its final report, which puts forth a generally positive interpretation of the country's controversial human rights record.
The US-Kazakhstan OSCE Task Force was managed by one of the Washington's leading foreign policy think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as a smaller affiliated group, the Institute for New Democracies. The government of Kazakhstan paid $290,000 for the task force, raising questions about whether it would be impartial in its analysis and recommendations.
The latest report, titled Kazakhstan and the OSCE Human Dimension, focused on two challenges that Kazakhstan is expected to face during its 2010 tenure as OSCE chair. The first challenge concerns the future of the oft-criticized Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the second touches on Kazakhstan's own domestic democratization process.
"Kazakhstan has made a commitment to defend the mission and mandate of ODIHR," the report stated. ODIHR election monitoring has come under increasing pressure from Russia and other authoritarian-minded for Soviet states in recent years. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The report also stated that "Kazakhstan has committed itself to making progress in systemic reforms by democratizing its political system."
Kazakhstan's has a mixed record on democratization and human rights - two pillars of the OSCE's mission - and human rights advocates argue that Kazakhstan has failed to fulfill promises it made to liberalize its political system as a condition of becoming chair of the group.
But Kazakhstan has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to convince Washington's foreign policy establishment that it is in fact worthy of leading the OSCE, including hiring lobbyists and twice paying think tanks to produce reports on the country. Last year, Astana also paid the Central Asia - Caucasus Institute to write three reports, according to ABC news. [For additional information, click here].
In the recommendations section of the new task force report, there are four proposals for the OSCE and one for Kazakhstan: "Continue and enhance efforts to democratize Kazakh society, ensure respect for human rights and support political pluralism by implementing the National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2012 and the Concept of Legal Policy of Kazakhstan." One outside expert, who asked not to be named, said the recommendation "is so general as to be meaningless."
That source said that while the report was for the most part factually correct, it nevertheless left out important context that makes Kazakhstan's progress seem less impressive. For example, in describing a recent reform of the law on political parties, the report noted that now, only 40,000 members are required to form a party, rather than the 50,000 previously. "But that fails to mention that until 2002 you only needed 1,500" members," the source said.
The report was formally introduced at a December 3 event at CSIS's office in Washington. While the commitments made by Kazakhstan - including promises to liberalize laws on elections, political parties and the media - have been "only partially fulfilled," overall the country is "going in the right direction," said Margarita Assenova, the head of the Institute for New Democracies.
"The Madrid commitments made two years ago were only partially fulfilled by Kazakhstan," Assenova said. "The reasons are many and we can hear them and read about them. Partially, in my opinion and my assessment, [one reason] is the economic crisis that hit exactly at that moment. Kazakhstan has a very particular sensitivity to stability in the society and how much social and political change is going to lead to the destabilizing of the society. This is not an excuse; I'm offering an explanation. I hear from diplomats in the region, too, that that was the reason for delaying the fulfillment of all the commitments that were made in Madrid. But I also hear there is a plan ... to revisit and fully implement these commitments."
Worries about instability are not a valid reason for Kazakhstan to delay reforms, said Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University. "Even if that is the case, if what they're worried about is 'instability,' that means the possibility that the government would lose power. And that's what happens in democratic societies," he said.
"Of course there is a lot of criticism regarding the internet law and media freedom, and we hear this and we mention it in our meetings because it is very important," Assenova added. "But most important is that Kazakhstan is going in the right direction." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The task force's reports also dealt with the OSCE's economic and security missions. Another participant in the task force, Vladimir Socor, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, said that there were several opportunities for Kazakhstan to make positive movements toward improving the OSCE's performance of its security functions. In particular, Socor said, the OSCE's role in the unresolved conflicts in Transdniestria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh is constrained by the fact that Russia is a party to three of those conflicts and, like all OSCE members, has veto power over OSCE actions.
While Kazakhstan can not change that fact, it can use its chairmanship to call attention to several important issues, including the ethnic cleansing that has resulted from those conflicts, the principle of territorial integrity and the need to break the de facto Russian monopoly on peace-keeping in those conflicts. Socor also said Kazakhstan should lead the OSCE to take a more active role in Ukraine's security, including by establishing a monitoring mission on the Crimean peninsula, which has been the source of some Russian-Ukrainian tension.
Kazakhstan's ambassador in Washington, Erlan Idrissov, also participated in the meeting, and said he was pleased with the task force's report. He said that Kazakhstan wanted to add Afghanistan to the OSCE's areas of focus during its chairmanship. "As a country from the region, we believe the OSCE has quite a potential to be part of the decision-makers and contributors to the Afghan rehabilitation on a long-term basis. This is our goal," he said.
He also touched on the issue of a possible OSCE summit to be held in Kazakhstan in 2010, which Astana wants, but which many western OSCE governments are wary of. Other OSCE governments, including the United States, want to be sure that something will be accomplished at the summit and that it will not simply be a feather in the cap of Kazakhstan's government. At the recent Ministerial Council meeting in Athens, the OSCE issued a statement saying that it "note[d] with interest its proposal to hold an OSCE summit in 2010" but said that it "would require adequate preparation in terms of substance and modalities." The statement said the OSCE's permanent council would explore those questions.
Idrissov said Kazakhstan welcomed that process. "Of course we are aware that to have the summit one must have absolutely clear mind with regard to what items will be on the table for the summit participants," he said. "We are very hopeful that this will happen."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.