When Kazakhstan was named 2010 chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Astana pledged to undertake wide-ranging political reforms. But now, just over six months before Kazakhstan takes over the OSCE's helm, US lawmakers and diplomats are voicing concern that Astana is not serious about fulfilling its commitments.
Controversy has swirled around Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the OSCE since President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration first expressed interest in guiding the organization. Many regional experts continue to assert that Kazakhstan does not adequately represent the OSCE's democratic values, and therefore does not deserve to chair the organization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In designating Kazakhstan the 2010 OSCE chair, US and European Union leaders appeared to take political and economic factors into account. Kazakhstan has abundant natural resources, and the country has figured prominently in US and EU plans to construct an energy export network that operates beyond Russia's control. Ultimately, the necessity of Kazakhstani participation in Western-backed energy export schemes likely counterbalanced concerns about Astana's political practices.
Kazakhstan's commitment to reforms was the subject of a May 12 hearing in Washington, DC, convened by the US Helsinki Commission. The hearings seemed to highlight the energy factor in the US approach toward Kazakhstan, as American lawmakers tended to be much tougher on Kazakhstan than a US diplomat who testified.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs George Krol said that Kazakhstan's progress toward fulfilling reform promises has been uneven. But he tried to accentuate the positive, citing Astana's passage of a new election legislation in early 2009. "While not fully addressing its commitments, this legislation marks a step forward on Kazakhstan's democratic reforms," Krol said.
Krol described how the country has also made it somewhat easier for political parties to register (decreasing the number of required members from 50,000 to 40,000, for example) and made it easier for media companies to register. In April, the presidential human rights commission approved a National Human Rights Action Plan for 2009-2012. The plan would liberalize further liberalize laws on elections, media and political parties.
But there are several troubling developments, Krol admitted. A media law passed in April stands to "restrict freedom of expression via the internet," and goes against the pledges it has made to the OSCE, Krol said. He also said the United States has "concerns" about the harassment of the media. "More than 60 defamation lawsuits targeted six independent news outlets and their reporters last year," he said, adding that a newsweekly was forced to close because it was heavily fined for insulting a member of parliament, and several journalists have been attacked and opposition websites blocked.
On May 13, independent web-based journalists in Kazakhstan staged a strike to draw attention to the restrictive conditions under which they work.
Members of Congress who conducted the hearing were more critical. The commission's chairman, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, highlighted statements made by top Kazakhstani officials that he called troubling. For example, Cardin recited comments in which the speaker of Kazakhstan's upper house of parliament reportedly said that the OSCE's reform blueprint "can not be taken into account fully due to the specifics of our country." Cardin also noted that Nazarbayev had reportedly asserted that Kazakhstan "can not move faster than [its] giant neighbors Russia and China."
"It appears, therefore, that Kazakhstan does not intend to fully implement reforms recommended by the OSCE before taking charge of the organization," Cardin said.
Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, sought to highlight an authoritarian kink in Kazakhstan's democratic system, pointing out that the president's political party now enjoys a virtual monopoly on seats in parliament. He also criticized Kazakhstan for restricting religious freedom. "Kazakhstan is not there yet," Smith said flatly, referring to Astana's commitment to democratization. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kazakhstan's ambassador to Washington, Erlan Idrissov, contested some of the criticism in his testimony. Attempting to refute Smith's comments on religious freedom, Idrissov said that Christian missionaries were welcome in Kazakhstan. "Missionary activity in Kazakhstan is free," he said. "We're happy they're with us and form part of our coherent society," he said.
Nazarbayev's criticism was taken out of context, he added, explaining that efforts perceived as being restrictive of religious activity were designed solely to combat fundamentalist Islamists "from the South." In addition, he said that election legislation is being reformed to lower the bar for opposition parties to enter parliament. At the same time, he suggested that Nazarbayev's administration should not take the blame for the lack of opposition representation in parliament, alleging that opposition parties were unpopular and disorganized.
Other witnesses at the hearing vigorously disputed Idrissov's depiction of the opposition. Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said that the political playing-field in Kazakhstan was uneven, and he called on the government to improve opposition access to mass media - not just during the election season. He also pointed out that opposition parties did not have the same access to voter lists that the ruling party did. Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University, added that Kazakhstan's judicial system is not independent enough for a real opposition movement to develop.
Addressing questions on Kazakhstan's reform intentions, Idrissov claimed that comments made by Kazakhstani leaders had been taken out of context. "We will stick to our commitments," Idrissov said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.