The government of Kazakhstan is paying an influential Washington think tank to write a series of reports and policy recommendations for the US and Kazakhstani governments concerning Astana's upcoming role as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has partnered with a smaller Washington organization, the Institute for New Democracies (IND), to create the US-Kazakhstan Task Force. The task force's goal is the preparation of policy recommendations that aim to make Astana's 2010 OSCE chairmanship as productive as possible, said Margarita Assenova, the executive director of IND.
But many observers, including some task force participants, contend the project appears to be an attempt by the Kazakhstani government to influence Astana's image in Washington. The task force has issued its first report, which one participant in the process said "could have been written by the Kazakh Embassy." Others involved in the process have described it as "a complete puff piece" and "absurd, totally pro-government," according to one person who was at the last task force meeting and who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. [To see the full text of the report, click here].
"I'm not even talking about hectoring, there's not even any criticism, there are no warts showing" in the report, said another person who was at the meeting. The source pointed to one passage in the report that reads; "Kazakhstan has emerged as a successful model of economic development in Central Asia and the secular Muslim world." According to the source; "If oligarchic crony capitalism is your idea of successful economic development, then yeah. But I don't think too many people would share that view. And that's to say nothing of the human rights part of that."
A third source, who was at the meeting, said that the entire tone of the report, not just selected sections, appeared to create an impression of Kazakhstani governmental influence. "The only way you could have accepted that kind of funding and maintained any kind of credibility . . . was to come out of the blocks with a very straightforward, honest report about the state of affairs in Kazakhstan. That way you could overcome the presumption of being suborned. But they have, in fact, reinforced the presumption of being suborned by the nature of the report," the person said.
The government of Kazakhstan paid CSIS and IND $290,000 to put together the task force, Assenova said. The funding is expected to pay for two conferences (one in Washington and one in Astana), five or six short reports and one longer report, meetings of the task force, consultants to work on publications, and travel expenses for staff members and task force members to go to the Astana conference. Task force members aren't paid, and current government officials are only on the task force as "observers, not members," Assenova said.
The CSIS webpage describing the project acknowledges that the funding comes from the Kazakhstani government: "The 'US-Kazakhstan Task Force: Shaping and Supporting Kazakhstan's OSCE Chairmanship Agenda' is a joint initiative of the CSIS New European Democracies Project and the Institute for New Democracies funded through a grant from the government of Kazakhstan."
However, in the report itself there is no acknowledgement of Kazakhstani government funding. And the report is not available from the CSIS website, only from the Institute for New Democracies website, which until recently did not mention that the funding came from Astana. On May 29, the website was updated to acknowledge the Kazakhstani government grant.
CSIS is one of the largest and most significant think tanks in Washington dealing with foreign affairs. It generally has a bipartisan reputation, and during the Bush administration it employed many leading Democratic foreign-policy experts. President Barack Obama has recruited several top officials from the think tank for his administration.
Asked whether CSIS had reservations about taking money from the same government that it was researching, Janusz Bugajski, the director of the New European Democracies Project at the think tank, said; "Not really. As CSIS, we've received money before from different governments, different sources to do projects . . . Of course, what we say is not going to be tailored to any kind of political requirements, it would be what our experts think Kazakhstan should be doing over the course of the chairmanship," he said. "This isn't unique in Washington, let's put it that way."
CSIS stands by the report, said Andrew Schwarz, the CSIS vice president for external relations. "We're bipartisan, not ideologically driven, and intellectually honest. Anyone who funds any of our studies knows that they're not funding something that is going to be a predetermined outcome," he said. "Any time an organization does studies there are going to be critics. . . . we stand by the conclusions that Janusz came to."
Assenova said the Kazakhstani government welcomes criticism and that the CSIS-IND task force is taking a cooperative rather than a confrontational approach with Astana. She argued that such an approach can be more effective. "If you expect us to be the voice of Freedom House, that's not going to be the tone. We want to be constructive here. Not because the Kazakhstan government is sponsoring the project, because these scholars here are people with their own opinions, and they're not going to be led by who is paying for the project," she said.
"We can criticize from outside and alienate the government and the public . . . or we can work to influence their policy in one way or another," she said. "Eventually, constant criticism becomes irrelevant, like an annoying fly in the air. But engagement leads to good results."
She said that if the United States does not strongly support Kazakhstan, it risks losing influence to Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. "If we are not working with them on OSCE, regardless of whether they deserved the chairmanship or didn't deserve it, if we don't work with them in OSCE then we leave them to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization . . . And is it better for us as Americans? No," she said.
Assenova acknowledged that some observers thought the first report was too soft on Kazakhstan. But the first report, she stressed, was not about the democratization process, but covered the relatively less controversial topic of Kazakhstan's strategic significance. "I heard criticism about the first paper, but we just wanted to outline why Kazakhstan is strategically important and why we care, and not necessarily . . . the democratic agenda, which will be included later. So it's a little early to judge what the project will be from one paper," she said. The next paper will be on democracy and human rights and should be released in early June, she said.
One of the task force participants agreed that the project will ultimately be judged on its future reports.
"For this product to be useful it's going to have to be credible, and the first report combined with the source of money really leads you to question whether it's credible," the source said.
"Now, they promised to do better and it's conceivable that having heard that this calls into question the reputation of these organizations, the next products will be better, and we can only hope [for] that," the source said. "Either they will do more credible work in their future reports and the Kazakhstan government will be mad because that's not what they paid for, or they will continue to do what the Kazakhs thought they paid for, in which case no one will take them seriously."
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.