As Kazakhstan prepares to assume the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, US diplomats are exerting pressure on Astana to enact promised reforms.
Kazakhstan's laws on media, elections and political parties continue to "fall short of OSCE standards," Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, asserted in written testimony submitted for a hearing October 28 of the US Helsinki Commission. Gordon also pointed out in his testimony that "Kazakhstan has not held an election that the OSCE has deemed fully to have met OSCE commitments and international standards."
Both Gordon and Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called attention to the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a human rights activist convicted in September for vehicular manslaughter. The trial was allegedly marred by procedural violations. Even so, a Kazakhstani judge rejected an appeal of the conviction. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Posner also said he was concerned about the case of a labor rights activist from Kyrgyzstan who allegedly faced harassment after she testified about the plight of Kyrgyz labor migrants in Kazakhstan at an OSCE meeting in Warsaw. "Her taxi was stopped en route from the Almaty airport on her way to Kyrgyzstan. It was driven to a deserted location, where she was threatened with physical attack and rape if she continues to speak out on migrant labor issues or even report the harassment that had just taken place," Posner said in his written testimony. "We are deeply disturbed" by the report, he added.
Kazakhstan has proposed the idea of holding a summit during its chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010, in which the heads of state of all the OSCE member states would gather in Kazakhstan.
The US Helsinki Commission's chair, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said the Obama administration and the State Department has given short shrift to human rights, adding that the issue of the OSCE summit in Kazakhstan presented an opportunity for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights.
"There are some things we thought would have been addressed by now and have not been addressed . . . . I would hope the position of the Obama administration would be, there should be no summit just for the purpose of taking photographs. But if we can use the US participation to advance the OSCE agenda . . . . that presents an opportunity that would really underscore the priorities of our nation and our participation in the OSCE," Cardin said.
Gordon said he agreed with Cardin. "You hit the nail on the head. It's about substance: If a summit can accomplish something, particularly in the core areas of the OSCE, including human rights, then there should be a summit. But we're not interested in having a summit just to allow somebody to have a summit or to waste anybody's time," he said.
"We have an opportunity now . . . to say, the notion of having a summit is really dependent on making sure that you live up to the expectations as the leader in this process," Posner added.
Posner also called attention to the use of child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton sector, as well as the arrest and conviction of environmental activist Andrei Zatoka in Turkmenistan.
"In Uzbekistan, despite some relatively promising developments last year with child labor in the cotton sector, the government again this year has mobilized children to take part in this year's harvest. That is an issue we are attentive to," he said. Of Zatoka's case, Posner said that "the circumstances surrounding his arrest are troubling." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.