As Kazakhstan ended its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and passed the baton to Lithuania on January 13, Astana celebrated what it portrayed as a job well done during a challenging year.
Kazakhstani leaders are asserting that the country’s OSCE chairmanship cemented Astana’s international standing. “The outgoing year 2010 was a time of fresh victories and achievements for us,” President Nursultan Nazarbayev told the nation in New Year greetings. “Kazakhstan realized all the objectives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairmanship.”
Nazarbayev in particular hailed Astana's hosting of the OSCE's first summit in 11 years in December, calling it “a triumph for our country and global recognition of the success of the Kazakhstani path.”
Back in January of last year, Astana set an ambitious agenda that included revitalizing the OSCE; bridging the divides threatening to tear it asunder; conflict resolution; working for peace in Afghanistan; and promoting intercultural dialogue. Setting the bar high presented demanding challenges that Kazakhstan would inevitably struggle to live up to, some observers suggested.
“Astana had a wide-ranging agenda which it wanted to pursue during its chairmanship of the OSCE, and it’s perhaps unsurprising that progress was not made in all these areas,” Alice Mummery, a Kazakhstan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told EurasiaNet.org.
Winning the chairmanship may have represented a diplomatic victory for Kazakhstan, but tangible results proved harder to achieve. “Nazarbayev scored something of a diplomatic coup in first securing the chairmanship of the OSCE and then persuading member states to attend a summit meeting in Astana. However, there is little evidence of tangible progress in tackling any of the priorities Nazarbayev highlighted at the start of the year,” Anna Walker, a Central Asia analyst at London-based Control Risks consultancy, said.
December’s OSCE summit – which Nazarbayev trumpeted as “a moment of glory for all of Kazakhstan” – exposed the very divides that Astana had hoped to heal, Walker contended. “If anything, the summit meeting demonstrated the enduring divisions within the region over the political and security challenges facing Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and exacerbated existing doubts about the organization's ability to address these challenges,” she said.
The summit descended into disarray amid disagreements over the final declaration, with conflicts in the South Caucasus the chief stumbling block. The agreement was eventually watered down and the accompanying action plan discarded altogether.
For Astana, though, the fact that it persuaded leaders to sign the declaration at all was a diplomatic victory – as was widespread praise at the summit for its smooth running of the chairmanship and its role in defusing last year's political crisis in Kyrgyzstan.
Neighboring Uzbekistan, however, used the summit to attack the OSCE’s reaction to June’s ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan as ineffective, and ongoing delays in deploying a planned OSCE police mission there have also drawn fire.
Throughout 2010 Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the South Caucasus seeking to advance peace talks, but his efforts made little headway. Given the protracted nature of the conflicts, it would have been unrealistic to expect a breakthrough, analysts say – but Astana has succeeded in forcing them onto the international community’s agenda.
“Ultimately, Kazakhstan's decision to focus on the conflicts in the Caucasus region should be seen as a positive move,” Mummery argues. “While no breakthrough occurred in Georgia's relationship with its separatist territories, or in relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the decision to include these issues in its list of priorities will have renewed the focus of the international community to this region.”
For some critics, Astana’s emphasis on security has come at the expense of attention to democratization and human rights.
Kazakhstan’s chairmanship was controversial from the outset due to grave doubts among expressed by some member states about Astana’s questionable democratic record. Detractors say Kazakhstani officials broke a pledge to conduct “grand-scale political modernization” before assuming the helm of the OSCE.
The Nazarbayev administration insists it kept the promise by implementing reforms that went into effect in 2009, but critics denounced them as cosmetic and observers say implementation has been erratic. “While the Kazakh authorities introduced some measures designed to improve their record on human rights and political freedoms ahead of assuming the chairmanship of the OSCE, implementation of this legislation can be described, at best, as patchy,” Mummery said.
“However, it was perhaps a little optimistic to hope that Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the OSCE would lead to significant progress with democratization,” Mummery continued. “Not only is the existing regime structure in Kazakhstan entrenched, there is also no real domestic incentive for the elite to introduce measures to improve political freedoms and human rights as pressure from the opposition, which is weak, is limited.”
Some observers believe Astana viewed its OSCE chairmanship as a political carte blanche to act as it desired, rather than an incentive to liberalize, an impression that was heightened when Kazakhstan embraced controversial reforms under its OSCE chairmanship. In June Nazarbayev (who was already exempt from constitutional term limits) gained sweeping powers under the Leader of the Nation law, and in the closing days of the chairmanship a contentious bid was launched to extend his rule to 2020 through a referendum.
Nazarbayev has rejected the idea, but parliament may vote to overcome his veto on January 14, and – in a final twist in Kazakhstan’s OSCE saga – presidential adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev has made it clear that the chairmanship played a role in legitimizing the idea that Nazarbayev should be first among equals under Kazakh law.
At December’s OSCE summit “the whole of the West emphasized Nursultan Nazarbayev’s exceptional and large-scale role not only in the history of Kazakhstan but also on the international stage,” he contended in the Liter newspaper on December 28. “They can criticize for show, but in their hearts each of the West’s major and responsible politicians will support the decision to hold a referendum on extending Nazarbayev’s powers.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.