Kazakhstan Blows Its OSCE Leadership

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by Joshua Foust on 9/6/2009 · 9 comments

This blog has been divided over the issue of Kazakhstan’s impending OSCE chairmanship—I’ve been in favor, while my esteemed co-blogger Michael has been against. In 2007, when the decision was being made, I had—naively, it turns out—expressed hope that the responsibility of chairing the OSCE would inspire Kazakhstan’s government, primarily good old Uncle Nazzy, to clean up its act.

There’s the obvious show trial—regardless of his actual crimes—of Rakhat Aliyev, the obvious show trial—regardless of his actual crimes—of Mukhtar Dzhakishev, and many other repressive political moves as well. This is to say nothing of the terrible new religion law.

Now we have a new reason to condemn Kazakhstan’s domestic political behavior: Yevgeny Zhovtis. As Robert Amsterdam described it, Zhovtis actually cannot receive a fair trial, given the suspicious circumstances of his crime, arrest, and the structure of the Kazakh judicial system (Zhovtis is part of a growing trend of intimidation against Kazakh human rights activists). Human Rights Watch immediately condemned Zhovtis’ trial as blanketly unfair and pretty obviously rigged.

Zhovtis’ lawyers, too, seem pretty shocked at how blatant it was:

The shell shocked defense lawyers submitted a motion to recuse the judge, whose behavior they said obviously displayed that he did not have an impartial standing. The judge left the room for just a few minutes, only to return to say that the defense does not have this right. The defense then asked for just one more day to prepare for the closing arguments – the judge denied the request, and gave them only 40 minutes. Finally, after hearing the prosecutor’s presentation, the judge spent no more than 25-30 minutes in deliberation, returning with a seven-page printed and stamped verdict – which is a procedural impossibility given the short amount of time.

While Zhovtis is only one guy, the pattern of harassing and intimidating rights activists and opposition politicians has gotten substantially worse since Kazakhstan’s winning of the OSCE Chair. Thus, I need to come clean: I was not only wrong, but horribly wrong in thinking the OSCE Chairmanship would be a boon to Kazakhstan. It has been the opposite: a cover for worse repression than before.


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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 9 comments }

Ahad Abdurahmon September 6, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Nazarbayev can let the petro-dollars trickle down, but never share his power.
I would never bet on individuals for transformation and change, even if Gandhi comes out of his grave. Institutionalization is the key. Japan, Germany, Taiwan, or Llatvia became liberal democracies not because of mister someone, but because of institutional transformation. The bad news is, it doesn’t happen overnight.

Matt September 6, 2009 at 10:37 pm

You certainly weren’t alone in your thought process – the IOC used similar logic when giving the Olympics to China and now to Russia.

oldschool boy September 7, 2009 at 5:17 am

Too bad. I remember reading an interview with Zhovtis about this accident about a month or two ago. He said that he had killed the guy in the accident (he was not drunk) but was hoping that the charges against him would be dropped, because he had settled a deal with the victim’s relatives (I guess he paid them money). I guess somebody in law enforcement decided to use the accident to revenge on Zhovtis for something. But nobody can seriously believe that the “mysterious” accident was staged.

Turgai Sangar September 9, 2009 at 3:02 am

“I was not only wrong, but horribly wrong in thinking the OSCE Chairmanship would be a boon to Kazakhstan.”

The OSCE has been screwed, that’s most clear. Yet this is what one gets for being ‘pragmatic’. So one should not blame uncle Nazarbayev’s regime for being cunning but those who buy into it because of whatever wrongly assessed interest or sheer diplo other-worldlyness .

What is more, a precendent has now been set for making the OSCE an instrument a forum to internationally legitimize certain regimes. If an autocracy and de facto one-party state like Kazakhstan (even if it is certainly not the worst of the region), can chair the OSCE, what is the problem later on for Uzbekistan given a few cosmetic reforms (its seems, by the way, that they’re at it: cf. http://www.rferl.org/content/article/1818439.html ) or the recognition of Transnistria/Pridnyestrovoe for that matter?

Turgai Sangar September 9, 2009 at 3:08 am

BTW, Joshua, kudos for the grandeur for admitting assessment mistakes (which we all made at one on another time or one or another issue).

Alex Visotzky September 9, 2009 at 5:50 am

As someone working in Kazakhstan, this episode is particularly concerning. Perhaps the most egregious part is that Kazakh authorities could have given Zhovtis a fair trial and still probably thrown him in jail, yet they decided to skip even that. As a friend pointed out, if you take the worst kid in an elementary school class and tell him that he can teach the class, he won’t start assigning homework, but will let chaos reign. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the OSCE has failed to pressure Kazakhstan into becoming more transparent and less corrupt; after all, aren’t Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan members?

oldschool boy September 9, 2009 at 11:15 pm

I don’t see anybody getting screwed here except poor Zhovtis. OSCE will get over it. These hypocrites wouldn’t care. After all, OSCE is about security and cooperation, but not about alienating the huge region east of the EU border. Time when western countries could look down at the CIS and dictate to them has passed with Russia crushing Georgia and then cutting gas supplies to Europe. Should have thought then.

Alex Visotzky September 10, 2009 at 2:36 am

“No one has demanded from us: you will become chairman of the OSCE if there is a multi-party, ’multi-hued’ parliament. And we will not go for that now,” senator Gani Kasymov said on the day parliament opened in remarks quoted by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
–from eurasianet.org

Dilshod September 14, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I doubt that OSCE is at all viewed as a legitimizing authority. Mere fact of having all ex-USSR nations tells that it’s more about promoting the standards set in the Final Act. I would see it rather as a mechanism, means and not the end.
I still think it’s a good idea to try to encourage ex-Commies to good behavior.

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