Gauging Kazakhstan’s Chairmanship of the OSCE

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by Joshua Foust on 1/26/2010 · 3 comments

William Courtney, the former U.S. Ambassador to Astana, is guardedly optimistic about Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE this year:

Democratic activists are crying foul, saying President Nursultan Nazarbayev represses dissent. Others worry that Kazakhstan will be used by Russia, which has undermined the O.S.C.E. in the past, to advance Russian initiatives.

Based on my experience as U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan after independence in 1991 and on later developments, I believe these concerns are understandable but excessive.

His argument is a familiar one: despite setbacks in terms of democracy and civil liberties, Kazakhstan has actually become a fairly successful, well-integrated state without major conflicts with its neighbors (we’ll leave aside the lingering border issues with Uzbekistan).

I share ambassador Courtney’s concerns about Kazakhstan’s chairmanship—after all, one of the OSCE’s charters is to promote civil society and democracy. However, I also share his guarded optimism: while it’s true that Kazakhstan has actually backslid along the democracy frontier, and has developed what can only be called recidivism on the civil rights front, it is still a more stable, more functioning country than any of its neighbors in Central Asia. As such, even an imperfect model is better than none at all. (And it’s worth noting I’m in disagreement with my friends who study this place, both on this blog and elsewhere.)

But let us not lose track of the OSCE’s other primary function: conflict resolution. Kazakhstan has barely been in charge a month and it’s already holding summits trying to defuse the remainder of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Sochi talks are nothing to talk about yet, but they do show on direction in which Kazakhstan might move as chair.

But this raises the question: why appoint Kazakhstan in the first place? When the OSCE was first deliberating this question in 2006, it couldn’t make up its mind, and even postponed the chairmanship. This was partially because of Kazakhstan’s democratic backsliding, but there was also rampant speculation that the European members of the OSCE didn’t feel like a Central Asian state had the “right” to chair the organization. Anna Wołowska explains:

The decision to award the chairmanship to Kazakhstan was taken in an attempt to stop deepening divisions within the OSCE, especially the split between the CIS countries (which were calling for less control over political and election processes), and the remaining OSCE members, most of whom endorsed the OSCE’s original line.

Awarding the chairmanship to Kazakhstan was a gesture to the post-Soviet states, a demonstration of equality between the new and the old OSCE members. The West hoped that Astana would be able not only to avert the threats to the Organisation’s unity, but also to boost stability in Central Asia. At the time the decision was being taken in Madrid, the participants also keenly hoped that the chairmanship would become an impulse for genuine democratisation in Kazakhstan.

So there we have it. Ms. Wolowska also notes that lobbying for the OSCE chair has been part of Astana’s regional strategic calculus, meant to position itself as the sane arbiter and “big brother” of sorts to its neighbors. She also mention’s Russia’s support, which, while the subject of some ludicrous hyperbole, is also hugely important to the region.

Where things stand right now, it’s difficult to consider Kazakhstan’s chairmanship anything other than a prestige-building measure for Astana. While I remain hopeful some good might come of it within Kazakhstan, the lack of impetus from any corner, anywhere within the OSCE membership, probably means the next year will be little more than empty summits and lots of speeches.

Still, there is the chance for us to be surprised. It’s happened before. We’ll keep on top of it.

Photo: Astana waterfront, along the Ishym River, 2003, by me.

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This post was written by...

– 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 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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Alex January 26, 2010 at 10:34 am

I’ve heard some muse that Russia was pushing for Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in an effort to make a circus of the OSCE and thus discredit it. Thoughts?

Joshua Foust January 26, 2010 at 11:01 am

I’ve heard the same musings. I haven’t seen any evidence, though, so for the moment I’m inclined to write it off as the usual rumors. Have you stumbled across something that could give them credence?

Alex Visotzky January 29, 2010 at 4:54 pm

No, no real evidence, just some idea that I’ve heard some not unintelligent people put out there.

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