Kazakstan Seeks OSCE Chair

Experts predict “small revolution” if Kazakstan gets the top position in the European grouping in 2009.

Kazakstan Seeks OSCE Chair

Experts predict “small revolution” if Kazakstan gets the top position in the European grouping in 2009.

The recent turmoil in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan could boost neighbouring Kazakstan’s chances of gaining the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, OSCE. But questions about the Kazak leadership’s record on human rights and democracy will continue to create obstacles, local analysts say.

Kazakstan said more than two years ago tht it was putting itself forward as a candidate for the OSCE chairmanship in 2009. The post, currently held by Slovenia, rotates annually between members of the grouping, which includes states in Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as Europe and the United States.

“The election of Kazakstan to the OSCE chair would be a small revolution for this organisation, in that a country which does not always meet western standards of democracy, but nevertheless plays a key role in ensuring security in Europe, can aspire to the chairmanship,” said Nikolai Kuzmin, a leading analyst with Perspektiva, a political research foundation in Kazakstan.

Kazakstan’s selling-point might be its geographical position, as a large country creating a natural buffer between Russia and the more turbulent southern Central Asian states.

The May violence in Uzbekistan, when security forces fired on peaceful demonstrators in Andijan, has added to western concerns about Islamic radicalism and drug trafficking in the region. Both Uzbekistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, which is regaining stability following the March revolution there, are OSCE members, so the grouping has an interest in Central Asian security issues.

Kazakstan could be regarded as a useful interlocutor by other OSCE states, as it is both part of the region yet – so far – appears to be insulated against the instability seen further south. And its long borders make it an important transit route for illegal migrants heading towards Europe.

“In light of what happened … and the fact that these processes are still continuing in a latent form, Kazakstan really does act as a kind of bastion of stability in the region,” said Kuzmin.

However, Kazakstan’s chances of winning the OSCE presidency were dealt a blow this week when European Union representatives cast doubts on its fitness to hold the post.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that EU officials meeting a Kazak delegation expressed concern about the country’s record on human rights and democracy. The EU side also cited problems with elections, the failure to tolerat political opposition, and the lack of media freedom.

Since Kazakstan joined the OSCE in 1992, the relationship has been difficult at times, with the Kazak leadership irked at criticism such as reports by election observers. The OSCE described last year’s parliamentary poll in Kazakstan as an improvement on past elections but as still having “serious shortcomings” and “falling short of international standards for democratic elections”.

Analysts believe the aspiration to take the OSCE chair is less about the specific organisation and more about the country’s bigger ambition to reposition itself as a heavyweight on the international scene, rather than as just another “Stan” in Central Asia.

“It’s mainly a question of prestige,” said political analyst Sanat Kushkumbaev. “It is a matter of image… Kazakstan would be on the same level as the key nations of Europe.”

Kushkumbaev believes the Kazak ruling elite wants to “confirm its legitimacy to a foreign audience and… to the European countries and the OSCE which frequently criticise the electoral process in Kazakstan”.

Some believe that Kazakstan’s leaders have been inspired by the recent EU enlargement into harbouring hopes that they too might join one day. But apart from the three Baltic states which are now in the EU, none of the former Soviet republics further west is on the verge of submitting an application.

“One cannot leap across the entire post-Soviet area and try to join Europe,” said Rustem Lebekov, director of the European Centre for Political Research. “Plans to join the European Union belong to the very distant future.”

Though the EU has questioned Kazakstan’s chairmanship plans, the US has been more receptive, and has in the past indicated that it might support the bid if it saw significant democratic reforms.

In the end, though, Kuzmin believes the decision will be decided by whether security issues or human rights are regarded as more important.

“It’s a question of how far countries in the West are prepared to compromise on their democratic principles,” he said. “The important thing will be whose position prevails – that of the idealists or the realists.

“If the realists win, Kazakstan gets the chairmanship, but if victory goes to the idealists, for whom democratic principles take first place, then it will be difficult to win the OSCE chair.”

Zamir Karajanov is an IWPR contributor in Almaty.

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