Kazakhstan and the OSCE
The sultan takes over
Doubts resurface about Kazakhstan’s suitability to lead the OSCE
WHEN Kazakhstan launched its bid to become chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Britain and America initially opposed the idea because of the authoritarian country's obvious shortcomings as a promoter of democracy and human rights, which the 56-member body is supposed to encourage. Their concerns were ultimately overcome, thanks partly to Russia's backing for the oil-rich former Soviet republic, and partly because member states hoped, perhaps against their better judgment, that the chairmanship would inspire Kazakhstan to improve its record.
For a while, it seemed as if those hopes might be fulfilled. Kazakhstan pushed through admittedly cosmetic changes to its election law, the registration of political parties, and its media law. It also reformed its judicial system.
Yet with two weeks to go before taking over the OSCE's annual rotating chairmanship for 2010, misgivings about the country's fitness to run the body have re-emerged. At a council meeting in Greece on December 1st and 2nd, representatives of the organisation and observers questioned Kazakhstan's ability to lead by example. As they pointed out, there will be several elections in OSCE countries next year, starting with Ukraine in January; the organisation will send election observers to these—and the country that heads the body has never held polls considered free or fair by those same observers, and has a parliament with only one party in it.
Local human-rights activists add that the situation has become worse for them since Kazakhstan got the OSCE chairmanship. Freedom House, an American think-tank, says that the media and religious institutions have come increasingly under attack. Journalists have been jailed for revealing state secrets; some have been beaten up; the state has imposed crippling fines on newspapers.
Critics of Kazakhstan's chairmanship feel vindicated. They have long argued that as soon as the country got its wished-for chairmanship, pressure for reform would be off. But Iva Dobichina of Freedom House suggests things are a bit more complicated than that. The deterioration in human rights, she says, is linked to the economic crisis that has caused the government to react in its normal way—by seeking to exert more control. But while Kazakhstan is actually in the chair, she thinks, other member states will probably stop the government from doing anything too outrageous.
Perhaps. But the government seems to see the OSCE chairmanship as an international public-relations exercise rather than a way of boosting democracy. The chairmanship may indeed burnish Kazakhstan's international image. Whether Kazakhstan will do the same for the OSCE is another matter.