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Is Kazakhstan Fit To Chair The OSCE?

These "reforms" do not look like the work of a government seriously committed to carrying out the democracy component of the OSCE mandate.

These "reforms" do not look like the work of a government seriously committed to carrying out the democracy component of the OSCE mandate.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has much to gloat about regarding his country's 2010 chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

As the first former Soviet republic to chair the organization, Kazakhstan seems finally to be receiving the international respect its leaders have been craving. In addition, representing itself as a Eurasian state, Kazakhstan has pledged to mend the East-West rift that threatens the effectiveness of the OSCE.

Nevertheless, as an international organization that, among other things, promotes human rights, transparent elections, and the rule of law, the OSCE is taking quite a gamble by entrusting the chairmanship to a country that is taking steps away from -- rather than toward -- democracy.

In consolidating his power, Nazarbaev can claim some limited successes in the spheres of free press and speech, as well as labor regulations. But these minor gains are overshadowed by undemocratic, even harsh, measures. Constitutional amendments in 1995, 1999, and 2005 have enabled him to manipulate and emerge the winner from successive presidential elections. In 2005, he polled 91 percent of the vote. And the convenient deaths of opposition leaders Zamenbek Nurkadilov just weeks before the 2005 election and of Altynbek Sarsenbaev in February 2006 have removed potential rivals.

That is why the OSCE's decision to extend the chairmanship to Kazakhstan puts the foundation of the organization, as well as its fragile reputation, in danger.

Core Strengths

Defending Kazakhstan's candidacy at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s annual session held in Astana in July 2008, Finnish Foreign Minister and then OSCE Chairman Alexander Stubb stated, "In the face of change, the core strengths of the OSCE are of lasting value. The emphasis on cooperative security, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law – the basic functions -- is still there."

For how long, however, depends on how much damage Kazakhstan inflicts on the organization as chairman.

Although many member states questioned or openly criticized Kazakhstan's nomination, Russia fully supported its efforts to overcome perceived organizational bias and unfair strictures placed on former Soviet republics. Speaking at the OSCE summit in Madrid in November 2007, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took issue with the proposal to postpone the Kazakh chairmanship, tentatively scheduled for 2009.

"Unfortunately, during the several years that have preceded today's meeting, there were absolutely unacceptable and unseemly maneuvers aimed at imposing restrictions on the right of a specific country -- an equal member of the OSCE -- to chair this organization by making demands on its internal and external policies," Lavrov stated.

That is why the OSCE's decision to extend the chairmanship to Kazakhstan puts the foundation of the organization, as well as its fragile reputation, in danger.
Such support was critical along Kazakhstan's road to the chairmanship.

At the 2006 OSCE meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, Kazakhstan's bid to chair the organization in 2009 received backing from Russia and Germany but was opposed by Great Britain and the United States, both of which suggested 2011 would be a more suitable date, as it would give Kazakhstan the necessary time needed to improve its domestic democracy and human rights records.

The decision was put off until the Madrid meeting in 2007 where factions led by Russia and the United States brokered a conditional compromise date of 2010 based on the assumption that Kazakhstan would undertake a number of reforms, mainly legislation on media, elections, and political parties.

The "reform" process has, however, been excruciatingly slow, opaque, and inconsequential. Although civil society representatives were invited to take part in early "working groups" tasked with drafting the legislative amendments, most of their important and substantive recommendations were subsequently ignored, and they were barred from the final drafting process.

The outcome was predictable.

Regarding media law reform, the government refused to decriminalize libel and insult or to remove special protections for government officials who feel that their "honor, dignity, or professional" reputation has been damaged.

Election reform proved even less successful, with the parliament pushing through in January 2009 legislation that upholds the current 7 percent minimum to gain parliamentary representation, but in the event that only one party surpasses that percentage, allows the second-placed party to enter parliament as well.

Opposition parties had called for lowering the threshold to 3 percent on the grounds that the party that places second may be too weak to effectively oppose Nazarbaev's Nur Otan party. Likewise, the parliament has apparently interpreted "political party reform" as meaning that rival parties should have an even harder time registering. Thus, those who wish to oppose the ruling party must first register a "political party organizing committee" with the state authorities before being considered for registration.

Orwellian Legislation

These "reforms" do not look like the work of a government seriously committed to carrying out the democracy component of the OSCE mandate.

Furthermore, despite calls from civil society and Western governments to reconsider these changes before Kazakhstan takes over the chairmanship in 2010, the parliament rushed through the most Orwellian legislation to date in June 2009 -- the law "On Issues Related to Information-Communications." Signed into law by the president in July, it designates all Internet sites as media and, consequently, subject to the "reformed" media law and the accompanying punishments. It also gives courts the authority to restrict or ban foreign websites without notifying the site operator, and it drastically expands the areas where the distribution of domestic information may be subject to "prior restraint."

Overall, Kazakhstan's half-hearted efforts to live up to its promises of reform appear to be a deliberate affront to the OSCE, Western governments, and its own citizens' attempts to demand government transparency and accountability.

Kazakhstan has been abuzz lately with talk of passing legislation that would make the 69-year-old Nazarbaev president for life. But is there really any need to do so, given that the president has created a system that guarantees his reelection for as long as he deems fit, and where the opposition has been hamstrung, the media silenced, and civil society given a polite but insignificant role?

Kazakhstan is being rewarded for these flagrant abuses of authority and civil society with chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. That decision may encourage leaders of other authoritarian states who routinely scoff at democratization and sacrifice the interests of their citizens for their own political and economic gains.

J.G. Cefalo is an Almaty-based commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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