* Correction appended
WASHINGTON -- A U.S. agency that monitors human rights around the world has welcomed Kazakhstan as the new chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but cautioned the former Soviet republic that it must improve its own rights record if it wants to be effective in its new role.
At a hearing in Washington today, the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better-known as the Helsinki Commission, Representative Alcee Hastings (Democrat, Florida), said he had spearheaded U.S. support of Kazakhstan's appointment as the new rotating chair at the OSCE's ministerial meeting in Madrid in 2007
But he told Kanat Saudabaev, Kazakhstan's foreign minister and new OSCE chairman in office, that his support was based on "certain assurances" made at the meeting, including "specific pledges of reforms on behalf of your government."
"I believe that promises are meant to be kept, and I have every expectation, Mr. Minister, that your government will continue working to translate its Madrid promises into actions consistent with OSCE commitment," Hastings said.
The OSCE is a 56-nation regional security organization that works to promote a range of issues, from democratization to free media, fair elections to minority rights.
Kazakhstan, a vast, oil-rich Central Asian state, is being closely scrutinized by the West now that it has assumed the 2010 rotating chairmanship on promises to usher in democratic reforms itself.
The Yevgeny Zhovtis Case
Since 2001, the country has become a key security partner of the United States, but it has never held an election judged free and fair by Western observers. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has been in power for 20 years and tolerates little opposition to his rule.
Last year, a court accused the opposition "Respublika" newspaper of libel and several of its print runs were subsequently seized. Another opposition newspaper, "Taszhargan," was effectively closed after a court ruling that found it guilty of libel.
As the Helsinki hearing was under way, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported that Kazakh officials had impounded the editions of at least five opposition and independent newspapers that printed an article alleging corruption by Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev.
An Almaty district court ordered the seizure of the newspapers after Kulibaev filed a libel lawsuit against "Respublika," "Golos respubliki" (Voice of the Republic), "Vzglyad" (Glance), "Kursiv," and "Kursiv-News."
Kazakahstan is the first country designated by Freedom House as "not free" to be allowed to chair the OSCE, which the commission's co-chairman, Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat, Maryland), pointed out.
Cardin said Kazakhstan had "received positive marks for laying out a clear agenda for the OSCE" but noted that its own restrictive media law, poor election record, and imprisonment of Yevgeny Zhovtis are serious matters for [the Kazakh government] to confront."
Yevgeny Zhovtis was senteced in September.
Indeed, before allowing Saudabaev to speak at today's hearing, Hastings raised the case of Zhovtis, a prominent government critic and civil rights lawyer currently serving a four-year sentence for what human rights advocates say is a politically motivated case by the state to silence dissent.
Zhovtis, the director of the nongovernmental Kazakh Bureau for Human Rights, was jailed last year after fatally hitting a pedestrian with his car on a highway outside Almaty. Zhovtis says he could not have prevented the accident, and there were no allegations that he was drunk or speeding.
As Saudabaev and a coterie of Kazakh officials behind the witness table sat silently, Hastings described the details of the case, which he said "has received a great deal of attention in this country and elsewhere."
Zhovtis has even "testified before this commission on several occasions," Hastings said, before pointedly adding, "I understand that he has submitted an appeal to the Kazakhstan Supreme Court, and I'm sure that this matter will move forward accordingly."
A Rights-Driven Agenda
Saudabaev made no reference to Zhovtis in his testimony, in which he outlined Kazakhstan's plans for the coming year. He said they include combating intolerance and trafficking in human beings, notably in children; improving border security; and tackling the problem of the shrinking Aral Sea.
His government, he said, would "foster dialogue among religions, cultures, and civilizations, and [work] to overcome religious intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism" in OSCE countries. And he pledged that Kazakhstan would "attribute special importance to fundamental values like freedom of religion, freedom of the media, the rule of law, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary."
In a nod to the commission's criticism of his own country's record on such issues, he added, "We will be advancing these processes [first] in our own country, as building a democracy has been the conscientious choice of our people."
Bridging East And West
Saudabaev acknowledged that as the first former Soviet republic to assume the chairmanship, the success of Kazakhstan's agenda rests on its ability "to overcome the crisis of confidence that stems from the remaining Cold War dividing lines and principles. "
Indeed, the West's support of Kazakhstan as OSCE chair was motivated in no small part by the hope that it would be a catalyst for the country to reform itself and, along the way, become a model for the rest of Central Asia.
Cardin said the choice of Kazakhstan "presents unique challenges and opportunities" and that he hoped its leadership would inspire its Central Asian neighbors "to fully participate in the OSCE."
Saudabaev said Kazakhstan has a number of new reform goals and cited as an example draft legislation to strengthen the country's human rights law that will soon be considered in the country's parliament.
The centerpiece of Kazakhstan's year as OSCE chair will be its organization of the first summit of OSCE heads of state and government since 1999. Saudabaev assured the commission that increasing OSCE engagement in Afghanistan, particularly on humanitarian projects, would top the agenda.
RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
"I think the chief result of the summit should be development," he said. "[We should] create a united political will of the leaders of the OSCE countries to concentrate their efforts on the social and economic rehabilitation [of Afghanistan] and to create the foundations for a peaceful life because NATO already takes care of the military aspects."
Saudabaev said Afghanistan's proximity to Central Asia meant that it "occupies a special place" in Kazakhstan's list of priorities, and added, "the time has come for a major expansion of the human dimension of our common efforts" in that country.
* The original version of this article erroneously identified the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe as the U.S. branch of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.