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Six Months Into OSCE Chair, Kazakhstan Found Wanting In Kyrgyz Events

  • Robert Coalson

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry calls the Kyrgyz crisis a "big test" for Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship. Pictured here: Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev, who is also the OSCE's chairman in office.

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry calls the Kyrgyz crisis a "big test" for Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship. Pictured here: Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev, who is also the OSCE's chairman in office.

When Kazakhstan became the first post-Soviet country to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in January, few would have guessed it would face its sternest test in neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

But that's exactly what happened when former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev was deposed in April and replaced with a pro-democratic interim government -- as well as in the weeks that followed, when clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks left hundreds dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

As Kazakhstan hits the halfway mark in its one-year chairmanship, many observers have said the OSCE's response to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan has been lackadaisical, if not downright negligent.

As chair, Kazakhstan argued against international intervention in the crisis and closed its borders with Kyrgyzstan. Both moves have prompted claims from critics that Kazakhstan's national and regional interests have undermined its effectiveness in guiding the OSCE, which -- as the only international organization permanently on the ground in the region -- could and should have been more proactive.

Kazakhstan, however, defends the OSCE's role in Kyrgyzstan. Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Askar Abdrakhmanov tells RFE/RL that the OSCE responded vigorously to the unrest and coordinated closely with other international bodies.

Kazakhstan's borders were closed to displaced Kyrgyz fleeing the violence in the south of the country.
"As far as the situation in Kyrgyzstan is concerned, clearly it is a big test for the Kazakh chairmanship. It is still ongoing and there are still many questions," Abdrakhmanov says. "But it is worth mentioning that from the beginning of the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the OSCE was the first organization to participate in the stabilization of the situation in that country."

Preventing It From Spreading

Abdrakhmanov also noted that Kazakhstan had played a key role in removing Bakiev from the country -- personally guaranteeing his safe flight to Belarus, where he has been living in exile ever since -- and thus "averting greater bloodshed."

Other observers argue that the authoritarian regimes in the region -- including Kazakhstan -- are primarily interested not in addressing the Kyrgyz unrest but in preventing it from spreading to their own countries.

"It seems that [Kazakhstan] has stood back and, if not enjoying what is going on, certainly feels that this is a very good example of what happens if an authoritarian regime is replaced by a rather confused liberal-democratic one," says Paul Quinn-Judge, the Bishkek-based director of the Central Asia Project of the International Crisis Group.

Kuban Abdymen, a Bishkek-based analyst and journalist, agrees, saying, "The latest revolution in Kyrgyzstan forced Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia to take this very seriously. From this point of view, Kazakhstan has acted more like Russia's ally in regard to Kyrgyzstan than as the chairman of the OSCE."

In the days after Bakiev's ouster, one of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's first acts was to close his country's border with Kyrgyzstan, cutting off trade and preventing an inflow of people unnerved by the unrest.

That move, says Tolganai Umbetalieva, the director of the Almaty-based Central Asian Foundation for the Development of Democracy, was dictated by Kazakhstan's fears for its own stability.

"Kazakhstan quickly made this decision [to close the border]. All the colored revolutions that have taken place in the post-Soviet space have, of course, had a very strong impact on our government," she says. "And it is trying by all means to maintain stability and to maintain the public's passivity, so that it doesn't come out against the state."

'Did A Lot Of Damage'

Quinn-Judge condemns the border closing as harmful to the new government in Kyrgyzstan.

"The Kazakh approach to Kyrgyzstan since April has been not very supportive, and that's putting it incredibly mildly," he says. "Closing the border with Kyrgyzstan after the change of power in early April was not a helpful gesture and did a lot of damage to the Kyrgyz economy."

Uzbek President Islam Karimov could come out smelling pretty good.
Ironically, Quinn-Judge notes, Uzbekistan is emerging as the most constructive regional player in the Kyrgyz crisis. Longtime Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, frequently criticized by the West as a dictator, boosted his international standing by coping ably with the flood of refugees streaming out of southern Kyrgyzstan earlier this month.

"I would imagine that the Kazakhs are rather dismayed by the fact that the Uzbeks are scoring lots and lots of points in the international community, surprisingly enough, by their handling of the refugee issue -- which, in fact, has been very prompt and efficient," Quinn-Judge says. "The new Kyrgyz government, the provisional government, is going out of its way to praise Islam Karimov, which is most definitely not music to the Kazakh leadership's ears.

"I strongly suspect that in the long run, if we try to look back at the horrible situation now from the vantage point of six months from now, we may well find that Islam Karimov has emerged as the winner in this whole sorry affair."

Andrei Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department of Moscow's Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States, says Kazakhstan has been primarily interested in the OSCE chairmanship from the beginning for its own domestic political purposes.

"The project of chairing the OSCE was viewed from the beginning as a PR project oriented primarily for domestic consumption," Grozin says. "It was intended to once again show the population how lucky it is to have such a national leader [as Nazarbaev] and how lucky it is in general. All efforts have been made in this direction."

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev: "Impressive achievements"
Obsessed With Summit

The OSCE came under fire for tapping Kazakhstan, with its poor human rights record and rubber-stamp parliament, to serve as its first post-Soviet chair. But Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev, who holds the chairman in office post, noted in his first address before the OSCE's Permanent Council in January that the decision to allow Kazakhstan to head the security body was "a sign of the objective recognition by the international community of the impressive achievements of Kazakhstan and President Nursultan Nazarbaev."

Grozin says the Kazakh chairmanship has been single-mindedly focused on its bid to host an OSCE summit before the end of the year. The OSCE has not been able to hold a summit since 1999 because the consensus-based organization has been unable to agree on an agenda or on tangible results, such as agreements to be signed.

"It seems to me that Kazakhstan, in its chairmanship of the OSCE, is busy with completely other matters. The interethnic violence in the south of Kyrgyzstan just isn't a priority for Foreign Minister Saudabaev," Grozin says. "They are paying quite a bit more attention to some sort of on-the-sidelines, behind-the-scenes discussions with representatives of Western political elites about holding an OSCE summit in Astana."

Quinn-Judge agrees, saying the Kazakhs are "obsessed" with the summit project and that it "does seem to be the only thing they are talking about." He says the Kazakhs view the proposed summit as "aimed at boosting the president's role in the country," rather than a bid to break the organizational deadlock at the OSCE.

Kazakh political analyst Umbetalieva is equally cynical about Kazakhstan's attitude toward its leadership of the OSCE.

"Kazakhstan lost interest in the OSCE almost as soon as it took the post [of chairman]," she says. "If you look at Kazakhstan's domestic and international interests, you can see that domestic political interests dominate. Our government simply uses the OSCE to achieve its own ends and meet its own needs."

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Kazakh services contributed to this report

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