Government leaders from 68 countries have kicked off the first OSCE summit in more than a decade in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana.
The two-day event, which coincides with the former Soviet republic's controversial chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), is aimed at reinvigorating the role of the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are in attendance along with 28 heads of state and 10 heads of government, making it the biggest gathering of government officials in Astana since the city became Kazakhstan's capital in 1997.
In an early development, Belarus Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau announced
along with Clinton that his country would give up its stockpile of material used to make nuclear weapons by 2012.Mission Creep?
The OSCE -- which now includes 56 member states and 12 partners in Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and North America -- was created during the Cold War as a forum between East and West bloc countries.
OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut describes the Astana summit as a "collective exercise in thinking about what is important" for the organization's future.
"Most important is the participation of all the government leaders who can, by their personal appearance, show their respect for our organization and [the OSCE's] principles and its future," the OSCE's current chairman in office, Kazakh Secretary of State and Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabaev, said.
"It is particularly important to note that the previous summit [of the OSCE] was 11 years ago. It is obvious that we need to work to strengthen the authority and respect for the organization and we, above all, must show respect for it."
Since its creation, the OSCE's mandate has grown to include the fight against terrorism, conflict prevention and resolution, rehabilitation of postconflict areas, the building of police forces, border monitors, and efforts to stop illegal arms traffickers.
The group's activities also focus on human rights, the promotion of democracy, environmental threats, and efforts to provide security for transportation routes and energy.
Saudabaev said the Astana summit offers a unique opportunity for member countries to discuss urgent security challenges that include threats like terrorism and trafficking, recent unrest and ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan.
"Everybody expects that the heads of state and government will reach agreement over how to strengthen security and cooperation from Vancouver to the Far East and will give a new impulse to the representatives of our organization," Saudabaev said.
Saudabaev said the fact that the summit was being convened after an 11-year hiatus will help strengthen the OSCE and "consolidate trust and mutual understanding" that has waned since NATO's 1999 campaign against Serb forces in Kosovo and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"The Astana summit should work to restore the trust and strengthen the uniqueness of the OSCE that has not been apparent enough in recent years and to reaffirm the devotion of all member governments to the necessity and value of the OSCE," he said.
On the Astana agenda is an effort to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Members of the OSCE's so-called Minsk Group -- created in 1992 to encourage a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict -- arrived in Astana on November 28 and have already begun work on possible resolutions.Potential Obstacles
The months preceding the summit saw review conferences in Warsaw, Vienna, and Astana that gave nongovernmental organizations and governments a chance to assess the progress of different member states on the implementation of their OSCE commitments.
At those conferences, some activists complained that Kazakhstan's record on human rights makes it an inappropriate host for an OSCE summit.
But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told RFE/RL in a wide-ranging interview
in Astana that Kazakhstan has demonstrated strong leadership on peace and stability issues in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and other areas during the past year.
"It's remarkable that they have been working very closely with the members of the OSCE and also United Nations to ensure that there should be peace and stability and human rights in Kyrgyzstan," Ban said.
"I sincerely hope that under the leadership of President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev during this OSCE summit meeting the members of the OSCE will be able to address all the issues of common concerns -- starting from peace and stability, human rights, environmental sustainability and nuclear disarmament."WATCH: In his exclusive RFE/RL interview, UN head Ban Ki-moon talks about Kazakhstan's OSCE performance:
Meanwhile, reports suggested a shadow could be cast over the summit by the website WikiLeaks' publication this week
of secret U.S. diplomatic dispatches.
There were fears that the leaked cables might prompt some leaders to be careful about what they said during closed-door bilateral meetings on the summit sidelines.
But officials from many countries have played down the effects
of the disclosures.
Kazakh officials also might express concerns to Clinton about leaked U.S. diplomatic correspondence describing lavish lifestyles for Kazakhstan's political elites -- including reports of Prime Minister Karim Masimov dancing "animatedly" at an Astana nightclub and a remark in one diplomatic cable that President Nazarbaev spends much of his time at a property in the United Arab Emirates.