Even before Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was accepted in late 2007, controversy over the country's dubious rights record and dedication to democratic principles was simmering.
Now, with the country just weeks away from beginning its one-year stint as the rotating OSCE chairman on January 1, 2010, those criticisms and concerns have reached a full boil.
Just how contentious Kazakhstan's chairmanship has become was on full display in Athens on December 1-2 during a two-day conference of the OSCE's Ministerial Council, the body of 56 foreign ministers that chooses the organization's chairmanship.
Kazakhstan was advised not to take its leadership role for granted by Janez Lenarcic, the head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) -- the OSCE institution specifically focused on furthering human rights, democratization, and the holding of free and fair elections.
The ODIHR director said that just because Kazakhstan will be taking up the mantle for an organization that espouses respect for basic human rights and freedoms does not mean it should stop working to improve its own record in a number of areas.
According to Lenarcic’s spokesman, Jens Eschenbaecher, the ODIHR head said that “taking over the chairmanship of the OSCE is a great responsibility and challenge for each participating state, including Kazakhstan. ODIHR and other parts of the [OSCE] as well have in the past expressed concerns about issues related to, for example, the election framework in Kazakhstan, freedom of the media, and other issues."
Lenarcic conceded that Kazakhstan is "in the stage of developing democracy," expressing optimism that its OSCE chairmanship will help keep it on the democratic path, but the essence of the message directed at an incoming OSCE chair was unprecedented.Historic Firsts
Kazakhstan's chairmanship promises to be unique in many ways.
It is the first former Soviet republic, the first CIS member, and the first country in Asia ever to head the OSCE.
Kazakhstan will be the standard bearer of free elections, while knowing that it has never held an election judged to have met democratic standards by ODIHR. The most recent of the country's electoral failings took place in 2007, when just months before it was voted in as OSCE chair, the propresidential party Nur-Otan won all the seats in parliamentary election.
International watchdog Human Rights Watch has said from the start that Kazakhstan was not worthy of the position. On November 25, the group issued a report entitled "Kazakhstan: Rights Deteriorating As OSCE Chairmanship Nears
"I think it's pretty clear that Kazakhstan's human rights record doesn't completely conform with OSCE standards and norms,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division for HRW. “Kazakhstan was a highly controversial choice for the OSCE chairmanship because of its human rights record," she said.
Those concerns grew even as Kazakhstan put the final touches on its preparations for the chairmanship. In the course of the past year, it has come under intense scrutiny following the passage of legislation seen to restrict media freedoms, proposals within its rubber-stamp parliament that President Nursultan Nazarbaev be named "president for life," and a spate of violent attacks against journalists.
When asked by RFE/RL by e-mail or telephone to respond to criticisms over activity in Kazakhstan that appeared to contradict the OSCE's values, the Vienna-based organization replied by saying the organization was working with Kazakhstan on its reforms, or, on numerous occasions, simply gave no comment.
HRW's Denber notes that Kazakhstan was originally aiming to become the OSCE chairman in 2009, but that bid was capsized due to concerns by some member states that Kazakhstan had not met the standards required to be OSCE chair.
In the end Kazakhstan's chairmanship was put off until 2010 under the idea that the extra year would give Kazakhstan ample time to bring its legislation and practices closer into line with the values espoused by the OSCE.
Kazakhstan promised to do so, but Denber said its government made only token progress toward that goal.
"At the time it was chosen for the OSCE chairmanship, its foreign minister at the time made several promises for human-rights reforms,” Denber said. “They were rather modest pledges and the government adopted some reforms based on these rather modest pledges. They're obviously welcome, but they don't really address the fundamental underlying problems.”
“And those reforms were completed in February 2009, and since then there have been a number of steps backward in other spheres in human rights in Kazakhstan. So overall, it's a very disappointing picture," she said.Backward Slide
Among those "steps backward," Denber lists a law enacted this year against the dissemination of false information about elections, and legislation limiting people's right to assemble. "You can sort of see where this is headed, and because the courts aren't independent it could be very much open to an arbitrary interpretation," Denber said.
Muzzafar Suleymanov, a research associate with the Europe and Central Asia program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that in terms of media freedom, the situation in Kazakhstan has certainly not improved since it was tapped to head the OSCE.
"Actually, it's gotten worse,” Suleymanov said. “If you take a look at our press coverage of developments in the media, regarding the media in Kazakhstan, you will see that the year started with the beating and stabbing of journalists, which didn't take place before. And then we have this Internet-regulation bill, which many international media-freedom groups, including the OSCE, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and other groups warned Kazakh authorities not to implement, to stop it. But all the appeals, all the calls to the government, have been ignored."
Vladimir Shkolnikov, the director in Europe of Freedom House, an organization dedicated to monitoring democratic processes around the world, expressed surprise that Kazakhstan’s government has not done more to address the criticisms of its policies, considering that it received more international attention over the past year than it ever has since becoming independent in 1991.
"It's almost as if they've taken the OSCE chairmanship for granted and have gone on about their domestic business as if the international spotlight, which obviously comes with the OSCE chairmanship, was not on them,” Shkolnikov said. “And that's very disappointing. They're confirming the worst fears of people who believe that Kazakhstan just simply wants the prestige and was not going to follow up on its own words."
Andrea Berg, a Central Asia researcher with HRW, said Kazakhstan is seeking the limelight in particular because it could have the chance to host the OSCE’s first summit in 10 years.
“The last summit was in Istanbul, in 1999 -- so the Kazakhs really want to have this summit in their country,” Berg said. “And again, they tried to push this issue and have this summit in their country and for them -- my impression, really -- this is like an opportunity to have nice photos instead of really discussing or really reforming the OSCE."
A decision on Kazakhstan's proposal to hold the summit in Astana in 2010 was put on hold this week in Athens. In explaining the delay, Kazakh Senator Adil Akhmetov was quoted as saying that U.S. representatives called for a "time out" until "concrete questions" for discussion at such a summit could be agreed.
The United States and Great Britain were already vocal in pointing out Kazakhstan's leadership shortcomings before eventually signing on to the Ministerial Council's 2007 decision that handed Kazakhstan the OSCE chairmanship next year.
For its part, Kazakhstan has promised to devote its year as OSCE chair to pushing through an agreement on conventional arms in Europe and promoting interethnic and interreligious harmony. But as it attempts to promote OSCE values, it can expect to do so under even more intense scrutiny.