ATHENS (Reuters) -- Kazakhstan's human rights record came under fresh criticism today as the former Soviet republic prepared to take over the chair of Europe's top security body for the first time from Greece.
Officials at a meeting of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Athens said the Central Asian state had made some progress but urged it to use its turn at the helm to improve its democratic institutions.
"Clearly there is a challenge for the incoming chairmanship, whether it will be able to lead by example," the head of the group's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Janez Lenarcic, said as the OSCE held its last top-level meeting before Kazakhstan formally takes over on January 1.
Human rights groups have criticized the decision to hand the chair to Kazakhstan, pointing out that OSCE observers have not validated a single election in the oil-producing state, and urged members to push harder for reforms.
"In the two years since Kazakhstan was awarded the chair, its human rights situation has seriously deteriorated, especially in the areas of freedom of expression, religion and assembly," said Vera Tkachenko, representing a coalition of human rights groups, including Freedom House.
Human Rights Watch also urged OSCE foreign ministers to push Kazakhstan harder. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was a member of the last Soviet politburo and has been in power ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"We need to have conversations with the Kazakh government on the importance and the opportunity for them to use their chairmanship to address some of the concerns on these issues," U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told reporters.
OSCE Summit Unlikely
Kazakh officials said they were committed to OSCE principles and already making efforts to improve human rights, but British-style democracy could not be built overnight.
"If you want to get the U.K.'s level you must take a very rapid lift which will raise your blood pressure, it will affect the body. We should be very careful," said Adil Akhmetov, a Kazakh OSCE official. "We are coming up, and if someone criticizes Kazakhstan let them criticize it. Kazakhstan is doing its best."
Kazakh officials proposed holding an OSCE summit next year, which would be the first since leaders met in 1999 in Istanbul, but many members were skeptical.
"It can only be organized if we have true substance that we can deal with. If we can't come up with a political declaration here among the foreign ministers what kind of a value added would an actual political top level summit give?" said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb on December 1.
Despite criticism of the organization's effectiveness, Western members gave a cool reception on December 1 to Russia's proposal for a new Euro-Atlantic security pact, saying focus should stay on improving existing structures.