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The OSCE's Failure Of Magical Thinking

A pro-democracy activist holds a sign in front of the OSCE offices in Almaty in January that says, "I am for fair elections."
A pro-democracy activist holds a sign in front of the OSCE offices in Almaty in January that says, "I am for fair elections."
No one could say the landslide reelection victory of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev on April 3 was a surprise -- even if they wondered why the 95.5 percent win wasn't 99 percent. No one could say they weren't warned -- there was the hasty call for early elections, the fumbling pseudo-rivals, the vilification of the real opposition, the persecution of the independent media and NGOs, the stuffing of ballot boxes.

But it wasn't supposed to happen this way, remember? When everyone agreed to hand Kazakhstan the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last year, that honor was supposed to provide incentives for reform. In exchange for this good faith from the West, the first Central Asian nation to take the chairmanship was supposed to make all sorts of improvements at home.

This was supposed to be a good bargain. Yes, it meant accepting a chairman with a poor human rights record; but life in the limelight and the scrutiny of the international community were supposed to have transformative effects and bring about more democracy. In fact, the leading human rights critic of Kazakhstan, Yevgeny Zhovtis, theorized that this bargain might actually work, at least to win some concessions, and was himself an enthusiastic backer of Nazarbaev's bid to head the OSCE.

Yevgeny Zhovtis
Regrettably, diplomats then spent the entire year of Kazakhstan's chairmanship -- and now the first quarter of this year -- fruitlessly urging that Zhovtis be released from prison. He was arrested in 2009 after a nighttime car accident that left a pedestrian dead, although he was sober and not proven negligent. He was sentenced to four years in prison. In many countries with working due process and independent courts, such a tragedy would likely not lead to jail time. Kazakhstan has double the traffic fatalities of Western European countries and does not handle them all in this fashion. Instead, the case appeared to be politically manipulated, and Zhovtis was not allowed to make a proper defense or appeal. He was denied parole in January.

Zhovtis's unfair case was the first sign of things going wrong under Kazakhstan's chairmanship. Then there was the continued imprisonment of investigative journalist Ramazan Yesergepov, the passing of a blatantly restrictive Internet law, the blocking of Live Journal and other Internet sites, and the hounding of "Respublika" and other opposition newspapers.

Words And Deeds

In the review meetings leading up to the December 2010 Astana OSCE summit, Kazakh diplomats behaved terribly. First, they arrived with their delegation packed with GONGOs -- government-organized nongovernmental organizations -- who kept up an aggressive barrage of loyalist statements to try to drown out the authentic civic organizations that had come to express criticism of the Kazakh government. Then Kazakh chairmen openly threatened NGOs from the podium, claiming they were already guilty of "defaming the state" and would suffer consequences.

While some diplomats praised the arrangements for NGOs at a parallel NGO meeting in Astana, those of us who were at OSCE precedents in the Soviet era -- the Hungarian Cultural Forum in 1985 and the Moscow Human Dimension meeting in 1991 -- found the conditions at those gatherings far better. NGOs participated in far larger numbers and could book their own hotels and hold press conferences. More than 6,000 government officials descended on Astana last year, but only a few hundred NGOs were permitted to travel to the heavily controlled city.

And then there is the gravest failure of all: When violence broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 and at least 400 people were killed, mainly through pogroms against ethnic Uzbeks, this Central Asian neighbor did nothing to quell the violence and largely remained silent, unable to persuade the OSCE principals to accept a 52-person police assistance mission.

An ethnic Uzbek woman lies in the middle of her burned out house in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan, during the deadly violence that struck there in June 2010.

Not much of a result for a chairman-in-office that was supposed to be reforming and opening up precisely because of the gift of the chairmanship. Now, this slap in the face of Western democratic sensibilities -- the hasty announcement of the presidential race after supporters supposedly called for "president-for-life" status, and the very predictable election results.

Mere Camouflage

To be sure, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) did not bless the ballot: "Regrettably we have to conclude that this election could and should have been better," Ambassador Daan Everts, head of the ODIHR's long-term election-observation mission, said in an April 4 press release. ODIHR concluded dryly that "reforms necessary for holding genuine democratic elections have yet to materialize."


So we now know that conferring the OSCE chairmanship on countries that are unreconstructed authoritarian regimes does not auto-magically turn them into liberal democrats. If anything, such an international honor camouflages the government's bad faith and enhances its prestige even as it suppresses real democracy.

An civil activist distributes leafleats criticizing Kazakhstan in front of OSCE headquarters in Vienna (file photo).

The question is what to do about this insight now that it has been so painfully gained. The problem is that hope springs eternal in the OSCE's breast. As the ODIHR's Everts concluded, the Kazakh election "showed the urgency of implementing the long-awaited reforms ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections" in 2012 -- as if we could somehow really expect such a change for parliamentary elections, when they were never achieved in the high-profile chairmanship year and were never seriously intended for the presidential election.

To have any mission at all, the better nature of OSCE has to go on pretending that human rights and democracy are "educational" or "technical assistance" issues -- the more mature democracies ostensibly help the weaker, newer democrats learn skills -- as if liberal democracy was merely a set of courses like, say, refrigerator repair or respiratory therapy.

Moral Leverage

While there are many aspects of democracy -- from party-building to police training to parliamentary procedure that might be teachable and learned behaviors -- none of them takes place without the essential goodwill that comes with a genuine and durable separation of powers and, most of all, a political ceding of power to civil society. That hasn't happened yet in most of the post-Soviet nations; it won't ever happen if unreformed autocrats keep getting honors like the OSCE chairmanship.

Can Western democracies and the newer democracies of Eastern Europe summon the will not to reward any of these non-democrats with the OSCE chairmanship ever again? A test is coming up soon -- Ukraine, which has been backsliding to authoritarianism, is to assume the post in 2013, after Ireland. In a multilateral body, a certain expectation is formed that each member should get to take the chairmanship at some point. Yet for many years, OSCE members avoided bestowing that distinction on any of the autocrats of Eurasia.

OSCE agreements are nonbinding, and its leverage mainly moral. But is it too much to ask that it avoid turning its leadership over to countries that do not abide by basic human rights?

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer based in New York who writes on human rights issues in Eurasia. Her blog on OSCE can be found here. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL