Christopher Pala in Almaty -
Meetings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are normally staid affairs with consensus easily reached among its distinguished diplomats to fight the good fight of promoting human rights around the world. But recent sessions have started to look more like a Cold War standoff at the UN Security Council after Moscow-backed Kazakhstan exercised its de facto veto over the appointment of a new chairman the first time a veto has been used by an OSCE member.
Tempers frayed fast, but by Tuesday the charged decision on who will chair the organisation in 2009 was put off until the end of next year.
Moscow has backed Kazakhstan for the chairmanship, but other members are unhappy about the idea of taking orders from a former Soviet state that they say has never held a free-and-fair election a fact that is doubly galling given the OSCE is all about promoting fair and free elections.
The whole fracas is yet another example of the minefield the West has to tread when supporting democratic principles on the one hand and securing its energy supplies on the other.
Given that Kazakhstan is a potential answer to the EU's problem of over-dependence on Russia for oil and gas, Moscow has an interest in kyboshing any relations between the two. Backing Kazakhstan's bid for the OSCE chair is proving to the perfect way to cosy up to Almaty regime at the same time as poke its finger in the eye of the West.
A spurned compromise
Kazakhstan could have gracefully bowed out and allowed Greece to be appointed for 2009 while setting its sights on 2011, but instead opted to use its veto power with the support of Russia, Belarus and the other Central Asian states to ensure that no one else got the job. It called the manoeuvre "a victory for Kazakh diplomacy."
Despite being the butt of Sacha Baron Cohen's satirical character Borat, the increasingly self-confident Kazakhstan, like Russia, is pushing for a bigger role on the world stage.
Kazakhstan clearly believes its oil wealth and increasing geopolitical clout demands more respect from the international community and the chairmanship of the OSCE is just the sort of job it should be offered. Egged on by Russia, Kazakhstan has campaigned since 2003 for the chairmanship of the OSCE, a bid that requires the unanimity of the organization's 56 members.
However, some of those members, including the US and the UK, made it clear going into this year's foreign ministers conference in Brussels that they would not support the bid.
What's my next move?
When Kazakhstan joined the organization in 1992, its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, signed into law a pledge to respect a free press, an independent judiciary, human rights, and to hold free and fair elections. But the record over the past few years, diplomats and human rights monitors agree, has been a gentle backslide, and virtually none of the reforms that the OSCE proposed have been implemented.
In Kazakhstan, the 2004 parliamentary elections resulted in a near-complete shutout of the opposition and the 2005 presidential elections resulted in a Soviet-style 92% victory for Nazarbayev. The OSCE observers reported that neither met Kazakhstan's 1992 commitments.
And things have got worse since then. A few months before Nazarbayev left for an official visit to Washington for which he had lobbied hard, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute were ordered to stop teaching local political parties how to organize because that only benefited opposition parties. Only last month while Nazarbayev was on a visit to the UK, officials bulldozed the homes of members of a Hare Krishna commune, prompting protests from the OSCE and demonstrations in London.
Kazakhstan begs to differ. Foreign Minister Kazymzhomart Tokaev, in a key speech to the OSCE last autumn, repeated that Kazakhstan has done enough reforms to qualify for the chairmanship, abstained from outlining a clear program and again lectured the organization's majority of democratic members about "selective and politically motivated assessments of developments in the participating states," a veiled reference to election-monitoring reports that show that elections are not free and fair.
At first glance the case against Kazakhstan is clear cut: it is a dictatorship (albeit a mild one) and shouldnt lead the OSCE. But the huge Central Asian republic has received support from some unusual quarters.
Germany and some other European countries have argued that to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship would put the spotlight on the country and the authorities, empower the pro-Western faction inside the government and nudge the country toward a better behaviour.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the International Bureau of Human Rights in Almaty, agrees. "It would have given our protests more resonance," he says.
Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, an outgrowth of the OSCE, says that the postponement of the choice of 2009 chairman to the organisation's summit in Madrid next December won't likely lead to any real progress that could pave the way for Kazakhstan getting it then.
"There may be some cosmetic changes, or things will simply keep moving toward the Uzbek model," she says.
Others, though, are more phlegmatic.
"I don't think it makes any difference either way," says Oraz Jandosov, a former central bank governor and current opposition leader. "There is no connection between their public aspirations and what they do here."
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