Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Kazakhstan raises questions over OSCE's direction

By Rose Kudabayeva
BBC Russian

Kazakhistan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev - 12 December 2009
President Nazarbayev wants to shift the OSCE's focus

Despite questions about Kazakhstan's commitment to democracy and human rights, the country has taken up the rotating year-long chairmanship of the OSCE - an international security and rights grouping.

Kazakhstan is the first former Soviet republic to hold the chairmanship of the 56-nation body.

The energy-rich nation has seen an economic boom, but the decision to give it the chairmanship is highly controversial, raising questions about the future direction of the OSCE.

The Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has described his country's tenure of the OSCE as "an extremely important recognition of Kazakhstan's international authority, and a historical mission for the Kazakh state".

The OSCE is meant to protect democracy and human rights, yet Kazakhstan has been strongly criticised by human rights groups for its poor record on both.

President Nazarbayev has brushed off the criticism by saying that the OSCE is fixated with what he referred to as "artificial divisions between East and West."

The two major causes of continuing tension between "eastern" and "western" members are the often highly critical evaluations of elections in former Soviet Union countries by OSCE monitors, and the August 2008 war between member states Georgia and Russia.

Greater scrutiny

In Kazakhstan itself, the country's role as the new head of the OSCE has re-ignited heated debate.

Supporters of its chairmanship say Kazakhstan's behaviour will now be scrutinised as never before by human rights groups both inside the country and abroad.

In Astana they see Kazakhstan's recognition as chairman of the OSCE equally as recognition of the political system that's taken shape here
Dosym Satpayev
Kazakh political analyst

Rights activists point to what they say is a worsening record.

Just last year, they allege, Kazakhstan's one-party parliament adopted new laws that opposition groups say further restrict already curtailed political and civil freedoms.

So why would a country with such a poor track record be given such an important role in the OSCE?

During a recent visit to Kazakhstan, political analyst Dosym Satpayev told me that the country had capitalised on divisions within the OSCE over its potential chairmanship - and had used the support of Germany and Spain, in particular, to achieve its aims.

"In [the capital] Astana, they see Kazakhstan's recognition as chairman of the OSCE equally as recognition of the political system that's taken shape here," he explained.

Authoritarian rule

Since gaining independence nearly 20 years ago, Kazakhstan has been dominated by President Nazarbayev. Parliament is now made up entirely of his allies.

In many respects, the country mirrors the kind of entrenched, authoritarian regimes that have become the norm in much of the former Soviet Union.

This year, President Nazarbayev will celebrate his 70th birthday, and many analysts say the question of his succession is fuelling a growing battle for power between Kazakhstan's various political clans.

Kazakh capital Astana
The economic boom is overshadowed by concerns about a lack of democracy

As evidence, they point to the disgracing of President Nazarbayev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev.

He was once a high ranking diplomat and even the Kazakh representative in the OSCE, but he has now been declared a state criminal and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment in absentia.

There have also been several controversial anti-corruption scandals and trials of former high-ranking politicians and businessmen.

Critics of the president say this reflects just how far away Kazakhstan is from western-style democracy.

Although many ordinary Kazakhs associate the country's economic achievements and social stability with the president, they told me they felt very detached from real politics.

In the two main cities of Astana and Almaty, people said their voices went unheard and their opinions counted for nothing.

Map of Kazakhstan

Again and again they said that ordinary people should simply try to keep out of politics altogether.

But government officials, as well as spokespeople for the ruling party, had a very different opinion.

They insist that there is a real dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.

They also say that Kazakhstan has a viable civil society and social stability, something they hope will be highlighted during the OSCE chairmanship.

New direction

Just weeks into its new role, Kazakhstan has already signalled its desire to engineer a shift in the OSCE's focus as an international body.

It wants less attention paid to human rights and democratic freedoms and more to international security and co-operation.

Russia firmly backs the proposed change of direction.

The question is still open as to whether Kazakhstan will host a summit of the OSCE in 2010.

The last one was back in 1999, a sign, many observers say, of its stagnation as an international body. Kazakhstan would see the holding of such a summit as a major boost to its international legitimacy.

Whatever the debate over Kazakhstan's democratic credentials, it is energy-rich and for that reason will remain an important partner of the European countries.

In fact it is Kazakhstan's energy resources that underpin how it is seen - and treated - by the outside world.

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