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Kazakhstan’s President-for-Life Prepares to Chair the OSCE

10/09/2009

This summer has provided further evidence that Kazakhstan’s chairing of the OSCE next year will rank high on what I can only call the WTFometer. Forget the fact that Kazakhstan is not, by any generous interpretation (I’m looking at you UEFA) a European state; neither is Canada or the USA (or the UK, according to some people…) What about the fact that one of the least free and most corrupt states in the world will be chairing an organisation meant to promote human rights and democracy? Well, we all survived Libya chairing the Human Rights Commission.

But what practically guarantees a year of rueful eye-rolling is the fact that despite international concern over the Kazakh chairmanship, the Nazarbayev regime continues to pursue repressive domestic policies and practices, even those which violate its commitments to the very organisation it is meant to lead.  One of the latest examples is the new Kazakh internet law enacted in July. Joanna Lillis reports:

The new Internet law classifies all websites, blogs and chatrooms in the Kazakhstan domain as media outlets, subjecting them to strict regulation, and introduces restrictions on the reporting of elections, rallies, and strikes. The bill drew fire at home and abroad. Human Rights Watch called on Kazakhstan to rescind a law “that significantly restricts media freedoms” on July 14. Three days later, the Kazakhstan-OSCE 2010 NGO coalition complained that the law “violates Kazakhstani citizens’ constitutional rights and is not consistent with internationally recognized principles of freedom of expression and freedom to exchange information as spelled out in the basic documents of the OSCE.”
The bill’s proponents say it is needed to fight cyber-crime, terrorism, extremism and pornography.

Yes, it’s that old chestnut: using terrorism and extremism to justify restrictions on civil liberties. (Adding porn to the list, however, is a nice touch.)

So far, the situation is quite predictable. Chairing the OSCE is quite a coup for Kazakhstan (it will be the first ex-Soviet republic to do so) – even if the usual prestige and influence associated with the position is tainted by criticism. And it is not all that surprising that the regime is proving resistant to reform – its oil and gas reserves mean that significant pressure from the US and Europe is not likely forthcoming.

But two issues in particular are worth keeping an eye on. First, will the Kazakh chairmanship facilitate Russia’s OSCE agenda? In recent years this has included closing or blocking missions in conflict zones of interest (particularly Georgia) and suspending its compliance with the CFE treaty. Second, will the OSCE’s election monitoring programme be adversely affected, especially given Russian efforts to diminish its scope and capacity? (Not to mention previous OSCE criticism of Kazakh elections.)

In this sense, the Kazakh chairmanship is a bit more serious than Libya and the HRC – it could impact both hard and soft security issues (i.e., both conflict management and democratisation) across a fairly wide sphere. It is likely, however, that the regime will want to adhere to the current Central Asian vogue for balancing between Russia and the West, which means Russia should not bank on achieving all its aims next year either.

In the end, however, it seems clear that the brightest hope for the Kazakh chairmanship – that it would lead to domestic reform – is unlikely to pan out. This may be extremely disappointing, but it is hardly surprising.