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Kazakhstan’s Candidacy for OSCE Chairmanship

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

109th Congress, Second Session

Mr. Speaker, next week, Kassymzhomart Tokaev, the Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, will be visiting Washington. Given Kazakhstan’s growing strategic and economic significance, his agenda with U.S. Government officials and Congress is likely to be broad-ranging. But a key focus of Minister Tokaev’s discussions will certainly be Kazakhstan’s bid to serve in 2009 as Chair-in-Office of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Kazakhstan has been avidly pursuing this prestigious leadership post since 2003. The consensus decision must be made by this fall, in time for the December OSCE Ministerial Meeting.

While I support the idea of Central Asian leadership of the OSCE, my purpose today is to point out the very serious problems with Kazakhstan’s candidacy. As many of my colleagues on the Helsinki Commission have concluded, awarding Kazakhstan the political leadership of OSCE in 2009 would be unwarranted and potentially dangerous for the Organization. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in his opening statement at a recent OSCE meeting in Almaty, even admitted: “We do not…have established democratic principles.” Therefore, allowing Kazakhstan to assume the chairmanship by default is not acceptable. Kazakhstan’s chairmanship bid must be deferred until the country substantially implements its OSCE commitments, especially those on human rights and democratization.

Defenders of Kazakhstan’s candidacy have pointed to the country’s economic reforms and relative freedom, compared to the rest of Central Asia. I concur that Kazakhstan is far ahead of the police states of Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. But that is no great achievement. Surpassing the worst of the worst does not confer an automatic right to hold the chairmanship of the OSCE which is dedicated to upholding human rights and promoting democracy.

It has long been the State Department’s position “that any Chair of the OSCE must be in substantial compliance with all OSCE commitments.” Over several years now, high-level U.S. Government officials have provided Nazarbaev and other Kazakh officials clear, concrete indicators of the progress necessary before serious consideration could be given to U.S. support for Kazakhstan’s Chair-in-Office bid.

Yet long-promised political reforms in Kazakhstan have not materialized and the human rights climate remains poor, as documented in the State Department’s annual reports. Kazakhstan’s oil riches, strategic location and cooperation with the United States in antiterrorism programs cannot conceal the fact that the country remains an authoritarian state. President Nazarbaev has manipulated constitutional referendums and falsified elections to stay in power, while his relatives and friends have gained monopoly positions in the most profitable sectors of the economy. Independent and opposition media have been consistently harassed and pressured, and opposition politicians have been excluded from elections, or worse.

Such was the state of affairs before last December’s presidential election, which was widely seen as a “make-or-break” moment for Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, the government failed to uphold its international commitments before, during and following the election. Despite repeated pledges from Nazarbaev to hold a free and fair contest, the OSCE observation mission stated the election “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments” due to “restrictions on campaigning, harassment of campaign staff and persistent and numerous cases of intimidation by the authorities” which “limited the possibility for a meaningful competition.”

The election was a serious blow to Kazakhstan’s chances to chair the OSCE. The recent establishment of the State Commission on the Development and Realization of the Programme of Political Reforms comes after the major elections, too late to have any definitive liberalizing effects. In addition, a string of events has accentuated the disturbing gap between OSCE commitments and Kazakhstan’s implementation.

Last November, opposition politician and former Mayor of Almaty Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found dead in his home. According to Kazakh authorities, he shot himself three times, twice in the chest and once in the head. The official version of his death is, kindly put, implausible in the extreme.

In February, opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbaev, along with his driver and unarmed bodyguard, was shot in an apple orchard outside Almaty. The official investigation has placed the blame for this brazen crime on Erzhan Utembaev, head of the administration of the Senate, who allegedly engaged the services of some security officers.

It is fair to say that this explanation for Sarsenbaev’s death has failed to satisfy many observers. What is indisputable, however, is that anyone involved in opposition politics in Kazakhstan risks, in the worst case scenario, not merely electoral defeat but murder.

Furthermore, Kazakh officials have backed Russian plans to eviscerate the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which, among other important democracy promoting activities, undertakes the OSCE’s election observation missions. This would pose a grave threat to the OSCE as an institution and as the most credible election monitoring organization in the world.

Recent statements and actions by local Kazakh authorities against a Hare Krishna community outside of Almaty and actions to penalize minority religious communities for unregistered religious practice run counter to OSCE norms and Kazakhstan’s stated commitment to inter-religious tolerance.

On March 20, President Nazarbaev praised Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s handling of unrest in Andijon in May 2005. Praise for the Andijon massacre that left hundreds dead in Uzbekistan, and which moved the OSCE, the U.S. Government and international organizations to call for an independent, impartial investigation, are hardly the “reforms” one expects of a country that hopes to chair the OSCE. The forced repatriation of Uzbek refugees to Uzbekistan was equally alarming.

Just today, Kazakhstan’s upper house passed a highly restrictive media law that has been criticized by the OSCE’s Representative on the Media and the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan. It is hoped that President Nazarbaev will not sign this problematic bill into law.

Mr. Speaker, in light of these circumstances, Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 cannot be supported. I strongly believe that backing Kazakhstan’s candidacy would cause more difficulties than will result from Astana’s disappointment over not winning this prize.

None of this means that we should not strive to develop the best possible relations with Kazakhstan, on a mutually beneficial basis. There are many areas of current and potential cooperation between our countries, including Kazakhstan’s entry into the WTO, energy, military security and anti-terrorism. Nor does my inability to support Kazakhstan’s candidacy for the OSCE Chairmanship in 2009 mean that I do not hope to be able to back a future bid. Nothing would please me more than to report to this Chamber that Kazakhstan has met its commitments on democratization and human rights and richly deserves to lead the OSCE. A Kazakh chairmanship would also move the Organization eastward in the symbolic sense, bridging what has become an uncomfortable gap between the former Soviet republics and Europe.

But that moment has not yet come, Mr. Speaker. I would encourage the Kazakh leaders to avail themselves of the opportunity of additional time to constructively engage the OSCE. Working to ensure that the Organization succeeds would aid Kazakhstan’s bid for a future chairmanship, while expressing sour grapes over a denial can only add to the impression that Kazakhstan is not ready for a leadership role.

The OSCE Chairmanship represents acknowledgement of progress already made, not a stimulus to future, unproven progress. Urging the Kazakhs to defer their bid would leave the door open for Astana, should demonstrable reforms on human rights and democratization be forthcoming. That progress was promised by President Nazarbaev, when he signed the Helsinki Accords as his country joined the OSCE in 1992.

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