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Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010

Kazakhstan’s chairing of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the first former Soviet republic or Central Asian state to do so, is a huge achievement for Astana. It is less of a success for the OSCE itself. The organisation’s commitment to monitoring elections, strengthening human rights, and supporting democratisation sits uncomfortably with Kazakhstan’s track record on these issues.

Fully aware of this, Astana has chosen instead to emphasise the OSCE’s first and second ‘dimensions’ – politico-military security, and economic and environmental security. The priorities outlined by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his Foreign Minister (now OSCE Chairman-in-Office) Kanat Saudabayev, are instructive (OSCE, 14 January). There are three that should be closely considered.

Firstly is Mr Saudabayev’s explicit reference to Russia’s draft European Security Treaty. The EST, distributed to cautious European and American diplomats in December, would alter Eurasia’s security architecture to give greater weight to Russia and thereby marginalise NATO and the OSCE itself (Caucasus Update, December 7 2009). The EST was quietly dropped by Western policymakers: for Astana to bring it up again is not only diplomatically awkward, but raises some interesting questions about how Kazakhstan views its relationship with the wider Eurasian community.

In his address to the OSCE, President Nazarbayev declared that the biggest challenge facing the organisation was “whether it can convert itself into a structure that recognizes the diversity of the world. . . or whether it will continue to be an organization segmented into blocs, where the West remains aloof from the space “east of Vienna”?” In other words, will Europe and North America continue to criticise the former Soviet space for paying insufficient attention to democracy, human rights, and so on.

In light of this surprisingly blunt criticism of Western moralising, it seems that Astana could view Russia’s EST as an alternative to the OSCE, not (as Moscow intended) to NATO. Russia grudgingly tolerates the OSCE for providing it with a seat at the table on European security, but loathes NATO; Kazakhstan is generally positive towards the Alliance, which provides it with training and equipment, but dislikes the OSCE’s democratisation agenda.

Nonetheless, President Nazabayev recognises the organisation’s importance. Perhaps in a veiled rebuff to Russia (in which case, he was simply being polite with regards to the EST), he insisted that “the OSCE is an organization that cannot be replaced. Its stagnation or disappearance would create a volatile vacuum in the Euro-Atlantic area”.

The second and most promising priority area is Afghanistan. Kazakhstan’s geographic location means that, unlike European chairs of the OSCE, the situation in Afghanistan could pose a genuine threat to its security, if violence flares in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Astana’s cordial relations with most of the other Central Asian states also puts it in a better position to support border-strengthening measures along the Afghan frontier, and to encourage collaboration against Islamist extremism in the region.

The third significant priority is the focus on the South Caucasus. Mr Saudabayev announced that his first visit as Chairman-in-Office would be to the region, and solicited help from the OSCE delegates in resolving the conflicts there.

Certainly, Kazakhstan has a unique role to play in mediating in the region’s conflicts. As a former Soviet republic, and a state in the heart of Eurasia, Kazakhstan can offer its services as an impartial negotiator who knows first-hand the tensions between Russia and its former satellites (in the case of Georgia), as well as the complex ethno-political legacy which the USSR left behind (in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan). Given Kazakhstan’s desire to establish itself as an energy source for the West, the Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan energy and transport corridor also helps to bind it to the region.

But international politics is a tough business, especially in Eurasia. A shared history and a mutual interest in energy routes will not easily translate into conflict resolution. Kazakhstan has, for instance, expressed its willingness to help settle the conflict between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is unlikely to do so. From Russia’s point of view the OSCE is still the OSCE, whether it is headed by Kazakhstan or (as in 2009) by Greece. Astana’s chairmanship does not change the realities on the ground or the hard-headed national interests of regional players. It is also unlikely to fire up renewed efforts by the Minsk Group, the OSCE’s own trilateral group of mediators tasked with resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In other words, we should not expect too much from Kazakhstan. The OSCE Chairman-in-Office is just that: a chairman. The organisation’s consensus-focused model means that no single state has the ability or the time to force through any sweeping policies or declarations. Compromise and dialogue are the order of the day.

This may be useful, nonetheless. Kazakhstan’s eagerness to avoid talking about democracy and human rights might force it to focus heavily on politico-military security, and to help create a space for contentious issues, such as the EST or Nagorno-Karabakh, to be discussed. More security and less democracy may not be the most welcome approach. But security is in short supply in parts of Eurasia: the chance to build it should not be missed.

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