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Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010

Few anticipated that, just three months into Kazakhstan’s controversial chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, it would have to deal with a situation as serious as its southern neighbour Kyrgyzstan faced recently. The April 7 uprising in Kyrgyzstan, which led to the deaths of at least 80 protestors and which forced President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee the country, was a major challenge for Kazakhstan and for the OSCE as a body. Unfortunately, neither seemed able to effectively respond.

The violence – which began on April 6 in the town of Talas, but which had roots going back months - seemed to have caught the OSCE off guard. This in itself is concerning, given the organisation’s remit of early warning and conflict prevention.

The very fact of the violence – with armed police firing live rounds into crowds - also demonstrates the failure of years of OSCE efforts to strengthen the country’s security sector, build civil society, and encourage respect for human rights.

In light of the OSCE’s failure to prevent the violence, we could hope that it would respond decisively and swiftly. Unfortunately, the organisation’s reaction has been limited and timid.

Although Zhanybek Karibzhanov, the newly-appointed OSCE Special Envoy for Kyrgyzstan, was in Bishkek by April 9 to meet with the interim government which seized power, his public statements reveal a serious lack of solid policies or ideas. As current OSCE priorities he highlighted “ensuring public safety, reviving business activities and assisting the new administration in strengthening the existing legal system” (OSCE Press Release, April 12).

Nobody could argue with the first of these, but reviving business activities is, under the circumstances, a short-sighted fix which does nothing to address underlying economic issues (utility price hikes, rampant corruption, and the fall in remittances from Kyrgyz working abroad, all of which fuelled serious resentment against the Bakiyev regime). And “strengthening the existing legal system” also seems an odd area of cooperation with a government which has just seized power through a bloody revolt.

The omission of political dialogue in the OSCE’s initial statements was also concerning. The organisation bowed to the inevitable by helping to facilitate Mr Bakiyev’s resignation. However, in doing so it simply followed the lead of the interim government, which had threatened to arrest the former president unless he surrendered. The OSCE acted after the fact, legitimising the interim government’s decision to chase out the legal head of state (OSCE Press Release, April 15). There is no clear indication that Mr Karibzhanov, the Special Envoy, even held direct talks with Mr Bakiyev.

Mr Karibzhanov, the Special Envoy, attempted to acknowledge this by stating, on April 10, that Mr Bakiyev remained President de jure but that the interim government was in charge de facto, and that it was up to the new rulers “to prove the legitimacy of [the] new government” (24 News Agency, April 10). In other words, the OSCE was quite prepared to acquiesce in the uprising, despite the obvious legal and security ramifications, which run directly counter to the OSCE’s mandate and principles. 

Kazakhstan provided sanctuary to Mr Bakiyev before he fled onwards to Belarus (Eurasianet, April 15). It is not entirely clear whether it did so in its capacity as OSCE Chair. If so, it suggests an awkward precedent, particularly since the new government is seeking to extradite several high-ranking former officials from Kazakhstan (RFE/RL, April 17). Does the OSCE want to be responsible for harbouring the deposed officials, with the resultant political complications? Allowing these officials to skulk in exile in Astana would hardly reflect well on Kazakhstan.

As analyst Catherine Fitzpatrick points out, one of the boldest and most active steps the Kazakh chair of the OSCE could have taken, would have been to insist on the deployment of monitors to Kyrgyzstan. As the bloc operates on a consensus model, Russia would have had to agree to this, but other OSCE members and the Chair should have made clear that temporary, unarmed observers were in everybody’s interests. 

OSCE monitors would have helped to stabilise the situation between pro- and anti-Bakiyev groups; prevent ethnic violence of the kind that supposedly flared in the north (RFE/RL, April 9); and ensure that human rights were preserved. A dedicated OSCE team could also support and cajole the interim government into keeping its promise of elections within six months.

The OSCE was designed to respond to these kinds of emergencies. The UN and the EU took a fairly low-key approach to the crisis, as have the ‘Eurasian’ blocs. Both the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation did little more than state their ‘concern’ over the situation, despite both being ostensibly concerned with security in Central Asia (SCO, April 8; 24 News Agency, April 8).

The OSCE may have been more active than either of these organisations. But that isn’t saying much. Given Kazakhstan’s close regional relationship with Kyrgyzstan, and its stated desire to make a success of its OSCE chairmanship, much more could have been done to react to this crisis. The lacklustre response has tarnished Kazakhstan’s chairmanship, and tarnished the OSCE.

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