Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Kazakhstan Takes Up the OSCE

In 2010, the Republic of Kazakhstan will assume the chair of the OSCE. Is this a cause for concern or is it possible that the government in Astana will become more democratic as a result?

I don't really think the chairmanship will turn into the possible debacle that has been portrayed by organizations like Human Rights Watch. Neither will it produce the deep changes in Kazakhstan's human rights record precisely because in order to alter attitudes within the country, laws restricting basic human rights such as freedom of expression and religion, will need to be amended so as to remove the vagueness surrounding, for example, what can be written in the press without charges of affecting the welfare of the state. Unfortunately, Astana is a totally top-down government. Nothing happens unless lower level officials receive explicit instructions from the Presidential Administration and then often it must come from the president himself.

In the meantime, perhaps the first test of the chairmanship will be monitoring the elections in Ukraine in January. Considering that after the Orange Revolution even mentioning the events in Ukraine was met by cold stares from government officials, to have Astana judging a much more robust democratic expression (despite its flaws) in Ukraine is worrying. Astana will need to approve of an election process in Ukraine (and it will) that is in stark contrast to its own.

Astana is in a position to gain considerable prestige from its chairmanship, but it will also focus attention upon its own, considerable, failings. Will the attention prove too much for the government to tolerate? Perhaps by 2011, they will be glad to have done with it. Kazakhstan is a tribal society with a ruler not accustomed or tolerant of dissent. The people were appalled by the Orange Revolution and are repelled by the apparent chaos that it represented. Stability is highly valued, just like it is in China. Holding the reins of the OSCE for a year will not change that perception and although legislation may be enacted to assuage the sensibilities of OSCE members and organizations like Human Rights Watch, implementation will unlikely be pushed very hard.

This is not to say that pressure to change will be entirely unsuccessful or should be abandoned. But more will be needed than simply appealing to Astana's sense of justice and respect for human rights. After all, they are much more interested in economic development as the newest pipeline to China indicates or recent energy deals with France.

Economic strength is a priority for the government and the general population and attitudinal changes only come after people feel economically secure. The misconception peddled by donor agencies that civil society programs alone have a significant impact in societies such as in Central Asia (or in any of the former Soviet Union for that matter)is simply a waste of money in the absence of economic stability. To put it simply, a family does not care about what happens to journalists, who owns the media or the lack of government transparency when there is no job and no food on the table. More, not less, economic development and investment will be needed to establish a foundation for systemic change while at the same time keeping the pressure on for an end to human rights abuses.

Finally, what damage can Kazakhstan possibly do to the reputation of the OSCE? Silvio Berlusconi was President of the EU for a year and the universe did not collapse.

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