Huffpost WorldPost
Sam Patten Headshot

Is the Father of the Nation Big Enough to Expand Freedom in Kazakhstan?

Posted: Updated:

For a year now, Kazakhstan has chaired Eurasia's regional diplomatic talk shop, called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Given that the one-year rotating chair is about to change hands, it's fitting to take stock of Kazakhstan's performance as the first former Soviet nation to hold the position. Sadly, the consensus that I observed at a senior-level OSCE summit last week in Astana was that Kazakhstan's stewardship was a success for the mere fact that it appeared to do no harm -- there was no apparent backsliding in human rights among the 56 member nations. But that standard of success simply isn't good enough. In fact, Kazakhstan did a lot less than it could and should have.

Kazakhstan won the chairmanship after much lobbying -- member nations were nervous for the simple reason that Kazakhstan and almost no former Soviet nation had ever run a fair election, and arbitrating those elections is a primary OSCE function. Freedom House has long rated Kazakhstan "not free." But Kazakhstan pledged to fairly fulfill OSCE duties, including serving as a moral authority.

As the summit on the frigid, wind-swept steppe came to a close last Thursday, one was reminded of a remark by the late Russian statesman Viktor Chernomyrdin: "We wanted something better, but got the same as we always do." Given how far Kazakhstan has come economically in the last two decades, it is reasonable to ask if President Nursultan Nazarbayev, now known by law as the "Leader of the Kazakh Nation," isn't capable of meaningful political reform.

"This was," a coalition of non-governmental organizations from OSCE member states concluded, "a summit without results." Given the extraordinary effort and substantial resources the Kazakhs committed to hosting this summit, one can't help wondering at the point of the exercise. Was it truly to re-affirm the noble, albeit dusty, principles around which the OSCE was formed? Or rather was it to provide a stage for Nazarbayev to flaunt himself as a 21st Century statesman? The gaping abyss between the liberal-sounding words parroted throughout the summit and the repressive actions taken by many of the OSCE leaders present at the summit made the group's hard- fought final declaration ring rather hollow.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a special effort to meet with civil society groups on the margins of the summit. During this meeting, the wife of a jailed Kazakh newspaper editor Ramzan Yeseregepov asked Clinton whether she would raise her husband's conviction (he was convicted for publishing "state secrets" in a dubious case) with Kazakh authorities. Clinton responded generally about the need for journalists to be free of the constant threat of prosecution. A Kazakh reporter then asked about the WikiLeaks release of classified State Department cables, which Clinton condemned as an illegal breach of security. After the meeting, a senior Kazakh official hissed at the wife of the jailed editor, "Didn't you hear what Clinton said? Publishing state secrets is dangerous and wrong."

Mixed and often troubling messages were in abundance during the Astana summit, and the odds for it having been a showcase of rights and freedoms were stacked at the outset. One early advocate of Kazakhstan getting the OSCE chairmanship was Evgeniy Zhovtis, a long-time local human rights defender. But Zhovtis was unable to attend the summit because he is serving a four-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter in a case fraught with procedural irregularities, and widely seen to be politically motivated. Zhovtis' logic in supporting a Kazakhstan chairmanship was that it would compel, if not inspire, the country to perform better in the category of guaranteed citizens' rights. Yet a Freedom House monitoring project has concluded that this unfortunately did not take place.

Over the last year, Kazakhstan continued to fail to decriminalize libel and cap penalties on civil libel actions. It continued to target independent newspaper editors and human rights defenders, and sidelined opposition political parties either by not registering them or maintaining prohibitively high thresholds for their entry into parliament. All of these are violations of the commitments it made in Madrid in 2007 in order to get the chairmanship. Moreover, in the year of its chairmanship, the Kazakh parliament approved legislation naming Nazarbayev the "Father of the Nation," forever equating his name with the nation's dignity, and according him and his family lifetime immunity from prosecution.

I heard some argue that all of this is in the past and no longer matters. But I think it matters very much. Kazakhstan in fact is less repressive than its neighbors, but that alone is not good enough. By striving to lead the OSCE, in which human rights are an integral raison d'etre, the Kazakhs set themselves to a high standard of behavior. Nick Clegg, the new deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom who represented his country at the summit, put it well. "In the 21st century, authority depends on moral leadership," he said, going on to explain that Britain's present government has instituted reforms, and suggesting that Kazakhstan might follow the U.K.'s example.

Kazakhstan put itself on the world stage last week. Next year, absent the OSCE chairmanship, Kazakhstan still will not shrink into obscurity. As a past chair, it ought to do much better in charting a course of freedom for its people. By doing so, Nazarbayev would do more to earn the title that his parliament bestowed on him.

Sam Patten is the senior program manager for Eurasia at Freedom House, which conducted a multi-year project in Kazakhstan monitoring the country's compliance with its OSCE commitments.