Kazakhstan Eyes Failing Grade at Mid-Term

05/19/2010 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The old saying that if you keep expectations low, you will never be disappointed may go a long way towards explaining what the 56 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were thinking when, three years ago, they agree to let the autocratic regime of Kazakhstan become the OSCE chair-in-office for 2010. As it approaches the mid-term mark for its chairmanship, it's worth looking at Kazakh performance so far -- both in action and example -- to see if the state has any possibility of avoiding a failing grade when its term ends in December.

For starters, if any states harbored hopes that Kazakhstan, ranked "Not Free" by Freedom House, would be capable of exercising the kind of leadership required of an OSCE chair, they have been dashed by its handling the continuing crisis in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. As Bishkek burned, Astana dithered. Troubling though it must be for Kazakhstan's dictator to watch the toppling of another dictator next door, having taken on the OSCE chairmanship for 2010, the Kazakhs had a special responsibility to engage multilateral institutions -- even in their own backyard. Instead, they sealed the border, and ferreted the toppled tyrant out of Kyrgyzstan, briefly to Kazakhstan, and then onto Belarus where he now keeps good company with Europe's last dictator. Meanwhile, instability in Kyrgyzstan persists as evidenced by continuing violence last week.

Ironically, the decision to facilitate the escape of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the nation he drove to the brink of civil war could actually be construed as a useful -- if self-serving -- move by the Kazakhs. But five months into their OSCE chairmanship, that is a pretty scant record of success. Despite their promise to open the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border by May 11th, the Kazakhs have not -- at the time of writing -- honored this commitment. The effect of the closed border on transitional Kyrgyzstan's very vulnerable economy is devastating. But the Kazakhs' fear that instability might filter into their own state seems to overpower any sense of duty towards facilitating a constructive solution, which is something OSCE leaders, in theory anyhow, ought to do.

At the OSCE ministerial conference in Madrid in 2007, at which the chairmanship was conferred on Kazakhstan, its then-foreign minister made a series of commitments about democratic reforms Kazakhstan would undertake at home before taking the leash of Eurasia's best-known democratic watchdog. In most substantial respects, Kazakhstan has failed to honor these obligations -- libel remains a criminal offense there and is used to muzzle the press, opposition political parties are kept out of parliament by various barriers, and the country's best-known human rights defender, Evgeniy Zhovtis, sits in prison as a result of a flawed judicial system. After a representative of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly visited Zhovtis in prison this week, the Kazakh government blocked his report of the visit from the OSCE website, reminding those who had wished for better of the reality of how autocratic states behave. Additionally, last week, Kazakhstan's parliament bestowed lifetime immunity and the title "Father of the Nation," on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- not only an undemocratic move, but also one that suggests the OSCE chairmanship is seen there as just another tribute to the fabulously-rich dictator.

In the case of Zhovtis, the Kazakh government recently had an opportunity to review the case and find a way to set the human rights defender free. They declined to do so. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the Kazakhs also faced a choice: they could do things the old-fashioned, Soviet way where one regional strongman makes a deal with another, or they could do things the way modern, multi-lateral organizations do, through engagement and consultation. Unfortunately, they chose the more familiar route. It is reasonable to ask how many more tests the Kazakhs have to fail before people turn crimson when speaking of the embarrassment their chairmanship has become.

It might be time for Kazakhstan's friends within the OSCE might consider tapping the chairman on the shoulder and offering a little, friendly advice: Engage the OSCE more fully in finding a lasting, peaceful solution for Kyrgyzstan, let the human rights defender go free, and start taking the Madrid commitments you made more seriously. With six months left in their term, the bar is not so high for the Kazakhs to do a little better. While they still have a chance to beat the low expectations of most observers, if it continues on its present course Kazakhstan will simply prove what little is to be gained by offering poor performers responsibility in the hopes they might do a little better and diminish the OSCE in that process.

In the meantime, the Kazakhs are preparing for a major OSCE summit -- the first the organization would hold in over a decade. States within the OSCE -- including the United States -- are now considering how they would participate in such an event. Unless the Kazakhs start showing a little more respect for the democratic institutions the OSCE was conceived to support, lending credibility to their ceremonial summit hardly seems to send the right message.