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Borat would certainly appreciate the absurdity of it all. His country, Kazakhstan, features a one-party parliament, a draconian new Internet law, and a leading human rights activist sitting in jail after a trial with a verdict seemingly preordained from above. Yet that same country will, in two weeks, take over the chairmanship of an organization with a mandate to protect individual freedoms and promote democracy.
Yes, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe defines itself primarily as the “world’s largest regional security organization” (from Vancouver to Vladivostok). But it does concern itself with what it calls the “human dimension” of security. In joining the OSCE, states promise “to ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to abide by the rule of law; to promote the principles of democracy by building, strengthening, and protecting democratic institutions; and to promote tolerance throughout the OSCE region.”
Kazakhstan had been trying for years to gain the chairmanship, to validate its role as Central Asia’s regional leader and bring credence to its claims of having reached an impressive level of democracy in such a short time since the fall of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Kazakhs insisted that they could serve as a bridge over the growing chasm between the Western powers and the “East” (meaning Russia and many of the countries of the former Soviet Union) on human rights issues, election monitoring, and other sensitive topics.
Critics, however, pointed to a wide range of democratic failings in this corrupt authoritarian regime, including the domination of the political scene by the president and his party, restrictive legislation on the media and political parties, and a judiciary slavishly loyal to the government. Detractors also wondered how Astana would react if confronted during its chairmanship to clear human rights violations or democratic failings in another member state. How, for example, could a country that has never held an election judged free and fair by international monitors issue a credible statement on a fraudulent election, even if it wanted to?
Finally, in Madrid in November 2007, after Astana gave a pledge for sweeping reforms in several key areas, the OSCE members caved in and gave the country the 2010 chairmanship, which must be awarded by consensus.
Now, almost three years later, with the chairmanship looming, a variety of organizations have been turning in their report cards on the promised reforms, and things don’t look good. A report titled “Kazakhstan and the OSCE Chairmanship: Reform Commitments Remain Unfulfilled details the failings of a series of legislative moves made since Madrid. Based largely on the work of Kazakh civil society groups and think tanks in a Freedom House project, the paper asserts that the authorities largely ignored the recommendations of local NGOs and the international community, despite vows made to the contrary. And a November Human Rights Watch report noted the lack of any fundamental progress, saying the government still denies basic rights in the areas of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and access to legal counsel. “The government has created a difficult environment for human rights that is out of line with OSCE standards and inconsistent with leadership of an organization grounded in human rights principles,” the HRW report states.
The latest example, where many of the country’s deficiencies have converged (particularly the intolerance for freedom of speech and a lack of respect for the rule of law), has been the case of Yevgeny Zhovtis, one of the country’s leading human rights activists and a downright nuisance to the authorities for more than a decade. In late June, Zhovtis was returning with some friends from a fishing trip when he hit and killed a man walking on a dark country road not far from Almaty. Although Central Asia has seen its share of mysterious car accidents involving opposition politicians and journalists over the past 15 years, few doubt that the incident was anything more than a tragic accident. It's what happened afterward that has human rights organizations at home and abroad crying foul.
Given those observations, it’s hard not to agree with Zhovtis himself, who has said that “abusing a tragic accident to settle scores with a human rights defender and critic of the regime is not acceptable.”
With the start of the chairmanship only days away, human rights advocates have largely given up hope of any conditions being placed on the Kazakhs’ assuming the position. That would take unanimity among the other members, and with equally intractable states such as Russia around, that will never happen. So with an “unconditioned” chairmanship a fait accompli, what can and should be done?
The only option is to keep the pressure up on the authorities over the next year. Human Rights Watch has called on OSCE members to stay engaged and “use every possibility to outline steps the Kazakh government needs to take in order to implement meaningful reforms worthy of an OSCE chair.” Despite the lure of the country’s oil wealth, the United States, Germany, and other key countries need to push to keep the chair’s own democratic deficit on the agenda, and the international media need to highlight the individual cases, such as Zhovtis, that bring that deficit home.
At this point, the only real leverage toward real reform – and the only real hope at salvaging the OSCE’s reputation as a democracy defender – might be invoking a bit of public shame.