The 17th session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly hosted by Kazakhstan in Astana from June 29 to July 3 is generally seen as an outstanding diplomatic victory for Kazakhstan on its uphill way to political recognition by the Western world. On the other hand, it became evident from the unusually mild language of the discussions and heaps of praises piled on Kazakhstan throughout the session that the OSCE deputies have long since reconciled themselves to endless vacillations of Astana between showcase political reform and deep-rooted authoritarianism. At the Madrid meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers last autumn Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin declared that Kazakhstan would implement radical political reforms that would meet European standards. These reforms were broadly outlined by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who announced that Kazakhstan was paving the way for multi-party parliamentary elections that would let at least two parties into parliament. Last year’s parliamentary elections are remembered for multiple violations of the election law, vote rigging and widespread administrative pressure on the electorate, which brought the presidential party Nur Otan into parliament and granted it unshared legislative power. Dosym Satpayev, a political scientist, fears that even if other political parties are allowed into parliament, Nur Otan will retain its dominant position, thus reducing multi-party elections to a mere farce (www.zakon.kz).
Until now Kazakhstan has made only halfhearted steps toward updating its electoral law to meet OSCE recommendations, baulking at what election authorities considered “excessive demands.” Only two months ago, Marat Sarsenbayev, a Central Election Committee spokesman, declared that not all proposals on the improvement of the election law put forward by the OSCE were acceptable for Kazakhstan, particularly the demands for lifting the ban on foreign financial aid for pre-election campaigns and printing election materials outside of Kazakhstan. Stressing that elections were the domestic affairs of Kazakhstan, which tolerates no foreign interference, Marat Sarsenbayev rejected the OSCE demands (DAZ, June 13-19).
Addressing the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session, Nazarbayev promised to simplify the procedure of registering political parties, but reality tells a different story. Alga, the mainstream opposition party, has been seeking, unsuccessfully, to register with the Justice Ministry for the last two years. On May 11 Kazakh parliament introduced amendments to the law on freedom of religious faith and religious associations, which human rights organizations believe drastically limits civil and religious freedom in Kazakhstan. According to Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights campaigner in Kazakhstan, the adoption of the restrictive bill by parliament points to country’s dramatic withdrawal from earlier assumed commitments to the OSCE (Azat, June 19).
Among other promises made by Nazarbayev at the session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly were improving voting procedures and eliminating what he called “bureaucratic barriers” in dealing with the press. In the same breath he ominously added that the press “should not be the cause of human rights violations [or] threaten social and religious tolerance and public security,” words often used to justify persecutions of journalists in Kazakhstan (Delovaya Nedelia, July 4).
It did not go unnoticed that most Western speakers at the session carefully avoided stepping on the sore point of political developments in Kazakhstan and emphasized “successful” energy cooperation with Astana. It is, however, hardly a coincidence that on the eve of the OSCE parliamentary session Freedom House lashed out with scathing criticism of Kazakh authorities for the lack of civil and press freedom and branded Kazakhstan, along with Russia and Azerbaijan, as authoritarian governments. Kazakh observers believe that Freedom House’s verbal assault was prompted by U.S. policy makers who could not find another way of venting their frustrations of deep disillusionment with the political processes in Kazakhstan (Aykin, July 4).
The OSCE parliamentary session also revealed alarming signs of future divisions between Kazakhstan and European countries on political issues motivated by Russian influence. The Kazakh delegation abstained from voting in support of the OSCE resolution on the situation in Georgia warning Russia against any actions damaging the territorial integrity and independence of Georgia in its complicated relations with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Kassymzhomart Tokayev, the speaker of the Senate of the Kazakh Parliament, explaining the abstention of Kazakh delegates from voting for the resolution, said that it was “a very complicated issue and that Russia’s recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity created the basis for future consultations” (Izvestia Kazakhstan, July 4).
Kazakhstan took a similar pro-Russian stance on the OSCE resolution on the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine. Despite all this ostentatious display of solidarity with its traditional ally Russia, Kazakhstan potentially can do a lot to bridge the gap between the Kremlin and the West, including on energy issues. One more important aspect not to be overlooked by the West is that Kazakhstan will chair the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 2011, which also, theoretically, could contribute to the improvement of East-West relations. With that prospect in view, boosting Kazakhstan’s political profile, even if it is not learning democracy very well, could be justified.