OSCE to Hold Summit in Kazakhstan After Eleven Year Hiatus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 144

On July 16-17, in Almaty, an informal meeting of 56 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) countries’ foreign affairs ministers decided to hold a summit of the organization this year in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. This will be the OSCE’s first meeting at the level of heads of state since Istanbul in 1999 (“Outcome of the Almaty Informal Ministerial Meeting,” Kazakhstan OSCE Chairmanship perception paper, July 17, 2010).

The OSCE was only able to hold ministerial-level meetings at the end of each year for the last ten years, mostly with no or negative results. With Kazakhstan chairing the OSCE in 2010, the decision to hold a summit and approve the Astana venue looked uncertain until this late date. A change in the US position, from wait-and-see to acceptance, was the key to the decision by unanimous consent to task Kazakhstan with hosting the OSCE summit. The US had acted similarly in 2007, rallying at the last moment behind a consensus to entrust the OSCE’s 2010 chairmanship to Kazakhstan.

The Astana summit might be held in late October or early November. This leaves a maximum of three months for drafting the decisions to be considered by the heads of state in Astana. The ministerial meeting in Almaty has jump-started the drafting process in key capitals toward summit decisions regarding the four unresolved post-Soviet conflicts and the future of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, among other Russian challenges to the international order.

Central Asian issues will share the center stage for the first time at this summit. The civil conflict in Kyrgyzstan in June of this year focused Western attention on Central Asia and helped catalyze the OSCE’s decision to hold a summit in Astana. The response of Kazakhstan was pivotal during the Kyrgyzstan crisis, first in opposing the idea of a Russian-led CSTO intervention (EDM, June 15) and afterward by acting as OSCE chair to promote the deployment of a police mission in southern Kyrgyzstan (“Kazakhstan’s Practical Approach to Alleviating Humanitarian Crisis in Kyrgyzstan,” OSCE Chairmanship, July 17).
In the OSCE’s chair and in managing the Corfu process (taken over from Greece), Kazakhstan has proven to be a competent and effective international actor thus far. The summit in Astana, however, poses more daunting challenges to Kazakhstan’s diplomacy in terms of maneuvering between Western and Russian positions.

Kazakhstan is the first non-European, Muslim-majority, post-Soviet state to chair the OSCE. It is also a state recently created and built from scratch. Nineteen years ago, the Kazakh leadership had taken charge of a mere territory that lacked all the attributes or experience of statehood; a zone of Soviet economic and ecological disaster, in which the Kazakh element had been reduced to a minority, and where no political nation or civil society had existed. The selection of Kazakhstan to chair the OSCE rewards the country’s performance since 1991 in terms of state development, civil consensus building, economic modernization, and effective management of its natural resources.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is generally regarded in the West as an authoritarian state. Its features include a single-party parliament, a presidential vertical power system, and its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in office since 1991 with a potentially lifetime tenure. Although Western states have long regarded democracy promotion as the OSCE’s main raison d’etre, they have nevertheless agreed unanimously to task Kazakhstan with the 2010 chairmanship and, now, the summit to be hosted by President Nazarbayev in Astana. These decisions add a new international dimension to the internal legitimacy of the Nazarbayev presidency.

These Western-approved decisions implicitly acknowledge Kazakhstan’s successful advance as a state-building project, in the specific circumstances of its time and place. Such decisions reflect a downscaling and perhaps undeclared end of utopian hopes to transplant Western democracy models to non-Western societies during one generation or even one electoral cycle.
Kazakhstan had campaigned, first for the OSCE’s chairmanship and then for hosting the organization’s summit, from multiple motivations. At one level, it treats these tasks as national prestige projects, symbolic validations of Kazakhstan’s development as a state and international actor. Beyond this, however, Kazakhstan seeks to ensure that the OSCE’s concept of security (centered on Europe, with the formerly Soviet-ruled Eurasia as an add-on) should fully embrace Central Asia.

With Russia and China as neighbors, the ramifications of the Afghanistan conflict, and no bona-fide international security organization involved in this region, Central Asia remains an insecure “grey area.” Kazakhstan seeks via the OSCE to focus the attention of the US and the EU on Central Asia and involve them more actively in the region, as actors with major security and economic interests there.

Kazakhstan stepped into the chair of a failing organization at the OSCE in Vienna; and will undoubtedly seek as a minimal goal to avoid another OSCE failure at the summit in Astana. This organization has not had a successful chairmanship since that of Romania in 2001. After that, Russia’s mounting challenges to the international order paralyzed the OSCE. This organization’s system of decision-making by unanimous consent leaves it hostage to Russia’s veto power.

The OSCE’s failures have been of two types: in most cases, foundering on Russia’s vetoes; and in some cases, yielding to Russia for the organization’s face-saving and quiet perpetuation. The OSCE’s paralysis is such that mere avoidance of failure might be deemed a semi-success for an annual meeting or a chairmanship of this organization.