Kazakhstan takes OSCE chair despite wide criticism


KAZAKHSTAN TOOK over the chairmanship of Europe’s main rights and security watchdog yesterday, despite widespread criticism of its record on civil liberties, democracy and media freedom.

The Central Asian state lobbied hard for a one-year term as leader of the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a post which President Nursultan Nazarbayev – Kazakhstan’s leader for 20 years – sees as a source of national pride.

The ninth largest country in the world won backing for its bid from the United States and major European nations, in what critics called a cynical attempt to improve relations with a major oil and gas exporter, thus helping to reduce the West’s reliance on Russian energy.

Kazakhstan pledged to liberalise its laws on media, political parties and elections ahead of its term as chairman of the OSCE, but most analysts dismiss the changes made as merely cosmetic and some say the situation has actually got worse in recent months.

In September Kazakhstan’s leading activist, Yevgeny Zhovtis, was jailed for four years for his involvement in a fatal car crash, after a trial that rights groups said was deeply flawed.

In December prominent journalist Gennady Pavlyuk from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, a critic of the Kazakh government, died in the Kazakh city of Almaty after being thrown from a sixth floor window. Last week, a Kazakh reporter who covered Mr Pavlyuk’s death for Kyrgyz media was found stabbed to death in his flat in Almaty.

The European Union and United States have expressed their “concern” over the killing of Mr Pavlyuk, and the OSCE has acknowledged the stains on the rights record of Kazakhstan, which is also plagued by cronyism and corruption.

“We have concerns about the situation of human rights, media and other areas . . . throughout the region, including Kazakhstan,” said Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, adding that “clearly there is a challenge for the incoming chairmanship – whether they will be able to lead by example”.

New York-based Human Rights Watch was more forthright in a November statement. “Since the OSCE-participating states decided to give Kazakhstan the 2010 chairmanship, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated rather than improved,” it said.

“Minimal reform steps in February 2009 . . . were outweighed by the adoption of restrictive amendments to media and internet laws, restrictions in practice on peaceful demonstrations and protests, and the use of national security interests to justify incommunicado detention and denial of access to legal counsel.”

Kazakh officials insist their country is gradually strengthening democracy and rights protection, and fully deserves to lead the OSCE. In his New Year address, Mr Nazarbayev called the chairmanship “a very important sign of our country’s wide international prestige”. His nation’s reputation was not enhanced this week, however, when it was forced to deny reports that it was planning to sell purified uranium ore to Iran, a deal that would violate UN sanctions against Tehran.