OSCE Battlefield
No. 3 2008 July/September
Arkady Dubnov

Political analyst at Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper.

The pan-European process that was given the go-ahead at the
Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe in
August 1975 will mark its 35th anniversary in 2010 and the signs
are that congratulations on this occasion will be received by
Kazakhstan as the country that will preside over the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in that year. For the
first time in the history of this organization, its rotating
chairmanship will go to a country that is not only Asian, but which
also has a controversial list of problems with democracy and human
rights – the areas that the OSCE traditionally places high on its

According to Muratbek Imanaliev, a former Kyrgyz foreign
minister and current president of the Bishkek-based Institute of
Public Policy, the accession of Central Asian countries to the
European regional security organization in 1992 was “a historical
and political caprice prompted by events of the early 1990s and by
certain predilections of leading powers.” The Kazakh path toward
chairmanship of the largest European organization has been full of
twists and turns and it reflects not so much the rise of the
country’s national statehood, as the rivalry between Russia and the
West for energy resources in the Caspian basin and Central Asia,
plus the competition between Moscow and the Kazakh government for
positions in energy markets and in the territory of the former
Soviet Union.


In February 2003, Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to
Austria and to the OSCE, made a request at a session of the OSCE
Permanent Council to consider Kazakhstan as an aspirant for the
organization’s rotating chairmanship due to begin in 2009. Quite
naturally, Aliev, a son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan
Nazarbayev, was not viewed as a regular diplomatic official, yet
few people took his request seriously, as Astana’s relationship
with the OSCE was more than simply strained at the time.

Back in 1999, Nazarbayev openly accused OSCE representatives of
meddling in his country’s domestic policies after he had undergone
sharp criticism for extending his presidential powers in an early
election. He said in an interview with the Habar television channel
that OSCE officials were acting like Soviet-era functionaries who
would come to Kazakhstan from Moscow for inspections. Nazarbayev
also made it clear that his country did not consider membership in
the OSCE indispensable.

The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia, the
Pacific and the Global Environment endorsed Resolution 397 in
September 2000, voicing concern over the situation with human
rights and democracy in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, and
calling into question their membership in the OSCE in the

Kazakh Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov responded in November of
that same year as he addressed the eighth session of the OSCE
Ministerial Council in Vienna. He accused the OSCE of giving much
more attention to human dimension issues in detriment to military,
political, economic and ecological issues. His conclusions sounded
tough: the evolution processes in the OSCE did not meet
Kazakhstan’s requirements and the organization handed down
predominantly negative, biased and tutorial assessments of the
situation in the country.

Relations seemed to have returned to the old track and
ambassador Aliev’s unexpected statement was drowned in oblivion. In
October 2003, Kazakhstan’s mission to the OSCE released a
confidential memorandum On Reforming OSCE Operations in the
Regions. The six-page document accused the OSCE of being overly
bent on human rights. It also said the organization had “focused
the bulk of its attention on human dimension issues in separate
regions” and had “erroneously rejected dialog on these problems
with the authorities of the countries in question, concentrating
instead on independent assessments, often based on subjective
judgments and unverified information.”

The memorandum leveled sharp criticism at OSCE country missions,
whose members mostly contacted non-governmental organizations and
human rights groups. Kazakhstan recommended forming missions in
coordination with the authorities of each country in question and
limiting their mandates to twelve-month periods with the
possibility of extending them only through a decision of the OSCE
Permanent Council. Moreover, it was proposed that mission personnel
rely on governmental structures in their work.

The document emerged in the run-up to Nursultan Nazarbayev’s
speech at a session of the Permanent Council, scheduled for
November 20, 2003. Rakhat Aliev’s efforts to rally support for the
memorandum among the ambassadors represented at OSCE headquarters
failed to deliver results. On November 18, the presidential press
service said: “Nursultan Nazarbayev has been admitted to the
Republican Clinical Hospital in Astana for inpatient treatment for
a catarrhal disease, and his visit to Austria scheduled for
November 20, in the course of which he planned to address the OSCE,
is henceforth postponed.”

It is not clear what motives were behind Aliev’s cavalry charge
on the OSCE mechanisms. The proposals called into doubt the
organization’s founding principles formulated in the humanitarian
“Basket III” of the Helsinki agreements. However, it should be said
that the events of five years ago anticipated the major motives of
a brawl between Moscow and the OSCE during the Russian
parliamentary and presidential elections at the end of 2007 and the
beginning of 2008. One more possible reason for the breaking down
of Aliev’s assault was a lack of active support from other CIS
countries (although the preamble of the memorandum said it had been
drafted in cooperation with the Russian, Belarusian and Kyrgyz
missions). Now Moscow is trying to counteract the OSCE alone, and
it looks like Kazakhstan has no plans to support Moscow – something
that will be discussed below.


Astana’s approach began to change in 2004 when Rakhat Aliev and
his wife Dariga Nazarbayeva, the eldest daughter of the Kazakh
president, started cooperating with U.S. Global Options, a company
which collaborated with some former U.S. high-ranking
administration and defense officials. Some details of this came
into the spotlight in spring 2008 following publications in the
U.S. media.

The Wall Street Journal claimed, among other things, that Dariga
tried to make Global Options instrumental in exerting influence on
the course of an investigation into a corruption scandal, which the
international media has labeled Kazakhgate. Its main figure, the
U.S. financier James Giffen, is suspected of corrupting the highest
Kazakh state officials, including Nazarbayev.

The president himself dismissed in May 2004 the reports on his
involvement in Kazakhgate. U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Stephan M.
Minikes, made an undiplomatically straightforward remark when he
visited Astana several days later. His diagnosis suggested that
corruption was a malignant tumor eating away at the country from
the inside. He also issued a prescription against it – to plunge
into “the cleansing tide of the democratic process.” As the
discussion of Kazakhstan’s application for the OSCE chairmanship
was getting closer, Minikes urged the country’s leadership to grasp
at this “great opportunity” and to clean up its reputation by
ensuring free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections,
due in 2005.

Sources close to Aliev claim it was precisely then – in 2004 –
that his partners in Global Options recommended that he give up
confrontation with the OSCE and start looking for a “European” path
for his country.

New initiatives from Russian diplomatic quarters came at about
the same time. They aimed at rectifying a situation where the OSCE
had the function of an “instrument” in “serving separate countries
or groups of countries”. The text of a joint statement by CIS
members of the OSCE, with the exception of Georgia, initiated by
Moscow, was made public at a session of the Permanent Council in
July 2004.

The organization was reproached for its inability “to adapt to
the reality of a changing world and to ensure an efficacious
solution to security and cooperation problems.” Rebukes also
concerned non-observance of the Helsinki principles, such as
non-interference in internal affairs and respect for the
sovereignty of separate states. CIS countries proposed working out
“standardized unbiased criteria” for the “assessment of elections
in the entire territory of the OSCE”, to reduce the size of
observer missions to fifty members, and to forbid commenting on
elections by mission members before the official publication of


The Kazakh parliamentary election on September 19, 2005 was
intended to become the most decisive argument in favor of
Kazakhstan’s bid for the OSCE chairmanship. Nazarbayev himself did
his utmost to lobby Kazakhstan’s interests among the ambassadors at
OSCE headquarters a week before the vote. Diplomatic sources in
Vienna told the author of this article at the time that Nazarbayev
was given to understand that Western countries would welcome
Kazakhstan’s voluntary withdrawal of its application for
chairmanship. Turkey, for instance, which aspired to the
chairmanship in 2007, went back on its claim in view of an
insufficient level of democratic freedom in the country.

Observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and
Human Rights (ODIHR) issued an uncompromising verdict on the
election in Kazakhstan, saying that it had failed to meet the
international standards specified by the OSCE, but this assessment
did not discourage Astana. “Tying the decision on chairmanship to
the assessment of elections does have importance, but one must also
think about the prospects for democracy in Kazakhstan,” Kasymjomart
Tokayev, the foreign minister at the time, said in an interview
with the Vremya Novostei newspaper.

“Being a Eurasian country, Kazakhstan reflects the current
character of the OSCE, as purely Asian countries of our region also
have membership there,” Tokayev said. “Our country has done a lot
of work in terms of moving toward democracy and it needs a bonus of
some kind […]. That is why we believe that Kazakhstan is a worthy
candidate for chairmanship of this respected international

In May 2008, six months after Kazakhstan had received the
much-desired right to hold the reins of the OSCE, albeit in 2010
and not in 2009, the country’s State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev
talked about a “rare opportunity” the chairmanship would offer “for
strengthening of the dialog between the East and the West.” “When
we say ‘East’ in this case, we mean both OSCE member-states located
east of Vienna and countries of the Muslim East,” Saudabayev said
while sharing his geopolitical findings.

However, Kasymjomart Tokayev did not feel any special enthusiasm
in November 2005, a month before the presidential election. “Our
intentions will not materialize overnight,” he said in a comment on
Western recommendations to democratize the electoral system in
Kazakhstan. “I agree that the upcoming election must be fair and
free of infringements on the rights of the opposition, although I
do not have any doubts about the results of voting,” Tokayev

The results did look stunning, as the official returns showed
that 91.01 percent of the electorate had voted in favor of
President Nazarbayev. OSCE mission coordinator Bruce George said
the election “did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other
international standards for democratic elections.”

The prospects were far from bright for Astana until December
2006, when the destiny of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship was to be
decided at a session of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Brussels.
However, Britain’s new ambassador to Kazakhstan, Paul Bremmer, who
arrived in Astana in January 2006, noted the importance for
Kazakhstan to show its commitment to the OSCE principles during the
rest of the year. He indicated that more progress could be expected
in the entire field of democratization. Bremmer recalled the ODIHR
report on the presidential election that had highlighted some
encouraging facts and had at the same time pointed out areas where
more work was still needed.

Nazarbayev personally came to Brussels several days prior to the
meeting to support his country’s bid. He chose as a pretext for his
visit to Belgium (his high status ruled out his presence at a
ministerial meeting) the signing of a memorandum on mutual
understanding between Kazakhstan and the European Union in the
energy sector. After a meeting with European Commission President
Jose Manuel Barroso, Nazarbayev said it would be extremely
important to rally EU support for Kazakhstan’s candidacy, since
“peaceful coexistence among people of 130 different nationalities
and 46 religions in Kazakhstan” presented the OSCE with invaluable
experience. This statement put Barroso in a rather awkward position
and prompted him to make a tough answer by saying: “I’m sorry, but
the European Commission has absolutely no position on this, that’s
not our need to solve.”

Despite support from Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands,
no consensus was reached in Brussels to award Kazakhstan the
chairmanship in 2009. Britain and the U.S. voted against it, and
attempts by Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht to persuade
Astana to voluntary postpone its bid until 2011 (he specially went
to a CIS summit in Minsk before the session in Brussels in a bid to
meet with Nazarbayev’s representatives there) proved

A decision was postponed until the November 2007 session that
the Ministerial Council was due to have in Madrid. Germany’s expert
for Central Asia and the director of the Eurasian Transition Group,
Michael Laubsch, said the failure of the meeting in Brussels was
“unique” for the OSCE, as this was the first instance in the 30
years of the organization’s history that its member-states would
fail to reach a consensus on leadership within their ranks.


The year 2007 started out with dramatic events in Kazakhstan.
Two top managers of Nurbank – where Rakhat Aliev, who by that time
had been promoted to First Deputy Foreign Minister, was the largest
shareholder – were kidnapped and quite possibly killed in January.
In February, Nursultan Nazarbayev dismissed his son-in-law from the
post and sent him to Vienna for the second time as ambassador to
Austria and the OSCE. In late May, the president issued an order
“to conduct a scrupulous investigation regardless of the official
position and status of the people involved” into the kidnapping of
the Nurbank managers. Aliev, who was accused of taking part in this
and other crimes, managed to flee Kazakhstan and seek political
asylum in Vienna. Nazarbayev’s reaction to this was pretty tough –
he fired Aliev from all the posts, compelled his daughter Dariga to
divorce the man in absentia and placed his former son-in-law on the
international wanted list.

This situation made Nazarbayev forget about the bid for OSCE
chairmanship for the time being, especially as on May 21 – several
days before the institution of a criminal case against Aliev –
Nazarbayev signed a decree that introduced amendments to the Kazakh
Constitution. They envisioned among other things “a transition from
a presidential to a presidential-parliamentary form of government”
and allowed him to run for president an unlimited number of

It was obvious that Nazarbayev’s decision to declare himself de
facto president for life, which heavily undermined the chances for
Astana to get the much-desired OSCE chairmanship, was dictated by a
fight for power among his closest associates and Rakhat Aliev’s
stated readiness to compete for the presidential post in five

As the next step, Nazarbayev dissolved parliament – for the
third time in 17 years – and scheduled early elections for August
18, 2007. Only one political force – the pro-presidential
superparty Nur Otan – proved able to get past the seven-percent
support barrier at the polls, thus returning the country to
one-party rule. Ljubomir Kopaj, the head of the OSCE mission to
Kazakhstan, did not conceal his dismay, saying he did not know any
democratic country where only one party would be represented in

However, it became clear the next day after the election that
Astana had not forgotten the OSCE chairmanship project for good.
Nazarbayev filled the vacant seat of the ambassador to Austria by
sending Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov there. In the
very same days, Rakhat Aliev sent a SOS to his former counterparts
in OSCE headquarters, urging them to prevent his extradition to his
native country. He insisted that he “had always fought for a
democratic European choice” for his country and had put forth the
ambitious idea of chairmanship in the OSCE for that purpose. But
now Kazakhstan was “rapidly turning into a monarchic and de facto
police state”, the martyr for democracy warned.

As the November session of the OSCE Ministerial Council in
Madrid was getting closer, one more intrigue – namely, whether or
not the Austrians would hand over Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law –
added to the guesswork about the prospects for Kazakhstan’s
chairmanship bid. Aliev defended himself in every possible way,
including through blackmail: he threatened that he might provide
evidence on Kazakhgate.

Kazakhstan’s State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev, a former
ambassador to the U.S., paid an extremely important visit to
Washington. Astana reported that the U.S. had expressed interests
toward “a further build-up of bilateral cooperation with Kazakhstan
in the energy sector and ramification of export routes for Kazakh
energy resources.” The announcement was intended to serve as a
signal that Washington did not plan to jeopardize its interests in
Kazakhstan by vetoing the country’s chairmanship in the OSCE.

Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin sent a letter on November 20, 2007
to his Spanish counterpart Miguel Moratinos, the OSCE’s
Chairman-in-Office, a week before the session of the Ministerial
Council. It said that “Kazakhstan reiterates its firm commitments
to the fundamental principles of the OSCE.” Tazhin wrote that his
country “stands for the development of all three OSCE
dimensions without diminishing the role and importance of any of
them. […] We must continue developing its human component in
order to strengthen democracy in all participating states.” Tazhin
reiterated that Kazakhstan “will continue the reforms that were
launched in our country in 2007. They specifically encompass such
spheres as the improvement of legal practices and the law on
election, mass media, political parties […]
.” The contents
of the letter and the very fact that it had been sent remained
confidential until the end of the Madrid meeting on November 30,
when it appeared on the OSCE’s official website.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not know anything
about Tazhin’s letter either when he sharply criticized the OSCE
for continuing “to remain on the sidelines of the main
developments” in the world. He unambiguously defended “our friends
from Kazakhstan” against attempts to force them “to somehow
additionally prove their ‘suitability,’ unlike all the others who
have so far been approved without any problems for the role of
‘taking the helm’ of the OSCE.”

Unaware of the fact that the “Kazakh friends” had almost fully
proved their “suitability” by then, Lavrov insisted on the adoption
of new rules for ODIHR activity. Russia’s closest allies in the
CIS, including Kazakhstan, had submitted a draft decision to the
Ministerial Council on the adoption of “basic principles for the
organization of ODIHR observation of national elections,” Lavrov
said, urging others to “carefully study” a draft OSCE charter
prepared by Russia’s allies.

Moscow was ready for an unconditional defense of Kazakhstan’s
chairmanship bid for 2009 up to the blocking of the election of
chairmen for 2010 and 2011. This meant that the organization would
find itself without the troika of leaders as of the beginning of
2008 when Finland got the rotating chairmanship.

However, it was unnecessary to “plug the porthole with one’s own
body,” as the Russians put it. This became clear when Marat Tazhin
took the floor. He promised that his country would “duly take into
account” the OSCE’s recommendations “while implementing the program
of democratic reforms;” in “working on the reform of Kazakhstan’s
election legislation;” in work on media legislation; and in
implementing “the ODIHR recommendations in the area of elections
and legislation concerning political parties.” “We consider the
human dimension to be one of the most important directions of the
OSCE activity,” Tazhin said, thus disproving the Russian thesis
that the organization had over-focused on precisely this area.

Then he totally puzzled Moscow by saying that “as a potential
Chairman” Kazakhstan “is committed to preserve ODIHR and its
existing mandate and will not support any future efforts to weaken
them.” Also, it “will not be party to any proposals that are
problematic for ODIHR and its mandate in the future.”

The diplomatic efficiency of Astana and its Western partners
scourged the pathos of Lavrov’s report at the session, and all the
draft documents he had proposed were rejected in Madrid. The
situation did not leave Lavrov any room to maneuver and a
compromise was reached in the course of his talks with U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State Nicholas Burns just two hours before
the end of the summit: Kazakhstan would get the OSCE chairmanship
in 2010, a year later than initially planned, while Greece would
precede it in 2009 and Lithuania would follow it in 2011.

It is noteworthy that, according to information the author
received from diplomatic sources at OSCE headquarters, the
postponement of Kazakhstan’s term to 2011 turned out to be
unacceptable “for a well-known group of countries.” They would not
like to see a country, on which Moscow could exert substantial
influence, standing at the helm of the organization in the year
preceding the presidential election in Russia.


The Kazakhs perceived the victory in Madrid as the recognition
of achievements made by the country and, primarily, by its
president. “Nursultan Nazarbayev’s charismatic figure and his
activity are by far the biggest attractive assets of the Kazakh
bid,” Russian expert Yuri Solozobov claimed in summing up this

Strange as though it might seem, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakh
prime minister from 1994-1997 and who has been living in exile in
the West for almost ten years, expresses a similar position.
Kazhegeldin, who held a range of consultations with leading
European politicians at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008,
is confident that Nazarbayev’s figure, as well as the fully mature
Kazakh elite and population, has put the country ahead of other
Central Asian states in terms of readiness for sweeping democratic
reforms along the evolutionary path, ruling out dangerous
revolutionary shake-ups.

However, it turned out this spring that Kazakhstan had not taken
a single step toward reforms, which Tazhin had promised in Madrid,
over six months. Western European OSCE member-states supported a
proposal to organize the monitoring of Kazakhstan’s preparations
for assuming chairmanship of the organization.

As for President Nazarbayev’s willingness for reforms, a
statement he made during an interview with Reuters in March 2008
offers a bright testimony. “We have been elected as a full-fledged
member of the OSCE and we do not assume any additional
obligations,” he said. Subsequently, the phrase was mysteriously
cut out of the Reuters newswire and only remained in the version
provided by Kazakhstan’s Habar news agency. There are grounds to
believe it was cut out at the mutual consent of the sides so as to
rescue Astana’s Western partners from a rather awkward situation,
since they regard the Madrid decision as overtures made to
Kazakhstan in an expectation that it will fulfill its promises.

Of what Nazarbayev said, only the ending of his phrase became
known: “I would like to create a democracy like in America, but
where can I find enough Americans for that in Kazakhstan?”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakh-language website was
blocked in Kazakhstan in early May and access to it was closed for
a month. The government did not issue any answers to numerous
inquiries from the radio’s executives. The site was unblocked only
after interference on the part of the OSCE Representative on
Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, who sent a letter to Foreign
Minister Tazhin expressing the hope that “the state Internet
service providers were informed by your government that
interference in providing service would violate Kazakhstan’s press
freedom commitments.”

The foreign ministers of five countries – Spain, Finland and
Greece as the current troika of the OSCE, as well as Kazakhstan and
Lithuania that will take the helm at the organization in 2010 and
2011 respectively – met in Helsinki at the initiative of Finland,
the current chairman, in early June 2008. This event did not have
any precedents in the history of the OSCE and it was necessitated
by a growing concern in the West over the absence of democratic
reforms that Astana had promised. This time, however, Marat Tazhin
did not make any promises similar to the ones he had made in
Madrid. He only said that “the interests of all OSCE member-states,
their correlation with the OSCE’s general agenda and relationship
to the priorities set forth during previous chairmanships will be
taken into account as Kazakhstan designs priorities for its

It was quite apparent that Kazakh officials came to the
conclusion that no one could take the right to leadership away from
their country, even more so because the OSCE does not have a
procedure for this.

On the other hand, Astana’s actions expose certain logic. The
West will not likely want to spoil relations with Kazakhstan, thus
putting in jeopardy its energy interests, in the first place, and
pushing Kazakhstan into Russia and China’s embrace, in the


One will be able to put an end to the story of Astana’s ascent
to the top of European security and cooperation in a year and a
half from now when it officially gets down to its duties as OSCE
chairman. However, there are already a few conclusions that might
be of interest for Russian policies as well.

Like Russia, Kazakhstan faced a choice between fueling its
conflict with the OSCE up to the point of a possible withdrawal
from the organization, and trying to use it to enhance its national
prestige and influence. Preference was given to the latter option,
and Astana seems to be achieving its objectives so far. This
success became possible because the OSCE is a political
organization, first and foremost, and not a human rights watchdog,
and that is why the strategic interests of member-states most
typically outweigh abstract or idealistic considerations there.
This means that countries presenting some interest to the leading
players can efficaciously play on this.

It is also true, though, that Kazakhstan does not want to change
the format of how the OSCE functions, something that Russia does.
Astana will be satisfied with getting the political dividends
proportionate to its geopolitical weight. As for Moscow, it is
pursuing the goal of rewriting the rules of the game, and this is a
far more complicated task per se. But it is equally true that
Russia has incomparably more levers of influence than Kazakhstan

Chairmanship in the OSCE will become an important landmark in
Kazakh foreign policy, and Astana will without a doubt try to use
it to assert itself as a regional leader. For Russia however, this
means problems rather than opportunities. An illustrative signal
was seen in April when Kazakhstan ostentatiously refused to lift
sanctions against Abkhazia and thus put itself in opposition to
Russia. Moscow should obviously put aside hopes that Astana’s term
as OSCE chairman will help it to advance its own positions.