2010 is a big year for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as it marks the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, which acknowledged that human rights is a core issue in interstate relations in Europe. Unfortunately, 2010 also marks the first year in which the OSCE’s rotating chairmanship will be held by a country – Kazakhstan – that fails to meet the organization’s human rights standards.
Since elected to serve as the 2010 chair two years ago, Kazakhstan has failed to implement the reform commitments it made to fellow OSCE participating states. In fact, since 2007 the human rights situation in the country has actually gotten significantly worse.
In a throwback to Soviet practice, in 2007 Kazakhstan became the first country in the post-Soviet space to elect a parliament in which all the seats are held by a single party. Restrictive laws regulating the Internet and reinforcing privacy protections, criminal trials and civil libel suites have all been used to muzzle what is left of independent media. Minority religious groups continue to be harassed. Security services continue to play an outsized role in the life of the country, and Kazakhstan’s best known human rights activist was jailed for four years, convicted of vehicular manslaughter following an investigation and trial, both of which were replete with procedural violations.
The Kazakhs are immensely proud of the fact that they are the first former-Soviet country to chair the OSCE, a point that the official media unceasingly portrays to the domestic audience as a sign of international recognition of the achievements of Kazakhstan and, more specifically, of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The government of Kazakhstan is making an all-out effort to convince fellow participating states that the OSCE should hold its first summit meeting since 1999, with Nazarbayev presiding. The Kazakh government is also pressing for a Nazarbayev meeting with President Obama in April, when the Kazakhstani president comes to the U.S. for an international nuclear safety summit.
The Open Society Institute strongly believes that such high-level meetings cannot be successful unless Kazakhstan first takes concrete steps to improve its record on human rights and democracy. Actions such as releasing high-profile prisoners and amending laws that have been used to muzzle the independent media are important first steps towards reform and demonstrate that the Kazakhstani government is serious about its repeated oral commitments to modernize the country’s political system.