The United States faces embarrassment as leaders from 56 countries, including heads of state and government gather for a two-day international summit in Central Asia.
By Shiraz Paracha
After a gap of 11 years, the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is holding its summit in Astana, a shiny but frosty capital of Kazakhstan, which is the rotating Chair of the OSCE for 2010.
The United States considered Kazakhstan ‘unfit’ to lead the OSCE. In the US eyes, Kazakhstan held a poor record in areas of governance, democratic reforms and human rights, a commonly applied charge sheet against non-Western countries and the so-called third basket of the OSCE agenda.
Kazakhstan, however, was determined to achieve the goal. There was a substantial support for Kazakhstan’s chairmanship among the European Union (EU) members. The EU is very keen to have broader and deeper ties with the resource-rich Central Asian state. In 2007, Kazakhstan assured its European partners in Madrid, Spain, that it would meet all the OSCE standards.
Julie Finley, the US ambassador to the OSCE from 2005 to 2009, however, continued to oppose the Kazakhstan’s ambition but eventually the United States had to accept Kazakhstan as the 2010 Chair of the OSCE. Several factors may have led Washington to budge and give a green signal for the ‘crowning’ of Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is a vast country that borders China, Russia and Central Asian states. The US cannot afford to offend or ignore a state with a strategically important location and huge hydrocarbon reserves and precious mineral resources.
Secondly, in comparison to the West’s old rival Russia, it is easier for the United States and the West to deal with Kazakhstan.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union had initiated an East-West dialogue that led to the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the predecessor of the OSCE. The Soviet proposed talks on economic cooperation in Europe were held at Dipoli in Helsinki in 1972. The outcome of the talks was "The Blue Book" and the 35-member CSCE in 1973 and later the Helsinki Final Act.
After the end of the Cold War, the CSCE was renamed into the OSCE; however, Russia became suspicious of the organisation’s aims and viewed it as an anti-Russia body that was promoting Western interests.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been a staunch critic of the OSCE. He believed that the OSCE was ineffective and biased and an instrument to promote the foreign policy interests of one or a group of countries.
Nevertheless, recently the OSCE has been accommodating Russian concerns and Moscow, too, is less critical of the organisation. Some Western commentators fear that the Russian influence in the OSCE has increased, particularly in the past two years. There are reasons for the change.
NATO and the United States are stuck in Afghanistan. Out of the 56 OSCE member states 43 are involved in Afghanistan. The Afghan factor, perhaps, has forced Washington and Brussels to adopt a soft approach towards Russia and Central Asia. NATO has been facing difficulties in Afghanistan due to insecure and unstable supply routes through Pakistan. Air supplies via Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan are not enough.
For the continuation of the NATO Afghan adventure, alternate land connectivity to Afghanistan through Russia and Central Asia is a vital goal. The United States and NATO have been courting Russia and Central Asian states for access to Afghanistan from the north. Kazakhstan is the leader of Central Asia and it can help NATO and the US in transit facility through Central Asia.
In this backdrop, a change of heart seems to have occurred in the United States. Now the ‘land of the free’ has a high opinion of Kazakhstan. Former US ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley has recently praised Astana and said that the Kazakh chairmanship of the OSCE has been successful. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is attending the OSCE Summit along with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and dozens of other world leaders.
As the OSCE Chair Kazakhstan has proved that the US was wrong in judging Astana. In fact, Kazakhstan as the first Muslim nation, the first Central Asian country and the first former Soviet republic has performed exceptionally well in providing leadership and guidance to the OSCE on several important issues and conflicts.
Afghanistan tops the agenda of the Astana Summit. Kazakhstan has a different perspective on Afghanistan, while attending the NATO summit in Lisbon, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan said: “Peace in Afghanistan is not possible only by military means.” Kazakhstan has been working closely with the Afghan government in non-military areas.
This year, the foreign minister of Kazakhstan Kanat Saudabayev visited Afghanistan three times. Kazakhstan is helping in infrastructure development in Afghanistan and Afghan medical and police officials are also receiving trainings in Kazakhstan.
Violent inter-ethnic clashes in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan earlier this year were another test of Kazakhstan’s leadership. Astana handled a sensitive and dangerous situation wisely and helped in controlling the violence.
Nazarbayev and Saudabayev turned the OSCE platform for the political dialogue on resolving the crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Special consultations were held with the other OSCE members such as Russia, Spain, Lithuania, Germany, France, Turkey as well as the United Nations.
Months later, mostly peaceful parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan demonstrated that Kazakhstan is an anchor of stability in Central Asia. Maintaining peace and stability in Kyrgyzstan will be discussed at the Summit, President Roza Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan is in Astana for the Summit.
Regional conflicts such as in Georgia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh are also expected to be on the table in Astana. Russia considers the former Soviet space as its ‘special sphere of influence’ and has been very sensitive about the West’s involvement in these conflicts. Azerbaijan is keen to find a settlement of its dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkey backs the Azeri position but a major breakthrough on this issue is unlikely at the Astana Summit.
Thirty-five years ago at the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had launched a sincere effort of a meaningful dialogue between the East and the West but it did not succeed because the other side’s aim was to wipe out the Soviet Union from the world map. The West achieved its aim in 1991 with the split of the Soviet Union and soon after that the OSCE, the brainchild of the Soviet leaders, was on the mission to export the Western brand of democracy into all former republics. The mission, however, has been a spectacular failure.
The OSCE Summit in Kazakhstan coincides with the anniversary of the 1975 Helsinki Act. It provides Russia and Central Asia an opportunity to have a bigger say in the Eurasian affairs and establish a much-needed balance between the Western greed of more power and control and non-Western needs. Russia will push for the OSCE reform at the Summit that will give Russia more leverage in Eurasian affairs.
The West has been bogged down in Afghanistan and needs Russian and Kazakhstan’s help for a safe passage. Capitalist system is losing credibility very fast and the resulting economic crisis is a matter of grave concern for the West. Blinded by their oil and energy needs, arrogant Western countries are, now, somewhat pragmatic and realistic about the significance of emerging powers of Eurasia.
Shiraz Paracha is a journalist and analyst. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org