- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

ALMATY, Kazakhstan - The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe played a key role during the 1970s and 1980s in undermining communism by introducing the spirit of human rights into the countries under Moscow’s thumb. In return, the Kremlin got an accord that it interpreted as providing international recognition for the borders of the “Iron Curtain.”

For the Kremlin, it was not a good deal: Communism and its borders collapsed, and human rights flourished, to varying degrees, across the former Soviet empire in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, the empire is striking back.

Since President Vladimir Putin’s first election four years ago, Russia, along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, have formed a coalition of seven countries within the 55-member organization to challenge more and more openly one of its key missions: To bring, through a cooperative approach, all member countries to the highest level of democracy, which includes free and fair elections, a free press and freedom of religion.

OSCE officials point to the rise of suicide bombers in Uzbekistan and Chechnya — the only part of Russia where Moscow allowed an OSCE mission to operate, albeit briefly — and say encouraging nonviolent and democratic forms of dissent is essential to curbing the spread of terrorism in the region.

But the seven countries say the organization should concentrate on economic aid, a more direct fight against terrorism and curbing the illegal traffic in drugs and people.

The OSCE includes all of the European countries plus the United States and Canada.

The latest challenge from the six post-Soviet countries was the announcement last fall by Kazakhstan, the most economically advanced of the six, and the one with the best human rights record, that it will seek the one-year chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. The decision is to be made in 2006.

In doing so, Kazakhstan broke two unwritten rules that govern the way the powerful, one-year chairmanships are allocated by consensus: First, only democratic countries that live up to the OSCE’s rules — which Kazakhstan does not — need apply. Second, applicants usually discreetly canvass other members and announce their candidacy only when they are reasonably sure to be elected.

Kazakhstan’s candidacy comes as President Nursultan Nazarbayev and officials from other countries say OSCE missions are interfering in their internal affairs with criticism concerning human rights, press freedom or fair electoral procedures.

“I am convinced that without changing today’s situation, the days of field activity are numbered,” said the Russian ambassador to the OSCE in an interview to be published in the organization’s magazine. “Instead of assisting, they interfere in internal affairs.”

OSCE officials here point to a document adopted by consensus in 1991 in Moscow by the organization’s members that says human rights matters “are of direct and legitimate concern to all participating states and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned.”

Over the last two years, the government of Kazakhstan sped up the departure of the last two OSCE ambassadors after they spoke in public against what they said were violations of human rights.

But compared with Russia or other Central Asian countries, where the killing of opposition politicians and journalists is relatively common, Kazakhstan is far ahead, according to organizations that monitor human rights.

Another ex-Soviet country well-regarded by the OSCE is Estonia, whose president, Arnold Ruutel, is due in Almaty tomorrow for a three-day visit.

In Kazakhstan, freedom of religion is exemplary. At present, there is just one prisoner viewed by the West as political, an opposition party leader jailed on corruption charges. There is no record of any political killing. While the mainstream press avoids reports of abuse by Mr. Nazarbayev and his family, three small papers affiliated with opposition parties do not.

Indeed, some have reported in extensive detail the case of the country’s main adviser on oil matters, James Giffen, who goes on trial in New York federal court Oct. 4 on charges of having funneled $60 million in oil payments to Swiss bank accounts controlled by a Kazakh official recognizable as Mr. Nazarbayev. The accounts were deemed by Swiss authorities as being used for money-laundering.

Tax-evasion charges were added last month to the indictment of Mr. Giffen, who has denied all charges.

“Back in the early ‘90s, we had real press freedom,” said Sergei Duvanov, a reporter who recently spent 18 months in jail on rape charges he says were fabricated. “But now it’s getting tighter and tighter.”

Last month, during a media forum hosted by Mr. Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, , who controls most television channels and several newspapers and is also the head of the journalists’ union, the president announced he would veto a proposed media law that had been harshly criticized by the OSCE, the European Union, the United States and his daughter.

Jan Kubis, the OSCE’s secretary-general, attended the conference and called the decision “very welcome.” Yevgeny Zhovtis, a lawyer and the director of the Kazakhstan Bureau of Human Rights, also welcomed the move, saying in an interview the law would have “further tightened the existing muzzle on the press.”

Foreign Minister Kasym- zhomart Tokayev said in an April interview he was optimistic that Kazakhstan’s campaign for the OSCE chairmanship would be successful.

“It should be a two-sided movement, toward each other,” he said. “Both must have a strong interest to get together. We need more understanding from the West, and we must move ahead ourselves. Otherwise, Kazakhstan as well as other countries will feel marginalized. But still, we have time ahead.”

Outside observers are not so sanguine.

“They have few chances, not to say none at all,” said Victor-Yves Ghebali, a professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs who monitors the OSCE. “In any case, if Kazakhstan were elected, that would deal a serious blow to the OSCE’s credibility.”

The candidacy elicited a letter from U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who said that while “the United States welcomes the aspirations of Kazakhstan,” it is clear “that any state wishing to assume the Chairmanship must demonstrate that it can conduct free and fair elections.”

In a recent visit to Kazakhstan, Chris Patten, the European Union’s external-affairs commissioner, said, “In order to be a credible candidate, the government of Kazakhstan will obviously have to have demonstrated that it’s committed to the principles that underpin the OSCE.”

“Relations between the OSCE and Moscow and its friends are so bad that if Kazakhstan’s candidacy is rejected, they could use this as proof of a double standard and withdraw from the organization,” said Anton Rupnik of Slovenia, a former OSCE ambassador in Kazakhstan. “And Central Asia is now the main focus of the organization.”

“In Eastern and Central Europe, the major issues have been decided,” said a senior Western diplomat. “In Central Asia, they are still on the table.”

“The field missions constitute the major asset of the OSCE,” said Mr. Ghebali of the Geneva institute.

Tomas Bridle, director of the National Democratic Institute office in Kazakhstan, said closing the OSCE’s Almaty office would be “terrible for Kazakhstan.”

“If they weren’t here, there would be no one else to turn to evaluate election laws,” he said. “No other organization has that kind of legitimacy and expertise in post-communist countries.”

But a paper issued last fall by the OSCE delegations of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan said the organization “has begun to acquire more and more the features of a human-rights watchdog” that “ignores the needs of the host countries.”

In the future, the paper said, “non-interference in the internal affairs of the host country should be an absolute priority for all missions.”

“It is obvious that the missions cannot function endlessly,” the paper concluded.

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