- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan

A debate on how to nudge authoritarian regimes onto the path toward democracy that has played out on both sides of the Atlantic for three years is approaching its climax, with the American vision of exclusion expected to trump Europe’s preference for inclusion.

The choice is whether to approve Kazakhstan’s bid to lead for a year the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — the world’s largest organization for monitoring elections and human rights — despite the Central Asian’s country’s failure to uphold the democratic standards the OSCE stands for.

At stake, Western diplomats say, is whether the move will motivate President Nursultan Nazarbayev to implement the democratic reforms that he has been promising for a decade in order to achieve the international legitimacy he has vigorously pursued — or whether he will travel further down the road toward outright dictatorship.

Today in Brussels, foreign ministers from the United States, Canada, Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union — the 56 members of the OSCE — will gather as they do every year to decide which country will lead the organization in two years.

The OSCE was created in 1975 under a bargain in which Russia agreed to introduce democratic reforms and respect human rights, and the West agreed to respect the Warsaw Pact’s borders.

In fact, those borders crumbled with the Berlin Wall, and today, partly because of the OSCE’s work, nearly all OSCE members meet basic democratic standards. Most of the countries that have not are in Central Asia.

The process of selecting the country that will lead the group for a year is normally done discreetly and requires a consensus. The job, which carries some prestige, is taxing for all but the largest foreign ministries, and there is rarely open competition.

But breaking with this tradition, Kazakhstan, has been campaigning loudly since 2003 to chair the group in 2009, which would make it the first chairman of the group from a former Soviet country.

That would not be a problem if Kazakhstan followed the democratic principles that Mr. Nazarbayev promised to follow in 1992, when the nation joined the OSCE.

Human rights activists, opposition leaders and Western diplomats agree that the trend since the start of the current decade has been gradually toward less democracy and more repression.

Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry spokesmen declined to comment.

Parliamentary elections in 2004 led to a near shutout of the opposition and a presidential election in 2005 gave Mr. Nazarbayev, 67, an eyebrow-raising 92 percent of the vote. Both elections were ruled unfair by the OSCE.

In the last year or so, two prominent opposition figures have been killed on what is widely thought to be orders from high in the government.

“This is real repression,” said Bulat Abilov, a former member of Parliament and opposition leader who is facing up to 10 years in prison on charges that many independent observers think were trumped up.

Why Mr. Nazarbayev has so publicly campaigned for the chairmanship while not putting forward even cosmetic democratic reforms has been a mystery.

In May, six months before he went to Washington on a state visit, officials in Almaty, the main city, told both the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute to stop their work to strengthen political parties on the grounds that it benefited mostly the tiny opposition.

“The United States message has been consistent: You need to show improvements to lead an organization essentially dedicated to creating democratic institutions, and you haven’t, so the answer is no,” said a Western diplomat.

This position, which has the support of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a congressional watchdog on U.S. policy in Europe, stands in sharp contrast with efforts in Washington that, by exaggerating U.S. relations with Kazakhstan, have aimed to nurture its independence from Russia.

The United States has also sought to encourage Kazakhstan’s leadership role in a strategic, oil-rich region, where other regimes are more repressive or more unstable than Kazakhstan’s.

The Bush administration has long contrasted Kazakhstan with countries with nuclear ambitions, endorsing Mr. Nazarbayev’s claim that he made a historic choice in giving up an inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal. But according to two former heads of the Kazakhstan National Security Council, those weapons never left Moscow’s control and he had no such choice.

Washington also regularly praises Mr. Nazarbayev as a strategic ally in the war on terrorism, even though Kazakhstan is two countries removed from Afghanistan and has no terrorism problem of its own.

In addition, Conoco-Philips has lately been seeking diplomatic support in efforts to acquire a slice of Kazakhstan’s oil riches in the Caspian Sea, said diplomats familiar with those efforts.

“The Americans could have traded the chairmanship for oil,” said one European diplomat. “You have to give it to them, they stood on principle. This will be a big loss of face for Nazarbayev.”

European countries were at first skeptical of Kazakhstan’s bid, but many decided to support it on the grounds that the regime’s pro-democratic forces would be empowered by the chairmanship’s spotlight, while hard-liners would increase their influence if it were denied.

“There will be no more incentive for progress if Kazakhstan doesn’t get it,” said Yevgeny Zhovtis, the country’s leading human rights campaigner.

“If they do, I don’t say they will necessarily behave better, but the context will be better. If not, the anti-American forces will become stronger and more public, Kazakhstan will move closer to Russia, and repression will be worse.”

Another Western diplomat noted that the issue comes after Russia and its former colonies have been demanding efforts to make the OSCE human rights and election monitoring less intrusive — changes the West refuses to consider.

“If Kazakhstan is turned down, there’s a good chance the hard-line countries could make it harder for OSCE missions to operate in their countries, cooperate less with the election monitoring missions and refuse to pass the budget,” the Western diplomat said.

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