This year, the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan is chairing the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), making it the first former Soviet republic to do so. Kazakhstan’s London Ambassador, Kairat Abusseitov tells Jonathan Fryer about his country’s priorities in this important role.
Kazakhstan has leapt onto the world stage in recent years, thanks largely to its rapid economic growth and international excitement about its rich natural resources, in particular oil and gas. Long considered something of a backwater while it was part of the Soviet Union, it is now undoubtedly the pace-setter among Central Asian nations, with a place in the mainstream of world affairs.
Though geographically mainly situated in Asia, Kazakhstan has placed special emphasis on building better relations with its European neighbours. The UK is currently the third largest investor there, and business and financial ties between the two countries have been growing exponentially since Kazakhstan opened an embassy in London, just opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, in 1996. Bilateral political ties, including activities involving members of the two countries’ parliaments, have been strengthening as well.
Parallel to the boom in commercial and political activity, the government in Astana (which replaced Almaty as Kazakhstan’s capital in 1998) has engaged in a vigorous diplomatic offensive aimed at boosting the country’s image and reputation abroad. Having some years ago identified chairmanship of the OSCE as a prime objective in that campaign, Kazakhstan successfully acceded to the position on 1 January this year. As per the norm, the function of Chairperson-in-Office has been assumed by Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Kanat Saudabayev.
The Kazakhs had originally hoped to be awarded the chairmanship in 2009. The delay was partly in response to American concerns about how stoutly Kazakhstan would uphold the OSCE’s core commitment to democracy and human rights. But sufficient assurances were given by Astana, and backed up with reforms to Kazakhstan’s own political system.
The OSCE, which is well-known for its election monitoring teams, is also particularly concerned with defending the freedoms of movement and religion and preventing the torture and trafficking of persons. Here, Ambassador Kairat Abusseitov believes that his country has ‘valuable experience to share.’ Though the population of Kazakhstan is only about 15.5 million, it comprises seven major ethnic groups and adherents to a rich diversity of faiths. ‘We think it is important for member states to consider human rights in their broadest context, including inter-ethnic and inter-confessional tolerance and non-discrimination,’ Ambassador Abusseitov says. ‘As a secular state with a majority Muslim population, we have been successful in building our own model of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional harmony and co-existence. We believe that this model is highly relevant to the needs of the modern world.’
Gender equality is also a matter of concern for the Kazakhs. As the OSCE Chairman, Mr Saudabayev, recently declared, ‘Sustainable peace and stability can only be achieved with the participation of women as the equal partners of men, and OSCE states must do more to fulfil commitments to promote gender equality.’
Kazakhstan is vast: more than 2.5 million square kilometres, stretching from the European side of the Urals to the northern borders of China and forming a land-locked mass that is almost as big as Western Europe. ‘We intend to use our OSCE Chairmanship to develop physical links between Europe and Asia through improved transport links along a “Western China-Western Europe” corridor,’ Mr Abusseitov explains. ‘The accelerated development of this project can lead to the re-emergence of the Great Silk Route, and with it increased contacts between trading partners and peoples. All the Central Asian countries wish to benefit from improved trading links between Europe and Asia, and this is an area in which the OSCE can play an important role.’
The Ambassador says that Kazakhstan wants to inject a specifically Eurasian dimension into the thinking and activities of the OSCE, since ‘in today’s world it is impossible to talk about European security without considering Asia. The OSCE as a whole will benefit by thinking of security in the OSCE in terms of Eurasia rather than just Europe.’
He cites international involvement in Afghanistan as an illustration of this: ‘A decade ago, it was inconceivable that NATO forces would be present on the ground in Afghanistan. But now 43 of the OSCE’s 56 member states are active there. We have a major interest in the stabilisation of that country and do not believe that there is a military solution to the Afghanistan problem. We are investing significantly in training Afghan officials in areas such as border management and counter-narcotics, and we would like to see other OSCE member states developing bilateral programmes in non-military areas.’
The Kazakh government would also like to see a shift in the balance between the OSCE’s three main areas of activity, which the organisation describes as its ‘politico-military’, ‘economic and environmental’ and ‘human’ dimensions. ‘In this respect, we want to put more emphasis on efforts to deal with the global financial crisis,’ Ambassador Abusseitov clarifies. ‘While these issues have been discussed in the G8, the G20 and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, they have barely been mentioned in the OSCE.’
By now it should be obvious that Kazakhstan would like to see some quite radical changes in the way the OSCE operates. Indeed, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has proposed that an OSCE Summit should be held this year to establish a new roadmap for the organisation. ‘A summit is long overdue,’ Mr Abusseitov says. ‘The last one took place in 1999, when the OSCE area faced a different set of security problems.’
If such a summit is indeed organised there will be no shortage of things to talk about. ‘Other areas of priority focus include the so-called “protracted conflicts” in Moldova and the Caucasus, increasing the contribution of the OSCE to counter-terrorism activities, addressing the environmental challenge posed by the Aral Sea and combating human trafficking,’ Ambassador Abusseitov says.