Kazakhstan, often perceived in western capitals in terms of its energy wealth or its close relationship with Russia, is undoubtedly an important geostrategic player in Eurasia and in early 2010 became the first former Soviet country to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has elicited speculation and controversy concerning its role and potential.
Its commitment to promoting the founding aims of the OSCE while chairing the organization was highlighted by the current political instability in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, following the removal of incumbent Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on April 7 and the emergence of a provisional government. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister, Kanat Saudabayev, discussed the crisis during telephone calls with his counterparts in Ankara, Berlin and Paris, securing their full support for the country’s efforts to assist in stabilizing the situation. Facilitating public safety, reviving business activities and helping the interim government to strengthen the existing legal system aimed toward easing tension in all parts of the country, linked the efforts of the OSCE, EU, UN and other agencies.
The Kazakh authorities were thus at the forefront of efforts to prevent the fragile state descending into civil war, as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently warned. Astana, was therefore, instrumental in extricating Bakiyev from southern Kyrgyzstan on April 15, offering temporary refuge, and thus helping to avoid the emergence a Central Asian failed state Astana’s diplomacy in this regional crisis reflects its own interests to avoid instability on its doorstep, as well as being sensitive to its strategic location between China and Russia and confirms the high value its government attaches to its OSCE role.
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Indeed, its enhanced profile coincides with major shifts within Central Asia, as pipelines and transportation infrastructure from West to East are rapidly built across the region linking it increasingly to the rising economic power of China, and reinforcing the fact that Russia is now only one regional player among many others. This economic transformation also confirms Kazakhstan’s future economic potential, not only important in its own development but for western commercial interests. Its OSCE role comes at a time when US foreign policy has become less didactic, and more geared toward consensus building and focused on cooperation.
The speed at which Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, a highly reputable and successful politician, acted to promote stability in Kyrgyzstan is consistent with the ambitious vision the country’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has for its future. Nazarbayev, instrumental in renouncing the country’s Soviet inherited nuclear arsenal and related technology in the 1990’s has emerged a key Eurasian ally for US President Barack Obama’s vision for a world free from nuclear weapons. In this context, the OSCE might well become a forum within which both can promote the ‘global zero.’
Astana, conscious of the aim to unite under one roof the political, economic and cultural interests of all OSCE members that marked its foundation in 1975, wants to refocus on these issues, rather than serving as an international watchdog on human rights. It is equally keen to invigorate the organization’s contribution toward energy security, peacekeeping or resolving “frozen conflicts,” which NATO either avoids or is unwilling to address.
Critics of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE, often link their objections to its close relationship with Russia, and try to discern signs that Moscow might secretly pull strings or use Astana to promote its agenda. Nonetheless, after almost twenty years of independence, such mechanical views fail to grasp either how the country itself has changed or the fact that Russia’s former imperial approach toward its neighbours is way beyond its declining economic power: policy decisions are taken in Astana, and not as a result of the Kremlin’s bidding.
In which case, many ask, why is Astana so keen to support President Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new European security treaty aimed at displacing what Moscow sees as Cold War era security architecture? Astana is not simply following Russian foreign policy aspirations, but joining what it views as a legitimate need to stimulate dialogue concerning security within the OSCE space, that reflects future needs and evolving dynamics, rather than past fissures. In its present format, western powers and the NATO Alliance cannot sign such a treaty for both legal and political reasons, but Astana firmly believes that a fresh dialogue is needed, and that the OSCE is its most suitable forum.
Assessing Kazakhstan’s chairmanship through a Russian-centric Eurasian perspective risks missing an opportunity for the West to develop stronger relations with a country and region that will prove vital as a bridge to Asia, long after Afghanistan no longer serves as the critical determining factor. Astana’s OSCE policy is encapsulated in the slogan ‘path to Europe,’ reflecting Peter the Great’s founding of St. Petersburg as a ‘window on Europe,’ and as such it conveys a deep sense of pride and ambition for its future. Now is the time for western governments to deal with Kazakhstan at a level that reflects shared interests and avoid the temptation to look over their shoulders towards its northern neighbor.
Roger N. McDermott is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies at Jamestown foundation in Washington D.C. He is also an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury.