Kazakhstan seeks image boost from OSCE summit

Kazakh soldier on duty in Astana on 30 November 2010
Image caption The Kazakh authorities have worked hard to ensure the capital is presentable for the summit

Leaders and top diplomats from over 50 nations are in the Kazakh capital, Astana, for the biggest international event ever held in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan is hosting a summit for the international democracy and security body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

This year the country has been chairing the organisation. Ever since assuming this role early in 2010 it has been lobbying to host this summit in its new capital.

Regional security, protracted conflicts and the war in Afghanistan are on the agenda. But critics say there has been no clarity on what exactly this summit is hoping to achieve.

A political analyst, Dosym Satpayev, compared the preparation for the event to a Kazakh wedding.

"All the local media has been reporting on the logistics of the event: which hotels the guests will be staying in, which cars will be transporting them, what's on the menu at the restaurants. But when it comes to saying what this event is about - they just mention it with one line," he said.

Critics say Kazakhstan is using the event primarily to boost its international image and that the country has gained little from its OSCE chairmanship.

But the authorities dismiss such claims.

"This summit and the chairmanship are the opportunity for Kazakhstan to contribute to global security," said Roman Vassilenko from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry.

"This is an opportunity to show that Kazakhstan is an equal, a decent and a worthy player and we have proven that we can manage a leadership role in such a major organisation."

Kazakhstan has managed to bring together many heads of state for the summit.

The participants include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev.

The US is represented by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is attending for the UK.

One thing that has added zest to the event is the controversy sparked by Wikileaks' publication of US classified diplomatic documents.

Many of the politicians mentioned in the leaked files will be facing each other for the first time since the revelations put the United States into an awkward position.

'No reform'

The presence of so many top politicians from around the world is something that rights advocates have been hoping will attract attention to the region's poor human rights record.

International rights organisations and regional NGOs have been holding an alternative summit to discuss this issue.

"Kazakhstan has not made any progress in terms of democratic reforms, quite the opposite," said Ninel Fokina from the Helsinki Committee. "In many areas such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial the situation got much worse."

Image caption Rights advocates hope that the event will draw attention to the region's poor human rights record

In a statement published ahead of the OSCE summit the international group Human Rights Watch called on Kazakhstan's international partners not to give up on their engagement with the country and to push Kazakhstan towards the reforms it had been promising, particularly in the area of media freedom.

This was one of the promises made by Kazakhstan back in 2007 in Madrid when members elected the country to chair the OSCE - a first for a post-Soviet nation.

Along with media reforms, Kazakhstan also pledged to carry out electoral and judicial reforms, and to improve human rights.

But throughout Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the pro-democracy body the country has been criticised for doing very little to build democracy at home.

This June, Kazakhstan passed a new law rewarding the president with the title "leader of the nation".

The legislation gives President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, immunity from criminal prosecution and will allow him a continued role in decision-making if or when he steps down.

Prized partner

Observers say that since Kazakhstan has now achieved its main foreign policy goal - hosting the OSCE summit - it is no longer concerned with international criticism.

Image caption Many Kazakhs say they are proud to host the OSCE summit

"The fact that European leaders are coming for the summit is a sign that the West no longer cares about Kazakhstan's democratisation. What's important for them is that the country remains their strategic partner," said political analyst Dosym Satpayev.

"This is globalisation," he adds. "Europe understands that if they do not strengthen their positions here, other powers such as Russia, China or Iran will - countries which are absolutely not interested in Kazakhstan's political orientation."

In the weeks before the summit an army of workers, drivers and caterers have been helping to prepare for the event: sweeping the snow and scraping the ice. They have been making sure that Astana looks immaculate and ready to impress every new guest.

The streets are decorated with hundreds of white and blue OSCE flags.

For many ordinary citizens Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the OSCE has not brought any personal gains.

Many find it difficult even to explain what the OSCE stands for. But they feel proud that the country is hosting such an event.

"Our president knows why it is important. Everybody is just doing their job," said one street cleaner.

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