In 2010, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which was set up following the signing of the Helsinki Accord in 1975 will be chaired by a representative of Kazakhstan. This decision was welcomed by Kazakhstan’s State Secretary Kanat Saudabayev as a remarkable achievement, due above all to the extraordinary wisdom of the Kazakhstan people when they elected the “truly God-sent Nursultan Nazarbayev” as President in 1991.
This week a conference to discuss the issues of human rights, the ‘rule of law’ and democracy, which are supposed to be “pillars” of the concept of European Security, is being held by the OSCE in Poland. So bad is the situation around human rights in Kazakhstan that at least four side meetings have been arranged to discuss the situation. Ainur Kurmanov, a well-know socialist activist in Kazakhstan, who this year has spent two weeks in prison and was last month badly beaten by thugs during his recent campaigning in support of workers’ struggle, was invited to Warsaw as a representative of opposition forces from Kazakhstan.
The OSCE has for the past few years been riven by a conflict between the West European powers and Russia over the organisation’s priorities. As a result of the decision to grant Kazakhstan the Chair, the OSCE will undoubtedly change direction and even, in the words of one expert, be “re-booted”. With the ‘strengthening’ of security and democratic institutions from “Vancouver to Vladivostok”, the supposed aim of the OSCE will be the responsibility of Kazakhstan, one of Russia’s key allies. Yet Kazakhstan regime has stepped up repression of civil rights and freedoms within the last few months, without paying any attention to international protests.
Protests in Kazakhstan are growing. The country was at the forefront of the neo-liberal ‘reforms’ that swept the countries of the former USSR and it began to feel the effects of the economic crisis earlier than others. Inflation is higher than in Russia. The official forecast for 2009 is 11%, but in reality is much higher, particularly for food and consumer necessities. Between January and May, 2009, GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell by 5.3%, industrial production has collapsed, factories are shutting and workforces laid off. Particularly sharp are the problems in the housing sector. This led in May to the establishment of the “Kazakhstan 2012” movement by residents who had been lied to over credit and mortgages. Their demand is: “Change your policies or we will change you”. In June, a strike broke out at the Almata Wagon factory. In July, there were further conflicts between residents and the police, who attempted to evict the former from their “illegal” dwellings. There were protests by building workers in the capital city and by miners in the Karaganda coalfield.
Regime’s ‘preventative measures’ against mass protests
Worried about the growth in numbers and organisation of these protests, the authorities have been taking preventative measures – mainly repressive and undemocratic. Having seen the role of the internet in mobilising protests in Moldova and Iran, the authorities have attempted to take control of cyberspace. In June, President Nazarbayev signed a new ‘Law on the Internet’, which defines sites, blogs and forums in the Kazakhstan cyberspace as equivalent to organs of mass information and subjects them to strict regulation, including restrictions on the reporting of elections, strikes and demonstrations. Supporters claim that these measures are necessary to fight cybercrime, extremism, terrorism and pornography. But the laws opponents understand, very well, that the new legislation is intended to restrict the free distribution of information about protests.
Another method used by the regime is repression. On the eve of the anniversary of the founding of the OSCE, in Almaty, the trial of the Socialist Resistance Kazakhstan (CWI) leader, Ainur Kurmanov, began. On 30 July, Ainur was sentenced to 15 days ‘administrative arrest’ for organising “an unsanctioned meeting and picket”. As his defence representative in court, Denis Alimbekov explained, in actual fact all that happened was that a group of citizens handed a petition in to the office of the City’s Deputy Mayor calling for the resignation of the government. About 300 people attended, mainly workers from the wagon factory, enfrauded mortgage holders and representatives of the “Kazakhstan 2012” movement. The trial turned into a show trial (flouting legal procedures) against one of the leaders of this movement, Ainur, because the growth of support for the movement he represented worried the government.
The defence lodged an appeal. But they did not stop there. Over 70 supporters crowded the courtroom. In Moscow, New York, Tel Aviv and Hong Kong, supporters of the CWI organised pickets outside Kazakhstan embassies in support of Ainur. The country’s Prosecutor was flooded with protests, included from the newly-elected Member of the European Parliament, for Dublin, Ireland, Joe Higgins.
Arrests and detentions of liberal opposition activists and journalists have also been stepped up in the past months. Following a split in the ruling regime, Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, Rahat Aliyev, not so long ago Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Austria and representative at the OSCE, is at present in self-enforced exile in Austria, after being charged in Kazakhstan with a number of crimes, including forgery, extortion and attempting to organise a coup.
Russia attacks ‘human rights agenda’
Political commentators in Moscow have been assessing the benefits to Kazakhstan of chairing the OSCE in 2010. The Russian government has already spent the last few years complaining that the OSCE has bent the stick too far in favour of defending “human rights”, which, the Kremlin argues, has been used to attack “Russian interests”. The Russian news agency, RIA-Novosti, has reported the comments of Aleksei Vlasov, an expert on political relations in the former Soviet states: “The OSCE has lost the balance between the three elements – security, economics and humanitarian and…has gone too far in the direction of human rights and election monitoring, when it should have been looking more at military and economic cooperation. Now it is possible that with Kazakhstan as Chair, the OSCE will return to some sort of balance”.
Now the Kremlin is hoping that the activities of the OSCE will be reorientated away from the “anti-Russian” pressure in support of human rights in the direction of “opening a dialogue” about the security problems of the whole Euro-Atlantic zone. Astana will play a key role in this transformation, in the opinion of the Kremlin strategists.
The Head of the International Committee of the Duma (Russian Parliament) Konstantin Kosachev believes that “rebooting” the activities of the OSCE is “not just possible, but absolutely necessary if Europe is not to fall into a cataclysm” such as Kosovo or South Ossetia. He argues that this is precisely what Russian President Medvedev is attempting to achieve when he talks about “a new structure for European security”.
But the problem is, that after Kazakhstan, Latvia takes over the Presidency, and Russia will not get much support from that quarter. That makes it more likely that next year we will see all the wonders of “EuroAsian politics” in the style of the Kazakhstan and Russian regimes, that is with the maximum possible cynicism. But for now, the Nazarbayev regime, renowned for its huge corruption and its rejection of even the basic democratic rights is now supposed to restore the balance between “guaranteeing security” and “observing human rights” from Europe to Central Asia to the Atlantic.
Of course, in a period of deep economic crisis, it is not only Moscow and Astana that are interested in finding that “balance”. Some European leaders may find Nazarbayev’s experience in “maintaining stability” at the expense of human rights and democracy helpful. But the growing protest movement in Kazakhstan could well undermine the international image of the regime and, if it runs out of control, undermine that very stability. Today, the workers, youth, poor and unemployed of Kazakhstan, Russia and Europe need a different exchange of experiences; of mass struggle, the lessons of victories and defeats, in the efforts to overcome the crisis, unemployment and poverty and to ensure genuine security, democracy and freedom, not in the interests of authoritarian and pseudo-democratic regimes, but of the working masses.