Security versus democracy
Kazakhstan is at the centre of an ugly trade
IF YOU believe in realpolitik, it is a no-brainer. Kazakhstan should chair the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. If you believe in the principles of democracy on which the OSCE was founded, the question of Kazakhstan is a no-brainer too: an undemocratic country should not chair one of the continent’s main democracy-promoting organisation.
This is no mere wrangle about protocol. The debate over Kazakhstan and the OSCE raises a fundamental question about Europe’s willingness to trade democracy for security.
The OSCE was founded on that bargain—but the other way round. The then Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, meeting in Helsinki in 1975, traded security, in the form of Western assent to the division of Europe, for freedom: the Kremlin’s formal commitment to support human rights across the continent. That helped destroy totalitarianism, because it gave dissidents behind the iron curtain a legal basis to challenge their communist rulers.
Now Russia and its allies want to cripple the OSCE until it turns into a mere talking-shop. They have systematically tried to strangle its election-monitoring outfit, the Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR—pronounced, aptly enough, “oh dear”). The Kremlin also detests the OSCE’s openness to independent non-governmental organisations. The OSCE is one of the few places where outfits such as the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (banned in Russia but now registered in Finland) can get a public hearing before an official audience.
The chairmanship of the 56-member OSCE changes every year. Spain holds the chair now; Finland is next. Kazakhstan desperately desires the job in 2009. Giving Kazakhstan what it wants, argue supporters such as Germany, would help reach out to the most important and promising country in central Asia. It would integrate Kazakhstan into the heart of Europe’s security structures—and maybe gain Kazakh support for a gas pipeline direct from central Asia to Europe, bypassing Russia.
For make benefit glorious nation
Perhaps. But it is hard to portray this as a move to counter Russian influence in central Asia, given that the Kremlin also strongly supports the Kazakh bid. Russia wants to set a precedent that a non-democratic country can hold the chair. This year Kazakhstan, so why not Belarus in 2010?
Britain and America are still holding out against the plan. Kazakhstan’s human-rights record is dire. It has never held an internationally validated election. Nursultan Nazarbayev (pictured), the president for 17 years already, has just claimed the post for life. Leaders in Washington and London fear that Kazakhstan may mute the OSCE’s effectiveness if, say, an election is rigged, a demonstration violently crushed or a journalist killed somewhere in Russia or another part of the former Soviet Union in 2009; judging from current affairs, such events are all too likely.
Certainly the evidence so far is that stretching democratic principles to accommodate undemocratic countries does not spread freedom, but merely dents those principles. Admitting Russia to the Council of Europe, another talking-shop with a grand human-rights mandate, now looks premature to say the least. The same applies to the G8, supposedly a grouping of big advanced democracies. Official harassment of pro-democracy protesters made Russia’s G8 summit in St Petersburg last year a shameful farce.
One solution would be to say that Kazakhstan can be chair in 2011—but only if it first meets some elementary democratic criteria. But it may be too late for such a deal. Anything short of the chairmanship in 2009 will be seen as a severe snub.
The sad truth is that an organisation like the OSCE can function only if its members mostly agree on most principles. That was the case through the 1990s. It no longer holds now. Rather than make shameful compromises in the name of security, it would be better to concentrate on the best long-term bet: promoting freedom.