The US Helsinki Commission in recent months has been a frequent and vocal critic of Kazakhstan's record on human rights and democratization. But commission members gave an enthusiastic welcome to Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev on February 2 during a Washington, DC, hearing marking the start of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship.
The three members of the commission who were present during Saudabayev's appearance asked no questions about, and offered no criticism of Astana's internal situation. Kazakhstan assumed the OSCE chair January 1.
The hearing was a "missed opportunity," said Erica Marat, a political analyst who was in attendance. "Kazakhstan's leadership was once again given soft treatment for failing to fulfill the promises the government made at the OSCE Madrid conference in 2007," she said. "Because there was little attention paid to the more substantive issues Kazakhstan is facing today, the entire hearing was of little value. It just served to help Kazakhstan's campaign for a better international image."
Darrell Issa -- a Republican congressman from California who has nominated Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, for a Nobel Peace Prize -- used the occasion for partisan political purposes, attempting to equate the political situation in Kazakhstan with that of the United States. Washington was a "one-party town" because of the majority of Democrats in Congress and the White House, Issa claimed. He glossed over the facts that Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by the OSCE, and that it has a one-party parliament, dominated by the pro-presidential Nur Otan Party. Issa likewise ignored the outcome of the recent, special senatorial election in Massachusetts, in which the Republican Party regained the ability to block legislation via filibuster.
"In your country ? there are competing movements; the seeds don't sprout so you don't have a two-, three-, four-party system, in which they have representation in your parliament," Issa said. "Washington, DC, is exactly the same: it is a one-party town even though there are people who are not Democrats."
"I know you're not by any means the best democracy, nor the worst democracy, but a struggling democracy trying to find the right way to lead your country," Issa added, referring to Kazakhstan's democratization process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Eni Faleomavaega, a Democrat from American Samoa, said Kazakhstan's recent human rights record should be seen in the context of the country's decision to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. "While human rights groups continue to point fingers at Kazakhstan, I submit that ? only Kazakhstan had the moral courage to renounce nuclear weapons altogether for the sake of all mankind," he said. Faleomavaega also noted that Kazakhstan public opinion polls showed a high level of support for the United States. "This is a direct result of President Nazarbayev's leadership and commitment in the service of his people."
One member of the commission, Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, referred to Kazakhstan's poor human rights record in his written comments: "Given the distinctive focus of the Helsinki Commission on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, I would be remiss not to note that Kazakhstan is the first country assessed as "not free" by Freedom House to assume the OSCE chairmanship." Cardin, however, was not present at the meeting, as he had to attend a funeral.
Saudabayev is in Washington seeking US support for an OSCE summit to be held in Kazakhstan during the country's chairmanship. The United States intends to pressure Kazakhstani leaders to implement some key political and legal reforms in exchange for agreeing to support such a summit, State Department officials told EurasiaNet. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Before the hearing, a group of civil society organizations from Kazakhstan wrote to the commission's chairmen, asking them to press Saudabayev "on the need for the government of Kazakhstan to move as rapidly as possible to implement a few very concrete measures that would demonstrate sincere commitment to systemic reforms, before a decision on a 2010 OSCE summit is made." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
All three of the commission members present expressed support for the summit, asking Saudabayev only about procedural details, such as whether there was adequate time to hold a preparatory review conference before the summit.
As part of Kazakhstan's campaign to secure the OSCE chairmanship, Astana pledged to undertake reforms, known as the Madrid commitments. Many political observers agree that Kazakhstani officials have not fulfilled those Madrid commitments. Even so, the members of the Helsinki Commission present at the hearing did not dwell on Astana's shortcomings. "I have every expectation, Mr. Minister, that your government will continue working to translate its Madrid promises into actions consistent with OSCE commitments," said Alcee Hastings, a Democrat from Florida who co-chairs the commission.
Saudabayev defended his country's human rights record in his opening statement, which he delivered in Russian. "Just a few years ago we incorporated very significant amendments in our legislation on elections, on the freedom of mass media, we have adopted a national plan on human rights and their implementation," he said. "We are planning to advance those freedoms and principles in Kazakhstan. The 18 years of our independence [offers] clear testimony that we have been adhering to this path."