A Kazakh Appointment Highlights the OSCE’s Many Challenges

Paul Stronski

Dec 16, 2020

For the first time, an official from a former Soviet country has been named to a senior position at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Kairat Abdrakhmanov, a well-regarded diplomat who served as Kazakhstan’s foreign minister from 2016 until 2018, was appointed earlier this month as the OSCE’s new high commissioner for minorities. His job will be to protect the rights of ethnic minorities in the OSCE’s 57 member states—part of a broad commitment to protecting human rights that was enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which stabilized relations between the Soviet bloc and the West at the height of the Cold War and led to the creation of the OSCE.

By including a separate section or “basket” for what its drafters called “the human dimension,” along with economic and security dimensions, the Helsinki Accords embraced the principle that human rights violations anywhere are of concern everywhere, and preventing them is a key component of international stability. Since its creation, the OSCE has worked to mediate conflicts and monitor the state of democracy and human rights in member states—much to the chagrin of authoritarian members like Kazakhstan.

In theory, having an official from Central Asia serve in a senior OSCE position for the first time could be seen as a breakthrough that symbolizes the region’s democratic progress. Given President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s well-publicized reform agenda, that is certainly how Kazakh officials are selling it. However, Abdrakhmanov’s appointment in fact risks diluting the OSCE’s own human rights standards, unless he is willing to use his position to push his own government—whose record on democracy has been poor—to make changes that are systemic, not simply cosmetic. After all, if Abdrakhmanov does not call his own government out on human rights, why should other states pay attention when he pushes them?

His appointment also highlights the unrealized aspirations that many in the West had for countries like Kazakhstan when they became independent. The membership of Central Asian countries in the OSCE, ostensibly a European body, is a legacy of the early post-Cold War era, when Western officials hoped that including former Soviet states in the organization would help jumpstart those countries’ democratic transitions. But while a few have made progress, far too many are still failing to live up to their basic OSCE human rights obligations, Kazakhstan among them.

Abdrakhmanov’s rise to the uppermost ranks of the OSCE is the product of months of diplomatic wrangling to end a leadership vacuum at the organization. In June, three democracy laggards in the OSCE—Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Turkey—blocked the perfunctory reappointment to a second term of Icelandic and French diplomats as heads of two key OSCE offices in charge of monitoring and reporting on democracy and human rights. Both the officials had sharply criticized all three countries’ illiberal-leaning or authoritarian governments. Russia quietly backed this diplomatic move by Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Iceland and France, whose citizens’ reappointments were blocked, responded by preventing the reappointment of the other two positions, including the secretary general and the high commissioner for minorities, on the grounds that all four jobs should be filled together, as they had been in 2017. Several like-minded states joined them, resulting in an East-West stalemate that sapped the OSCE’s ability to respond to multiple crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, mass protests in Belarus, violent unrest in Kyrgyzstan, and six weeks of bloody conflict in the South Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The challenges confronting the OSCE are unwelcome reminders that the tools and institutions that underlie multilateral diplomacy have atrophied greatly in recent years.

Armenia, which has tortured relations with both Turkey and Azerbaijan, backed France and Iceland in the dispute, which coincided with an uptick in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that had been mostly controlled by Armenia since the mid-1990s but is inside the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. It developed into to a full-blown war in late September, in which Turkey provided diplomatic and military support to Azerbaijani forces. The OSCE’s Minsk Group, a framework co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States that has long tried to broker a political solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, appeared powerless to stop the violence. Without a high commissioner for minorities, the OSCE lacked a high-ranking voice to warn against ethnic atrocities, which other human rights organizations have documented. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, the OSCE had a limited public response when the country’s sitting president was ousted and replaced by a convicted criminal recently sprung from jail.

Abdrakhmanov’s appointment is part of a compromise that also led to senior German diplomat Helga Schmid’s appointment as the OSCE’s secretary-general—the first woman in that top job. Matteo Mecacci, a former Italian parliamentarian, will head the democracy, human rights and election-monitoring office, while a Portuguese diplomat, Maria Teresa Ribeiro, will be the new commissioner for media freedom—both sensible appointments. However, as the global balance of power shifts, it is no longer plausible for Western countries to push for only their officials to lead the OSCE. Western countries’ insistence on appointing only their officials to the organization’s leadership is also an unfair and outdated practice.

From the perspective of many Western countries, appointing a commissioner for minorities from a country with a problematic record on the democracy front seemed to be a somewhat lesser evil because the position is far less focused on democracy, elections, or free speech shortcomings. Moreover, looking east of Vienna to former Soviet countries, there are few options beyond Central Asia for someone who can credibly monitor ethnic tensions, given the internal rivalries among competing ethnic groups that have ravaged parts of the Balkans, the Caucasus and Ukraine. From that perspective, a Kazakh official looks sensible, too, if not ideal.

However, we have seen this movie before. In 2010, Washington consented to Kazakhstan’s Russia-backed bid for the OSCE chairmanship due to then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s promises of reform. But Kazakhstan sadly followed its OSCE chairmanship with a bloody crackdown on labor protests a year later, and remains highly authoritarian. When Nazarbayev resigned in 2019 and Tokayev took power in an election that the OSCE deemed neither free nor fair, he also promised a new round of reform, but has done little in practice to advance that agenda. Kazakhstan looks primed once again to deny its citizens’ their choice in the upcoming January 2021 parliamentary elections, in which only government-friendly parties are running. Ethnic tensions are rising too.

There is little that skeptics in the West can do about Abdrakhmanov’s appointment. But to ensure his own credibility and that of the OSCE, he needs to use his position to urge real reform at home. His new role likewise marks an opportunity for the OSCE to make headway in addressing basic human security in Central Asia, a region where it is not often guaranteed. Other OSCE member states will need to hold Abdrakhmanov accountable to pursuing the organization’s mission, unlike in 2010.

To help make that happen, President-elect Joe Biden’s administration should step up its OSCE engagement and quickly appoint a seasoned U.S. diplomat as its OSCE envoy. It should certainly not repeat the Trump administration’s approach of waiting two years before nominating a former governor of Virginia, James S. Gilmore III, who lacked a clear mandate and inclination to push for progress on the OSCE’s human dimension.

More broadly, the growing challenges confronting the OSCE are unwelcome reminders that the tools and institutions that underlie multilateral diplomacy have atrophied greatly in recent years. Biden’s foreign policy team will be tested almost immediately as it tries to turn its public commitments to multilateralism and democratization into tangible changes that improve conditions across the vast area under the OSCE’s purview.

Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.