OSCE attendance reveals major powers’ attitudes toward region

November 29. Central Asia Newswire

by Martin Sieff

OSCE attendance reveals major powers' attitudes toward regionThe OSCE attendance list is turning out to be a litmus test of major power blocs’ attitudes towards Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular.

Clear patterns are emerging about how importantly different nations and international organizations assess the region. These patterns are indicated by which leaders and officials the 65 nations attending the summit have decided to send to Astana this week.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be holding its first summit in 11 years in the new capital of Kazakhstan December 1-2. There are 56 nations in the OSCE that literally stretch around the northern hemisphere of the world from Vancouver on the Pacific coast of Canada to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of Russia, taking in all the nations of North America, Europe and Central Asia on the way. And no less than 30 heads of state will be attending.

The governments of Russia and Belarus, Kazakhstan’s partners in the Customs Union that started operating in mid-July, clearly take the OSCE summit and good relations with Kazakhstan seriously.

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus are both scheduled to attend the summit. Medvedev’s attendance is particularly important because Russia has launched a sustained diplomatic offensive to get the OSCE to focus primarily on fighting transnational crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking and international terrorism across its vast region.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan strongly agrees with Russia about that priority. He knows that international criminal organizations, especially in drugs and human trafficking, pass through his country’s largest city Almaty, but that Kazakhstan – with a population of only 16 million and a relatively small army, police force and national security service – simply does not have the resources to fight these scourges on its own.

The United States has strongly opposed Russia’s vision for the OSCE. The Obama administration wants to keep the OSCE focused on human rights and the promotion of democracy.

But the Americans have committed two diplomatic false steps towards the Kazakhs that could significantly damage U.S.-Kazakh relations and the long-term prospects of U.S.-based energy corporations operating in Kazakhstan.

First, President Barack Obama is not going to attend the summit, even though over the past three weeks he flew to South Korea to attend the Group of 20 (G-20) global economic summit. Then last week, he was in Lisbon, Portugal for a summit of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and of the NATO-Russia Council.

Obama and Medvedev got on well in Lisbon and reached agreements on developing ballistic missile defense and on dealing with Iran. This raised hopes that the U.S. was softening its opposition to Russia’s push for a stronger OSCE to fight transnational crime and terror.

However, Obama has remained adamant that he will not attend the OSCE summit. He is sending his diplomatic heavy-hitter, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead. But Clinton has already sent a strong diplomatic message that she intends to focus on the usual U.S priority of promoting democracy and human rights.

Clinton is going to host a reception for the leaders of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during her visit to Astana. This can be seen as a U.S. rebuke of the Kazakh government which insisted on holding a run-up gathering of NGOs active in Central Asia the week before the Astana summit rather than during it, as the U.S. government had insisted.

This gesture comes right on top of Obama’s refusal to attend the summit which will include the president of Russia and major European heads of government and state. Thus, Clinton’s action risks being seen as a deliberately insulting gesture to the government of Kazakhstan.

As for Britain, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is attending but Prime Minister David Cameron will not. Clegg’s attendance, although universally expected, was not officially confirmed until the weekend before the summit, strengthening the impression that the British, like the Americans, do not take the OSCE and its summit seriously enough.

This seeming disregard risks reopening old wounds with the Kazakhs.

The Kazakhs were badly burned by the 2008-9 global financial crisis and have blamed some of their bankers and money managers in London for not safeguarding their interests more successfully. Kazakhstan is now working to move billions of dollars of their investments out of Britain and to list major Kazakh companies on the Hong Kong, rather than London, stock exchange. They may also move into the Singapore stock market.

By contrast to the United States and Britain, Germany, France and the leaders of the European Union are taking the OSCE summit and boosting their ties to Kazakhstan very seriously.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be attending the OSCE summit and so will French President Nicolas Sarkozy. France and Germany have recently concluded enormous industrial sales deals with Kazakhstan.

They may be less disposed to support the United States against Russia in the debate over the future direction of the OSCE because of the reputed low regard in which they both hold President Obama. The leak of U.S. State Department official documents describing Chancellor Merkel as too cautious and not creative this week is also not likely to make her sympathetic to U.S. diplomatic goals in Astana.

Other countries sending their presidents or prime ministers to the summit include Austria, Afghanistan, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Finland, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Netherlands, Greece and Monaco.

This preponderance of European leaders reflects the importance that the Europeans give to Kazakhstan and Central Asia as sources of energy, especially natural gas for their winter fuel, and as a major investment opportunity and potential transportation route between them and China.

Vice prime ministers will attend the summit from Israel, the Czech Republic and Spain. Andorra, Jordan, Sweden, South Korea, Thailand and Portugal have all committed to sending their foreign ministers. The Koreans have an ancient ethnic and cultural kinship with the Kazakhs. This was strengthened by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s decision to transport one million ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Far East to Kazakhstan in the 1940s.

Japan will only be sending a vice-minister of foreign affairs to the summit.

The leaders of the United Nations (Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union (Jose Manuel Barroso), the Council of Europe, the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Community will also attend the Astana gathering.

The OSCE remains the world’s largest regional security organization in terms of the number of member nations and the area its member states cover.

This summit will end Kazakhstan’s year as chairman-in-office of the organization.

But international attitudes toward the region are likely to shape global security, energy and geopolitics for years to come.