Interview: Kanat Saudabayev

Kazakhstan's foreign minister on his country's unlikely new role as Europe's democracy watchdog.


In a landmark for Central Asia, Kazakhstan this year has taken over the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) — a key intergovernmental organization that monitors everything from security cooperation to political and human rights in 56 member states across Europe. It is the first former Soviet state, the first Muslim country, and the first country east of Austria to assume the chairmanship. But Kazakhstan is hardly a paragon of European democracy. Its authoritarian government, headed by longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev, doesn’t allow political parties to compete freely, is routinely accused of violating human rights, and is officially classified as "Not Free" by the U.S. NGO Freedom House. So how, ask critics, can Kazakhstan possibly be charged with upholding democratic standards in other countries?

Foreign Policy‘s Joshua E. Keating sat down this week with Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, the new OSCE chairman, to discuss his country’s new role. Their edited conversation follows.

Foreign Policy: What can you tell me about Kazakhstan‘s agenda for OSCE chairmanship? 

Kanat Saudabayev: The year of our chairmanship is remarkable. It has been 35 years since the Helsinki Final Act [establishing the organization] and 11 years since the last OSCE meeting in Istanbul in 1999. The first decade of the new century has not made our world more secure, unfortunately. To the contrary, we are witnessing new threats and challenges. Since the events of Sept. 11, we have been facing such phenomena as international terrorism — which has no exact address or origin and has no respected boundaries. Despite efforts by the international community in Afghanistan, this country still remains a source of international terrorism and drug trafficking. We are also harvesting the negative consequences of the first global economic crisis in the 21st century.

That is why Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has called OSCE participating heads of state to convene. Convening a new OSCE summit is our most important priority.

FP: What role do you see Kazakhstan playing in the conflict in Afghanistan? What are your national goals there?

KS: Without stability in Afghanistan, we cannot begin to speak of stability, not only in Central Asia, but in the greater OSCE area. Kazakhstan has actively participated and supported the efforts of the international coalition in Afghanistan, but military efforts are not enough. Kazakhstan has already been engaged in massive humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan constructing roads, schools, hospitals, and we are rendering substantial food assistance to that country. Moreover, starting this year, we started our educational program according to our bilateral Kazakhstan-Afghanistan agreement, which is directed at the education of 1,000 Afghans to civilian professions. Despite the bitter consequences of the international financial crisis, Kazakhstan allocated $50 million for this program. As an OSCE acting chair, we would like to fully utilize this organization’s potential mainly in the humanitarian sphere to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.

FP: One concern we hear a lot in Washington from countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Poland is that in the Obama administration’s "reset" in relations with Russia, countries in Russia’s old "sphere of influence" are being neglected. Obviously Kazakhstan has much friendlier relations with Russia than those countries, but is this a concern that your government shares?

KS: We don’t have such conflict. We have developed a strategic partnership with the United States for quite some time and we are equally in a partnership with the Russian Federation — both of which have great prospects for further development. We never had a feeling that bilateral relations between these two powers are developed at the expense of our interests.

FP: One conflict that the OSCE was active in resolving was the 2008 Russian war with Georgia and I wonder if you believe that a Kazakhstan-led OSCE would have approached that problem in the same way that it was then.

KS: We remain committed as the OSCE chair to the founding principles and values of this organization, and we will work in the interest of all participating states. This is how we will deal with the problem. I believe we all share the vision of a necessity to settle so-called protracted conflicts. On Feb. 15, I will leave on a trip to the South Caucasus to look at the situation on the spot. 

FP:At Tuesday night’s Helsinki Committee reception in Washington, Congressman Alcee Hastings mentioned that Kazakhstan had made "certain assurances" to the commission about its record on democracy and human rights. Could you tell me what those assurances were and what Kazakhstan will do to meet them?

KS: The decision of Dec. 30., 2007, of the OSCE ministerial [to award the chairmanship to Kazakhstan] was an objective recognition of Kazakhstan’s achievement since independence in its social, economic and political democratic development.

The decision to construct a modern democratic society was a well-thought decision of the people of Kazakhstan and in all the years since our independence we are gradually moving forward on this path. We dealt with the democratization process before our chairmanship. We furthered these processes last year and we are committed that the democratization process will get further impetus after our chairmanship of the OSCE.

Last year we adopted a national human rights action plan and the concept of legal reform in Kazakhstan. Just recently, on the 29th of January, in his state of the nation speech, President Nazarbayev launched a massive program of legal reforms, which is aimed at bringing Kazakhstan’s judiciary closer to international standards. This year the Parliament will adopt a law that stipulates total public and legislative control over the activities of the law enforcement. This signifies our ongoing work to further strengthen the protection of rights and liberties of our citizens. This is being done not because we are chairing the OSCE, but in the name of our citizens and their interests.

FP: Last night Sen. Ben Cardin raised concerns over the case of Evgeny Zhovtis [a prominent Kazakh human rights activist who was sentenced, in what human rights groups have called a politically motivated conviction, to three years in jail this week for a fatal traffic accident]. What is your response to that?

KS: In this situation we don’t speak about Zhovtis as a human rights defender; we are speaking about the decision of the Kazakh judicial court on the case of a Kazakh citizen who caused the death of another person. Mr. Zhovtis was born and raised in our country and he had not had any problems with the law before but because he was involved in the tragic accident that led to the death of another person, he plead guilty and this is it. I don’t even want to comment on this issue. On the same grounds, within that time period 200 people were convicted on the same grounds. The actual penalty foreseen is from three to eight years of imprisonment. Mr. Zhovits was given near the minimum sentence, so why don’t you speak about the other 199 convicted?

Switzerland, for example, is not extraditing Mr. Polanksi — but that is not being discussed at such levels.

FP: But the OSCE does have a role to play in elections this year in Ukraine and Belarus. Do you think that Kazakhstan’s democracy is at the point where it can be a model for these countries and credibly oversee their elections?

KS: In response, I would like to come back to my previous statements: If 55 OSCE states voted in favor of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship by consensus, then they have accepted and endorsed Kazakhstan’s achievements.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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