Features | Security | Central Asia

That Stubborn Euro-Asia Divide

Kazakhstan misses a chance to use the first OSCE summit in a decade to bridge the security gap between Europe and Central Asia.

Despite all the effort Kazakhstan went to in trying to secure and prepare for the first heads of state and government summit in a decade of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the meeting was actually a bit of a letdown.

Unresolved disputes related to the protracted conflicts among the former Soviet republics, as well as disagreements over how to strengthen the OSCE’s crisis prevention and management tools, prevented the Astana Summit attendees from adopting a proposed action plan.

The failure of the proposed Astana Framework for Action would have been a particular blow for Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who topped off extensions to the conference with some personal lobbying to try to secure a deal. In his capacity as host and chief OSCE cheerleader, Nazarbayev told the final session: ‘I’m counting on your flexibility. History has given us a unique chance and it would be unforgivable to lose it.’

But it was to no avail, and the OSCE summit only mustered a banal final declaration that repeated the organization’s praiseworthy principles without indicating how they could actually be more effectively achieved.

Indeed, compared with previous OSCE summits, including the last one, which was held in Istanbul in 1999, the Astana incarnation had relatively little to show for itself by the end. The Istanbul meeting, for example, yielded some major agreements, including a revised Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty.

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Of course, the OSCE’s relative influence in European affairs has declined since 1999, while East-West tensions have deepened. So in a sense, the Kazakh chair had less favourable conditions to work with from the outset. But if the Kazakhs were unable to revive the OSCE despite having made it the focus of their foreign policy in 2010, it’s not clear who can.

The debilitating dispute that arose over Georgia in Astana was perhaps inevitable given the entrenched positions and domestic political imperatives of the parties. The United States and its allies insisted on upholding Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, which include the breakaway regions of Abkhzia and South Ossetia. Western governments also wanted to include a reference to ‘the conflicts in Georgia’ in the summit documents, whereas the Russian government adamantly sought to justify its 2008 detachment and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states having no legal ties with the central Georgian government in Tbilisi.

Russia also blocked proposals to revive the OSCE missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had ceased operating in 2009. Immediately before the summit, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebaek, said that restoring an international presence in South Ossetia was essential for enabling the Georgian refugees from the region to feel sufficiently confident to return. Meanwhile, in her opening speech, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Russia’s veto of the OSCE missions in Georgia. ‘It is regrettable that a participating state has proposed to host a mission and the OSCE has not been allowed to respond,’ she observed.

But there was more to the failure to make the summit a success than just the prickliness between the US and Russia. Feuding between Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev over which of them was to blame for the failed effort to resolve their Nagorny-Karabakh dispute was also unwelcome, even if predictable.

June saw the most serious cease-fire violation in recent years along the Line of Contact when four Armenians and one Azerbaijani died in an exchange of fire. Negotiations under the auspices of the Minsk Group remain deadlocked, and although all parties publicly agree that the dispute must be resolved on the basis of the Helsinki Principles, they disagree on how to reconcile the conflicting values of territorial integrity versus the right of self-determination.

On top of all this, there were recriminations over Kyrgyzstan, tensions that would perhaps have been best addressed before the session began. The intervention of Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Noroz was unexpected, given the low-key and generally supportive policies pursued by Uzbekistan during the June violence against ethnic Uzbeks. Noroz criticized the OSCE—and by implication the Kazakh chair—for its flawed response to the crisis, suggesting to some observers that old Uzbek-Kazakh jealousies had re-emerged. (These tensions were also fanned by the fact that the Uzbek leadership was likely resentful of the ‘glory’ the Kazakhs received from hosting such an important event).  Indeed, this could also account for the decision of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to skip the prestigious gathering. 

So what does the summit’s failure to agree to anything concrete mean in real terms? One particular disappointment is the inability to agree firmer assistance to Afghanistan. During 2010, when Kazakhstan held the rotating OSCE chair, the Kazakh government made Afghanistan one of its priorities. Yet despite this, months passed with little OSCE action, even though there had been Western proposals suggesting that the organization play a greater role in securing Afghanistan’s borders, training its counternarcotics personnel and rehabilitating its economy.

Even the intervention of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who addressed the summit to stress the importance of developing Afghan national capacity over the long-term before announcing that the UN was planning to begin a Regional Programme for Afghanistan and Neighbouring Countries early next year, failed to bear fruit.

Another problem that prevented a consensus was the difference in opinion regarding what the OSCE should be focusing on. The Russian government, for example, recommended that the OSCE focus on countering novel international threats such as transnational terrorism, narcotics trafficking and organized crime. Russia’s Central Asian allies also endorsed greater efforts to address these threats, with Nazarbayev proposing that the OSCE create a special council to coordinate its activities on these unconventional transnational challenges. 

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In contrast, Western delegations reaffirmed the importance of having the OSCE focus on issues like human rights, media freedoms and free and fair elections. They consider the OSCE uniquely mandated and well-resourced to address these issues, which tend to be of secondary concern for the other European and Eurasian regional security organizations.

The summit wasn’t completely devoid of progress. For example, the delegates made a general effort to address the overarching question of how to reform the OSCE’s procedures to improve the organization’s effectiveness and efficiency. (The OSCE’s ineffectiveness during the 2008 Georgian and 2010 Kyrgyzstan crises has made it evident it needs better developed and more capable tools to prevent, manage and end violent conflicts within or between member countries).

The problem is there’s no firm agreement yet on how best to do this. Various Western representatives have proposed allowing the rotating annual chairing country to mobilize teams of experts and emergency responders to facilitate the movement of food and other humanitarian goals when a crisis occurs. Others have recommended enhancing the crisis response powers of the OSCE secretary general. Russian experts, in contrast, had suggested creating some kind of consultative mechanism—for example, the chair could hold consultations when a party feels threatened in Europe, with the party feeling threatened able to ask questions.

The host also weighed in with a suggestion for underpinning security. Stressing the desirability of distributing the OSCE’s agencies around the region, Nazarbayev recommended establishing an OSCE Security Institute in Astana that would help anticipate security crises and other surprises such as the 2008 global financial collapse. He also proposed splitting the economic and environmental dimension into two separate baskets in order to make economic questions a greater area of focus. Yet, as with other proposals, the idea fell flat, perhaps due to the absence of many Western heads of state who could have helped overcome the deadlock.

The failure to come up with much of substance stood in particularly marked contrast to some of the early rhetoric.

In his opening day presentation, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev joined other delegates in noting the OSCE’s potential to ‘become a driving force to develop interaction’ between other regional organizations that were more focused on either eastern or western Europe. And Kazakhstan’s performance during its OSCE chairmanship in 2010 proved at least sufficiently successful for the Ministerial Council to select another non-NATO, non-EU post-Soviet state (Ukraine) to chair the OSCE in 2013.

Still, considering that the Kazakhs had made reviving the OSCE’s influence and directing it to pay more attention to Central Asian issues a national project over the past few years, it’s difficult not to see the summit as a letdown. If the Kazakhs had really succeeded as the first Central Asian country to chair the organization, they would have helped overcome the wide security gap between mainstream Europe, shielded by NATO and the EU, and the Eurasian countries who lack strong regional security institutions despite their proximity to Iran and Afghanistan.

The Kazakh failure means that next year and beyond, leadership of the OSCE will be passed to countries in central Europe that are noticeably less eager to reach across a gaping continental divide.