Crossroads Asia

Does It Matter That the New OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Is From Kazakhstan?

In early December a Kazakh diplomat secured a top position in the OSCE — but does it matter?

Does It Matter That the New OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Is From Kazakhstan?
Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

During the 27th ministerial council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), held in early December, the participating states agreed on new leadership for the organization. A partially unexpected result was that Kazakhstan secured the position of high commissioner for national minorities (HCNM) for Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov. Abdrakhmanov is an experienced diplomat. He served as Kazakhstan’s permanent representative to the OSCE between 2008 and 2011, including during the country’s 2010 chairmanship of the body. Abdrakhmanov was also permanent representative to the United Nations (2013-2016) and Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2016 and 2018. 

Since July 2020, the leadership positions of the OSCE have been occupied by interim appointees, as all the previous mandates expired. The vacuum at the top of OSCE was certainly unprecedented and stemmed from national discontent with what many perceived as much too active political leadership. From a bureaucratic point of view, this was a crisis, impeding the OSCE institutions from adequately advancing their agendas; from a political point of view, it seemed just further proof that the OSCE is a highly dysfunctional format. 

Thus, the positions of secretary general, high commissioner for national minorities (HCNM), director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and representative for the freedom of the media were open to competition among the participating states, rendering the negotiation process all the more complicated by the rule of unanimity in decision-making. However, under the Albanian chairmanship, the OSCE Ministerial Council managed to reach a consensus on the appointees for the leadership and also score another first, with the first female secretary general, Helga Maria Schmid, former secretary general of the European External Action Service, a skilled German diplomat. Nevertheless, the director of ODIHR and the representative for the freedom of the media remained also in Western Europe, thus making the representative of Kazakhstan an interesting choice for a very complicated position. It is the first OSCE leadership position to be held by a non-Western European representative. This is all the more relevant as Abdrakhmanov’s opponent was Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, a independent human rights expert with significant experience in the U.N. system of human rights, supported by Hungary, a very active European country with regard to the rights of national minorities, particularly their kin-minorities.

The OSCE has remained the most comprehensive Eurasian forum of cooperation, but the breakdown of the Soviet Union challenged its relevance and activity. After the end of the Cold War, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) managed to institutionalize into the OSCE and develop a role in conflict management, but it still struggles with finding its purpose in a divided world where regionalization has become the norm. The OSCE is not a subject of international law and the decisions adopted by the participating states are not legally binding, factors which have led to a captivity of the OSCE in the hands of the participating governments, thus making it difficult to pursue the agenda set through the Helsinki Final Act. As a politically binding organization, the OSCE develops norms and rules without a clear cut mechanism for ensuring that the participating states act responsibly and are committed to implementing their agreements. 

The transformation of the European security scene in the 1990s steered dissatisfaction on the part of the newly independent states, spearheaded by the Russian Federation. In 2004, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) issued a statement, further reiterated in the Astana Appeal, criticizing the OSCE for narrowing the focus of its activities on humanitarian aspects and a geographic bias in monitoring the respect for human rights and democratization, accusing the OSCE of interfering in domestic affairs. Calling for more attention to the other priority areas (politico-military, economic, and environmental), the CIS members signaled the fact that the OSCE had become just another promoter of the normative values of the Western countries.

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For Kazakhstan, the appointment of Abdrakhmanov is a diplomatic success from an institutional point of view, but also a political victory. The branding diplomacy promoted by the Kazakhstani political elite has been arguably successful, placing Nur-Sultan in a visible position, as proved by its 2010 OSCE chairmanship, its mediation role in the Syria negotiation talks, and its 2017-2018 tenure in the U.N. Security Council. The quest for national branding as a successful, open, creative, and innovative country can also be seen in the promotion of an international educational hub at Nazarbayev University or the performances of the national cycling team, besides hosting other international events with a technical theme and a diplomatic clout, as shown by Adrien Fauve’s research

The 2010 OSCE chairmanship was a high priority on the national diplomatic agenda, being proposed as early as 2003 as a peace offering from Rakhat Aliyev to his then father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, with whom he had strained relations. Notwithstanding the reasons behind the proposal, the mission to acquire the chairmanship proved to be a challenge for the OSCE, as Kazakhstan was not an obvious choice, because of its geographic location and lack of normative compliance. Nazarbayev built upon the discontent of the CIS members and claimed a “right to chair,” while critics were eager to point out the need to lead by example. The tough negotiations within the organization, accompanied by an intense lobby campaign led by the Kazakhstani government, made Kazakhstan the only Central Asian country to hold the chairmanship of the OSCE, despite being denied the position in 2006. The increased drive for proving its compliance to the OSCE norms, and setting up an ambitious agenda for the chairmanship, particularly the hosting of the first summit in more than a decade, showed the high importance for Kazakhstani diplomacy of this pursuit.

Given Kazakhstan’s post-independence experience in nation-building, it is understandable why it aimed for the position of high commissioner for national minorities. As the only post-Soviet country where the titular nation did not have the majority at the time of independence, with the Kazakhs and the Russians having approximate shares, Kazakhstan’s leadership was faced with a sizable challenge of ensuring stability and a peaceful transition. The adopted path was that of a civic nation and a peaceful multiethnic society, with policies targeting the return of ethnic Kazakhs to the newly independent state and the strengthening of the Kazakh ethnicity, while at the same time promoting an integrative Kazakhstani national identity. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions in Kazakhstan remain. The February clashes between Kazakhs and Dungans, with clear socioeconomic roots, are a notable recent example. 

Despite rhetoric of an improving human rights record in the country, Kazakhstan has not provided a successful approach to settling ethnic conflicts and accommodating diversity. The apparent stability in the country is a result of the strong hold of the political regime, which does not allow for too much dissent, especially voices challenging its reputation as a multiethnic haven. In this sense, the appointment of Abdrakhmanov to the HCNM position is just more proof of the importance of rhetoric for the Kazakhstani reputation, regardless of the success or failure of its model.

Moreover, although a national institutional success for Kazakhstan, the HCNM position is not a national one, but represents the interests of the OSCE to promote minority rights and address the causes of ethnic tensions that may lead to conflicts. The HCNM does not favor any group, his aim being to contribute to maintaining peace in the OSCE region. Even though he himself did not show any particular attention to this area in his previous capacities, Abdrakhmanov comes from a region that faces many challenges on minority-majority relations. Will this represent an incentive for brokering more agreements on ethnic tensions in Central Asia? Most probably no, as these conflicts are perceived as a matter of bilateral or internal relations in the region and may represent grounds for future accusations of interfering in domestic issues. 

The guidelines issued by the Office of the HCNM are not mandatory and, even though they may provide some useful tools and approaches to alleviating ethnic tensions, they cannot be enforced by the HCNM. The most that the new holder of the office can do is to raise awareness of certain issues to national governments in Central Asia and point out to their broader implications, besides the obvious ones, especially in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of a lack of proper infrastructure and access to basic services, as well as marginalization and discrimination, are exacerbated in these periods, thus calling for an advocate for stronger cooperation. In line with the general conclusions of the OSCE chairperson-in-office, Prime Minister and Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania Edi Rama, the HCNM together with the new OSCE leadership should foster a more comprehensive cooperation approach to security within the OSCE region. The appointment of a Kazakhstani diplomat in the Office of HCNM may give it further legitimacy to mediate ethnic conflicts across the region and harness much needed stability. Nevertheless, given the highly political character of the office and of the entire organization, the appointment of Kairat Abdrakhmanov may prove to be just another star in Kazakhstan’s national branding campaign.

Ana-Maria Anghelescu is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania. Her research focuses on EU-Central Asia relations, Romanian foreign policy, and minority rights. The views expressed in her articles are those of the author and do not reflect the position of any institution with which she may be affiliated. You can follow her on Twitter @AnaAndreeaa.