The OSCE and Central Asia

A Region of Dictatorships

Central Asia is dominated by despotism and corruption. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has missed its historic chance to improve the situation in the region, argues Marcus Bensmann

Flags of the OSCE member states (photo: OSCE)
Dictators in central Asia celebrated themselves as bulwarks against the threats of Islamism, state collapse, and terrorism, thus fatally silencing OSCE criticism, says Bensmann

​​Democracy, human rights and an open civil society are achievements which have lost their appeal in the post-Soviet societies of Central Asia. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) finds itself on the defensive, and it is itself partly to blame for the situation. For too long the democratic governments of the west have allowed themselves to be lulled by the dictators' promises of reform.

As a result, the West has lost credibility and respect among both rulers and opposition, as well as among the people. The situation was made worse by the fact that the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia were largely ignored by the west in the early days following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Europe and the United States assumed that a democratic Russia would radiate democracy towards its neighbours. This was a fatal error: the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, working together with China, is now forging a federation of states which is working against western influence and democratic tendencies.

Wealth of the region looted

A geographic belt of dictatorships has emerged along Russia's southern border. The Central Asian members of the OSCE are dominated by corrupt and autocratic regimes which respect neither human rights nor the rule of law. Ruling families and clans have looted the wealth of the region.

Nursultan Nazarbayev (photo: dpa)
Re-elected in a questionable poll with a majority of 91 percent: Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev

​​In Turkmenistan on the Caspian Sea, the president, Sapamurad Niyasov is the object of an absurd personality cult. In Uzbekistan, president Islam Karimov secures his rule with torture and mass arrests. The ruling elite in Kazakhstan, where the high oil price has led to an economic boom, shows no interest in democracy.

The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected in a questionable poll in early December with a majority of 91 percent. Following his victory he renewed his ban on opposition newspapers. The citizens of Kazakhstan may have more freedom than the oppressed masses of Uzbekistan, but the principle is the same: no democratic experiments!

In Kyrgyzstan, following a revolt which was disguised as a democratic revolution, the economically crisis-ridden mountain state has been stumbling towards anarchy. The situation there is seen by the rulers in the rest of Central Asia as a warning against allowing more democratisation.

OSCE instrument for dialogue during cold war

The OSCE had its origins in the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which the states of the west and the east developed as an instrument for dialogue during the cold war. The Helsinki Declaration of 1975 was exploited by many human rights activists in the Soviet Union and its satellite states as a basis for their bold actions. Under the terms of the Declaration, the Eastern bloc states committed themselves for the first time to respect the right of their citizens to personal freedom.

In spite of the Declaration, many dissidents were persecuted and arrested, but the Declaration provided a basis for those western countries which were interested in contacts with the east to engage in negotiations. The idea of democracy and human rights bore fruit and contributed to the end of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the states which emerged became automatically members of the OSCE. But throughout the nineties, there was no interest in examining and changing the principles of the organisation. As long as there had been a credible Soviet nuclear threat there was indeed a need for diplomatic caution, but following the collapse of that threat, the OSCE could have pushed actively for democratic reforms throughout the region.

Instead the principle of unanimity was maintained, which made it almost impossible to take action against human rights abuses in member states. Only during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia did the OSCE break through this blockade.

Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

In spite of the OSCE's institutional problems, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was set up in 1990 to perform such functions as observing elections in member states. Over the years the ODIHR has consistently observed the elections in Central Asia. Its reports document numerous cases of fraud and other abuses.

None of the elections held in Central Asia have ever even begun to meet the conditions for democratic representation of the will of the people. But the carefully drawn-up evidence of manipulation and electoral fraud has had absolutely no political consequences.

This self-imposed caution is counterproductive. During the nineties, the Central Asian societies and their governments were eager to move closer to Europe. If the OSCE had had a clear strategy and had linked it with the offer of serious help with economic development in the region, it would have had a chance of getting a dynamic reform process under way in Central Asia. Instead it stood on the sidelines and watched as post-Soviet ruling elites built up uncontested power structures within the artificial borders of their Central Asian states.

Playing off stability against democracy

The Central Asian rulers were able simply to play off stability against democracy. The dictators celebrated themselves as bulwarks against the threats of Islamism, state collapse, and—since September 11th, 2001—terrorism. In addition, the rulers have justified the lack of democracy in their countries with a Central Asian mentality which has nothing in common with Western ideas of the individual and pluralism. According to this view, citizens of Uzbekistan are happy to be tortured by corrupt policemen and to have their property confiscated.

Now, as Russian national and economic self-confidence have been restored by increases in world market prices for the raw materials Russia produces, Moscow has turned itself into the protector of the Central Asian dictators. The OSCE, already toothless, will find itself pressured by a reinvigorated Russia to withdraw even further from its (so far only perfunctory) role as a guardian of civil rights.

The case of Uzbekistan has shown most clearly the dangers of this softly-softly approach by the OSCE. In spite of its fourteen-year membership of the organisation, the Uzbek government had no hesitation in firing on its own people during a demonstration in Andijan on May 13th. This massacre was the bloodiest excess of a brutal and corrupt regime which has been able to consolidate its power under the benevolent patronage of the western democracies.

The danger now is that the unchallenged terror regime in Tashkent will lead to the destabilisation of the whole region between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. The OSCE must wake up at last and take firm action against the coalition of dictators in its own ranks.

Marcus Bensmann

© Die Tageszeitung/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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