The responsibility of running the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may be having a moderating effect on Kazakhstan, Vladimir Shkolnikov, an expert on the workings of the Vienna-based multilateral organization tells EurasiaNet. For one, officials in Astana are finding that it is not so easy to impose their own political preferences on a group that comprises 56 member states, and which requires consensus to get anything done.
In an interview conducted in late February, Shkolnikov, who was a top official for years at the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said that Kazakhstan, which assumed the OSCE chair on January 1, is still going through a "learning experience." He praised Astana for getting an OSCE operating budget passed relatively early in the year, while expressing concern about the lack of a schedule for OSCE-related meetings throughout the year. [Click on the player to hear extended comments from Shkolnikov on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship].
Like previous leaders of the OSCE, Kazakhstani officials are struggling to address an array of practical issues. "Being in Vienna, talking to delegations, boiling in that multilateral caldron, is very different from being in Astana and having some ideas of what the chairmanship should be," Shkolnikov said.
"I've seen some other chairmanships having differences between the capital and what's happening in Vienna," Shkolnikov continued. "I think certainly the [Kazakhstani] delegation is doing the best it can; they've devoted considerable resources, both human and financial, to running it. On a technical point, certain meetings can always be conducted better than others, but I will also say that to be fair, it's a challenge to have your capital with five hours time difference from Vienna because running the chairmanship is real-time endeavor."
Concerns that Kazakhstan might try to use its OSCE chairmanship to deemphasize the group's democratization mission are not playing out -- at least for now, Shkolnikov suggested. Astana's chief priority appears to be convening an OSCE summit, and to accomplish that goal it needs to make trade-offs elsewhere. Shkolnikov said that Kazakhstan also had no choice but to abandon its "national agenda" in order to achieve consensus within the OSCE. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In recent years, ODIHR has come under severe criticism, especially its election monitoring function, from former Soviet states. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But Shkolnikov maintained that ODIHR's future was not especially threatened by the Kazakhstani chairmanship. Past differences between ODIHR and Russia in particular were mostly a product of personality clashes, Shkolnikov suggested.
Shkolnikov acknowledged the existence of a "values gap," which is fostering differences of opinion among the United States and European Union, on one side, and many former Soviet states on the other, concerning democratization-related issues. Closing that gap, and reinvigorating the OSCE's democratization component, requires a renewed commitment to the organization on the part of Western states, as well as non-governmental organizations, Shkolnikov said.
Editor's Note: Vladimir Shkolnikov served in several capacities with the Warsaw-based ODIHR, including heading the office's Migration Unit, and later its Democratization Department. After leaving ODIHR, Shkolnikov worked for a year as the director of Freedom House Europe, based in Budapest. He currently serves as a consultant to the Open Society Institute (OSI) on OSCE-related issues. The views expressed in this video interview are Shkolnikov's own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of OSI. EurasiaNet operates under OSI's auspices.