This year, Kazakhstan has become the first former Soviet state to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Democratic activists are crying foul, saying President Nursultan Nazarbayev represses dissent. Others worry that Kazakhstan will be used by Russia, which has undermined the O.S.C.E. in the past, to advance Russian initiatives.
Based on my experience as U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan after independence in 1991 and on later developments, I believe these concerns are understandable but excessive.
The 56-member O.S.C.E. monitors conflict zones and promotes civil society development, among other tasks. It also requires that members adhere to certain standards of human rights and democracy.
Kazakhstan has done much right since independence. Whether it has the moral authority and diplomatic gravitas to shepherd the O.S.C.E. to a fruitful year, however, depends on how it leads and the support it obtains.
In several areas Kazakhstan got off to a good start as an independent state. It quickly agreed to give up a huge cache of leftover Soviet nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan wanted close U.S. and European ties to enhance security and attract investment. It became a model partner in the Nunn-Lugar program to avert proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Kazakhstan excelled in interethnic relations. Unlike other former Soviet republics that suffered separatist conflicts, Kazakhstan reassured the seven million Russians and Ukrainians living there. Slavs who ran industry kept their jobs or were replaced gradually. Ethnic Kazakh political leaders touted inclusion and tolerance and embraced a moderate Islam.
Unlike Russia, Kazakhstan nurtured good relations with all its neighbors, mutually dependent because of supply routes, and it treated energy investors — a key enabler of Kazakhstan's economic success and improved living standards — better than Russia.
By and large these early gains persisted, but so did a few ominous shifts.
Nazarbayev convinced Kazakhs to support his increasingly authoritarian rule, warning that Russia could exploit acrimony to gain leverage.
Through manipulation, he secured a more compliant Parliament than the one inherited from Soviet rule. O.S.C.E. Parliamentary Assembly observers lambasted cheating in the first post-independence election. The main independent newspaper suffered a devastating and suspicious fire in 2002 (Nazarbayev was none too happy when I made a publicized visit there).
Two early opposition leaders, Sergei Duvanov and Yevgeny Zhovtis, remain profiles in courage. In recent years, the former was framed on a dubious rape charge and the latter slapped with a stiff prison sentence for an auto accident in which a pedestrian died. Two former ministers in Nazarbayev's cabinet who went into opposition were later murdered.
Human Rights Watch points to "continued deterioration of human rights" in Kazakhstan. Freedom House ranks it as "unfree."
Yet Nazarbayev remains popular in Kazakhstan, and the level of repression there is far less than, for example, in neighboring Uzbekistan.
Corruption in Kazakhstan is debilitating. I recall how several U.S. companies were scared away when told to partner with local firms linked to organized crime.
Over time, corruption has worsened. A U.S. court has named Nazarbayev an unindicted co-conspirator in a vast money laundering and bribery case. His children and their spouses have influence in many parts of the economy.
Clearly, Kazakhstan cannot lead the O.S.C.E. by example on democracy and human rights. It can, however, make valuable progress if it mobilizes its strengths and other O.S.C.E. members pitch in to help.
First, Kazakhstan could take advantage of its close relations with Russia to encourage Moscow to stop undermining the O.S.C.E.; to do more to resolve frozen conflicts; and to reinstate an O.S.C.E. presence in the North Caucasus, where violence is spreading. Russian activities exacerbate these problems even if they are not the sole cause.
Second, Kazakhstan could use its relationships with southern neighbors to foster a deeper dialogue with the O.S.C.E.. The frontline states — Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have a combustible mix of repressive regimes and ethnic kin hardened by combat in Afghanistan. Political relaxation in these countries would lessen tensions and future risks.
The West must continue nudging Kazakhstan to comply with the democratic commitments it made to win the O.S.C.E. chairmanship.
Realistically, however, security and economic cooperation are the realms in which Kazakhstan has more stature and can make its best contribution.
The West has important security interests at stake in Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Dangers there are growing. The West's first priority in the O.S.C.E. should be to marshal its help in addressing these challenges, with support from Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev entreats every foreign dignitary to back an O.S.C.E. summit later this year in Astana. Convening one would be appropriate if it helped the O.S.C.E. make progress on tough issues.
William Courtney was the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and served as senior adviser to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.