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Democracy, Energy, And Ambiguity

WASHINGTON, December 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Even as doubts about Kazakhstan's commitment to democratic reform have left its bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in flux, President Nursultan Nazarbaev used a recent trip to Brussels to drive home his country's growing importance as an energy supplier. These two trends -- doubts about democracy and increasing hydrocarbon clout -- seem poised to determine Kazakhstan's position on the international arena in coming years. How comfortably can they coexist?

Kazakhstan's hopes of chairing the OSCE in 2009 were mired in ambiguity on December 5, when member states' foreign ministers postponed a final decision.

Astana's bid for the chairmanship presented the OSCE with not one, but several conundrums. The most striking, of course, is Kazakhstan's spotty record on human rights and democratic reforms. The OSCE is perhaps best known for its close monitoring of elections, and its reports on Kazakhstan's 2004 parliamentary elections and 2005 presidential election were unsparing in their criticism.

Adding complexity, the Kazakh drive for the chairmanship came against the backdrop of a Russian-led campaign to shift the OSCE's focus from democratization to security -- an effort warmly supported by other CIS countries that have felt the sting of the OSCE's election scrutiny. They touted the idea of a Kazakh chairmanship as a way to add "balance" to an organization increasingly unpopular with authoritarians east of Vienna.

Finally, Kazakhstan invested considerable prestige in its bid, raising the stakes in case of outright rejection.

'Victory' In Brussels

When push came to shove in Brussels, Kazakhstan enjoyed the strong backing of Russia and fellow CIS countries, and the somewhat less enthusiastic support of numerous European states. But Britain and the United States felt that Kazakhstan has not made enough progress to head the OSCE, "The Times" reported on December 5. The result was a postponement of a final decision until 2007.

Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, who is also the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, pronounced the result a "victory for Kazakh diplomacy," "Kazakhstan Today" reported on December 5.

He has a point. A denial of Kazakhstan's OSCE bid would have been a slap in the face; but the decision not to decide allows Astana to continue pressing its claims.

...And Beyond

Meanwhile, President Nursultan Nazarbaev put his time in Brussels to good use as the front man for his country's effort to position itself as a 21st-century energy power. He held talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer against a backdrop of deal-making. The EU and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum of understanding on energy, while EU justice ministers approved an EU-Kazakhstan agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, AFP and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Commenting on the possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline, Nazarbaev stated bluntly that "any route which is feasible and efficient for the transfer of Kazakh hydrocarbons will be thoroughly considered" (AFP reported). He said his country "will still probably be using the Russian network to the Baltic ports," but he added that Astana has "also discussed the further extension of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [BTC] pipeline."

A report on state-run Kazakh television on December 5 pointed clearly to the niche that Kazakhstan hopes to fill as an energy supplier to Europe. The correspondent noted that "Europe meets one-third of its oil and gas demand with imports from Russia and...is striving to overcome this heavy dependence." Noting that Europe wants Kazakhstan to join the BTC pipeline, the report continued with a carefully worded quote from Nazarbaev. In it, the president said many details remain to be clarified; but he stressed that his government "will use any route profitable for Kazakhstan."

Nazarbaev's equivocation is a natural nod to the undefined legal status of the Caspian and Moscow's marked lack of enthusiasm for projects that would see it lose control of westward export routes for Kazakh oil and gas. His commitment to "any route profitable for Kazakhstan" is a signal that he does not consider these obstacles insurmountable.

Back At Home

As these events unfolded in Brussels, an entirely different drama continued to play out in Kazakhstan. There, the Supreme Court on December 5 began to review an appeal filed on behalf of those convicted of the February murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides.

A former security officer, Rustam Ibragimov, was given the death penalty in that case, although the country's moratorium on executions effectively commutes that to life imprisonment. A former head of administration for the upper chamber of parliament, Erzhan Utembaev, received a 20-year prison term. Lawyers representing Sarsenbaev's family want evidence that Utembaev wrote a confession under duress examined. They are also asking the Supreme Court to order an additional investigation into the killing.

Today, the court announced that it would uphold the convictions. It also summarily dismissed claims of more senior official involvement as "unsubstantiated."

The Sarsenbaev murder revealed in its aftermath fault lines within the Kazakh elite redolent of a nasty fight over the right to succeed President Nazarbaev. The case symbolizes the political murk that has inspired doubts about Kazakhstan's progress toward genuine democracy. The postponement of a decision on Kazakhstan's OSCE bid is a manifestation of those doubts -- most strongly held, according to reports, by the United States and Great Britain.

Collision Course?

At the same time, Kazakhstan's increasing energy cooperation with Europe and Nazarbaev's intimations of interest in a trans-Caspian pipeline point to the real sources of the country's expanding geopolitical clout. Kazakhstan seems to be coming into its own as a major exporter of oil and gas at the precise moment when Europe is experiencing mounting anxiety at its energy dependence on Russia and casting about for alternate sources of supply.

The experience of other energy exporters -- from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria -- indicates that democracy and hydrocarbon wealth have a proven history of uneasy coexistence.

Russia, where rhetoric of a 21st-century energy superpower emerges from an increasingly dense fog of political intrigue, is the latest member of the club that Kazakhstan seems set to join.

Put bluntly, the record suggests that a petrostate's relations with the outside world rest primarily on its ability to pump out the "petro," with eager energy consumers placing a considerably lower premium on what is happening inside the state. For Kazakhstan, this would seem to imply that it can expect less pressure to democratize and reform as its stature as an energy exporter grows.

But today's world is not quite the same as the world in which the classic rules of petrostate politics were written. Energy is a dearer and more sought-after commodity, and energy security is the watchword of the day. In these new, tenser conditions, Kazakhstan might expect heightened scrutiny from the nervous consumers of its hydrocarbon wealth -- even as that wealth bestows on the ruling elite the petrostate's mixed blessing of relative impunity in domestic affairs.

(RFE/RL 11.xii.06)

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