Kazakhstan hosts first OSCE summit in decade

ASTANA, Dec 1, 2010 (AFP) - The publicity-hungry Central Asian state of Kazakhstan on Wednesday hosted the first summit of the OSCE in over a decade, despite concerns a questionable rights record made it an unsuitable venue.

ASTANA, Dec 1, 2010 (AFP) - The publicity-hungry Central Asian state of Kazakhstan on Wednesday hosted the first summit of the OSCE in over a decade, despite concerns a questionable rights record made it an unsuitable venue.

The meeting of the trans-Atlantic security group -- which aims to prevent and heal conflicts across Europe and the former Soviet Union -- got underway amid some of the tightest security ever seen for such a meeting in the region.

Leaders and representatives of OSCE countries pose for a "family photo" in Astana on December 1, 2010. AFP
Leaders and representatives of OSCE countries pose for a "family photo" in Astana on December 1, 2010. AFP

Leaders including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will seek to reinvigorate the group's role in the first summit since a meeting in Istanbul in 1999.

"This summit is a sign of the rebirth of the organisation," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who championed the holding of the meeting, said as he declared the summit open.

He called for the creation of a single security space spanning "the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and Indian Oceans," noting that some of the most serious threats to European security come outside the continent.

Many ordinary Astana residents have preferred to leave the city for the duration of the summit, with December 1-2 declared a public holiday in the capital and the area around the venue a no-go area for locals.

But the summit -- which coincides with Kazakhstan's 2010 chairmanship of the OSCE -- has also been criticised by some activists who say the country's dubious rights record made it a poor choice.

Nazarbayev -- president since independence from the Soviet Union-- enjoys the support of a rubber stamp parliament and a lack of any criticism in the pro-government press.

New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch described Kazakhstan's rights record as "stagnant" and said promises to improve media freedoms during its chairmanship had remained unfulfilled.

"The disappointing paradox is that Kazakhstan has been very active as OSCE chair but took few if any meaningful steps to improve its own human rights record," said Rachel Denber, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director.

The OCSE's meetings -- which operate on the principle of seeking full consensus among its 56 member states -- often become mired in disputes between members. Diplomats have warned a final communique may not even be issued.

One of Nazarbayev's main regional rivals, Uzbek President Islam Karimov, is absent from the summit, while according to the Russian Kommersant daily Medvedev cut short his visit to one from two days at the last minute.

A senior diplomat close to the organisers, who asked not to be named, told AFP that Nazarbayev did "not appreciate" the decision of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to skip the summit and instead send his prime minister.

But Nazarbayev has scored a major coup by attracting dozens of world leaders to his hitherto little-known capital, also including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

After Kazakhstan's frosty reaction to the the 2006 comedy hit film "Borat" about a fictitious politically incorrect Kazakh journalist, the summit represents a chance for the country to project a shiny modern image.

Astana has grown exponentially since taking over from Almaty as Kazakh capital in 1997 and it boasts a skyline of modern buildings ranging from gigantic futurist structures to more stylish work by world architects.

Clinton's talks at the summit are likely to be marked by the delicate task of providing explanations to world leaders in the wake of the release of leaked US diplomatic cables by the WikiLeaks website.

"I've been reaching out to governments and leaders around the world the last week. I will continue to do so," she said in a speech to students in Astana after arriving.

The Kazakh leadership was itself touched by the scandal, with documents alleging the president spends much time at a property in the United Arab Emirates while his prime minister has a taste for nightclubs.

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