Kazakhstan is far from most people’s geopolitical radars, and outside oil and gas circles is still known mainly for the fictional journalist, Borat. Add to the mix a president with dictatorial inclinations and getting media attention for the right reasons has always been a struggle for the Kazakhs.
But they are trying hard. On Tuesday, several world leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met in Istanbul on one of the first occasions when leaders from across the Eurasian region could discuss their response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla. The event was the third summit of the rather unsexily named Conference on Interaction & Confidence-building Measures in Asia, or CICA, and it attracted nine heads of state as well as representatives from most of its 20 member nations.
Not many people have heard of CICA (pronounced “seeker” in English) but it’s one of several Kazakh attempts to put the country on the map. First proposed by the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 1992, the organisation had its first summit in 2002. It’s meant to be the Asian answer to the more ambitious and active Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and brings together countries that do not often sit around a table together – India and Pakistan, Israel (it did not turn up this time) and Iran are all members. The UN is the only other organisation where representatives of countries so diverse sit in the same room.
“Asia is a geographical entity but unlike Europe it’s not a geopolitical entity,” Dulat Bakishev, the executive director of the CICA secretariat, told me in Almaty last month. This means that, unlike the OSCE, CICA has no pretensions to promote democracy or monitor the elections of its member states. Instead, it’s more of a forum for dialogue, for getting people round that table.
Both previous CICA summits have been held in Almaty, but this year Kazakhstan has passed on the chairmanship of the organisation to Turkey, with the hope that a rotating chairmanship will give the forum more legitimacy. True, amid the Gaza crisis, no officials from Israel attended, but at smaller-level events such as a meeting of police chiefs earlier this year, CICA presents a rare opportunity for the exchange of ideas across wider Asia.
“If a major world power attempted to set up a big security forum for Asia, there would be concerns and questions,” says Bakishev. “That’s why Kazakhstan, as a medium-sized country is in the perfect position to organise such events.”
Kazakhstan this year also has the chairmanship of the OSCE. There were more than a few murmurs of discontent among western Europeans when the Central Asian country that’s far from being a paragon of democracy was given the chairmanship.
For Kazakhstan, too, it has not been easy, putting an inevitable spotlight on some of the more unsavoury aspects of its political system. But the feeling in Kazakhstan is that this unwanted scrutiny is a price worth paying for the increased clout and prestige that chairing the OSCE will give it in European capitals.