Kazakhstan has come under fire for the poor state of its democracy and shoddy human rights record. But that hasn't stopped it from hosting the first OSCE summit in more than a decade in its glittering capital of Astana.
Signs point to President Nursultan Nazarbayev staying in office indefinitely
The leaders of the 50-plus members of the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe begin two days of meeting on December 1 in Kazakhstan's capital to discuss terrorism and regional security, as well as democracy and human rights issues.
The meeting is a historic event for Kazakhstan as it is the OSCE's first summit since 1999 and represents the first time one has been hosted by a post-Soviet state.
As a predominantly Muslim-country in troubled Central Asia, Kazakhstan stands out due to its stable government and because terrorism and extremism are not major problems in the country.
But international observers and local activists still question Kazakhstan's poor record in the areas of human rights and democracy.
Rights campaigners, including Yuri Gusakov of Kazakhstan's Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, have been trying to get the government to live up to its international commitments to protect human rights and promote democracy.
"Work is needed in drafting laws and in the implementation of the law," Gusakov said. "Adult people who wear the uniforms aren't able to uphold human rights and can't guarantee them despite the constitution and existing laws."
Like its new capital Astana, Kazakhstan's human rights record is a work in progress
Slow progress of democracy
Human Rights Watch also cited numerous rights violations and pointed to the government's stranglehold on the media as another issue of concern. The government has forced some independent newspapers to be shut down, and the non-governmental organization has also complained about the detention of human rights activists and journalists.
There has also been widespread criticism concerning the progress of democracy in Kazakhstan. A national election in 2007 was marred by complaints of voter intimidation and irregular counting.
Earlier this year, there was further cause for concern when 70-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country since before independence in 1991, was effectively granted the right to stay in office indefinitely.
Despite setbacks in 2009 due to the global recession, Kazakhstan's economy is strong with per capita GDP at 9,000 euros ($12,130), making it one of Central Asia's richer nations. Recent economic gains have been fuelled by sales of minerals and a surge in oil and gas exports.
The reliance on resources is creating big disparities within society, said Valentin Makulkin, an economist and business consultant based in Astana.
Oil and gas exports are changing Kazakhstan's economic landscape
"There is a very big social gap," he said. "There are only a small number of multi-millionaires or billionaires but most of the population is very poor."
Official unemployment levels at the beginning of this year were at 6.5 percent of Kazakhstan's 15.5 million people. Some 12 percent of citizens are reported to live below the poverty line. But aid agencies believe the real picture is much worse since many people in the country are employed in low wage and insecure jobs.
By some estimates, people in rural areas earn between 50 percent and 70 percent less than their urban counterparts, which can equate to as little as 70 euros a month.
Two decades ago, the agricultural sector accounted for a third of all economic activity in Kazakhstan. But after independence, the Soviet farming cooperatives were dismantled and farmers were left to fend for themselves. Their traditional markets in the USSR were also cut off. United Nations estimates reveal that by 2007 the sector accounted for less than 6 percent of GDP.
"Agriculture is ruined, the manufacturing industry is also ruined and there are only natural resources left - oil, gas, metals and uranium," Makulkin said. "These industries are capital intensive but not labor intensive. That's why there is a lot unemployment - either obvious or hidden."
The Khan Shatyr shopping center is a symbol of Astana's rapid development
But it's the glitz and glamour of Astana - not the poverty of rural Kazakhstan - that OSCE leaders will see during the summit.
And President Nazarbayev has not been shy about investing in the capital. Construction sites dominate Astana's left bank and dozens more buildings are in the planning stage. As long as the oil money continues to flow, Astana will continue to grow.
Over the past decade, at least $12 billion has been spent on transforming what used to be a second-tier Kazakh city in the desert-plain into one of the world's most modern architecturally designed cities.
The Khan Shatyr building stands out at a local favorite. This tent-like structure - standing 150-meters tall - was designed by Briton Norm Foster. Its modern decor and brand-name stores are those found in any Western city.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov said he sees the summit as an opportunity to improve Kazakhstan's global standing.
"I strongly believe that attention of the outside world is helping us as a government to be more productive, to be more transparent, and to be closer to the international standards," he told foreign reporters.
Local activists, like Gusakov, however, have said they're seeing little difference on the ground.
"Nothing has changed yet," Gusakov said. "There have been announcements that haven't been put into effect. Despite a negative reaction from the international community, no one in the OSCE has said that they are uncomfortable with the fact that the country which is hosting the meeting, it is violating the rules."
Author: Karen Percy in Astana
Editor: Sean Sinico