The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) doesn't meet often, but it's picked a tetchy time to do so. Ethnic tensions have run high in Central Asia, and there's also the small issue of WikiLeaks.
The flags are out as the OSCE meets
The gathering of the 56 member states has been overshadowed by the release of confidential cables by American diplomats, many of which characterize foreign leaders in decidedly unflattering terms. They were made public by the website WikiLeaks late last week.
"Obviously this is a matter of great concern because we don't want anyone in any of the countries that could be affected by these alleged leaks to have any doubts about our intentions and about our commitments," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters before leaving for Astana on Monday.
Clinton may have to soothe some hurt feelings in Astana
Among those who were criticized by US diplomats were Kazakh elites, who were described as leading overly lavish lifestyles and, in at least one case, having an excessive fondness for alcoholic beverages.
And that's not been the only criticism of leaders from the host country, as many of the world's most powerful nations sit down to discuss issues ranging from terrorism, drug trafficking and the drawn-out conflicts in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Along with criticism of Kazakhstan's less-than-stellar human-rights record, experts are divided as to whether the oil-rich nation plays a positive role in a region ridden with ethnic and economic conflict.
In June of this year, for example, clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Southern Kyrgyzstan left around 2,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
This has not been a good year for peace in Central Asia
"We have conflicts here between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, between Kyrgyz and Tajiks and between Tajiks and Uzbeks," regional expert Natalia Kharitonova, from the Russian State University for the Humanities, told Deutsche Welle. "Ethnic tensions in Kazakhstan are less grave because of the higher standard of living."
But others say Kazakhstan's relative affluence is in itself a source of regional instability
"Social inequalities between the nations of Central Asia bring with them great potential for conflict among the ethnic peoples of Central Asia," said Michael Laubsch, the director of the Eurasian Transition Group.
The very fact that the summit is being held in Astana is designed to underscore the claims of Kazakhstan and its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to major-player status.
"First and foremost, the OSCE summit is a foreign policy advertisement project and President Nazarbayev's personal public relations project," Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpayev told the Reuters news agency. "He is very ambitious and is keen to position himself not as a regional but, rather, a world leader."
Nazarbayev (center) hopes to lift his international profile
If Nazarbayev could broker a breakthrough on one of the major issues under discussion, for instance the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorny-Karabakh region, it would certainly be a publicity coup.
But that won't be easy, especially as the usefulness of the OSCE itself is coming under scrutiny.
Past its prime?
The organization that became the OSCE was founded in 1975 as a non-binding pact intended to further stability throughout the northern hemisphere and to serve as a forum for dialogue between East and West during the Cold War. Its high point came in the mid- and late-1990s, when it played a major role in bringing the Balkan Wars to an end.
But the OSCE's budget and influence has declined in the new millennium, and critics say the organization's structure is too cumbersome to prevent and resolve conflicts like those in Central Asia this summer.
The OSCE oversaw the elections that brought a measure of peace to the Balkans
"During and immediately following the violent uprising in Kyrgyzstan, it was unable to react quickly, stop the massacre and bring the situation under control," said Laubsch.
But the OSCE has also received some important public backing. Russia, which has often criticized what it sees as a pro-Western bias within the organization, has indicated it thinks the OSCE does indeed have a future.
"The OSCE's potential has not been exhausted," Kremlin foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko told reporters in advance of the summit.
At an informal OSCE summit this summer, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took much the same line.
"Our organization is capable of responding to crises," Lavrov told reporters last July.
Russia was characterized in one of the leaked cables as "an oligarchy run by the security services." Lavrov played down the importance of the embarrassing memos ahead of the summit, calling them an "amusing read."
It remains to be seen, however, how many of the leaders can put hurt feelings behind them as they strive to define a new role for the OSCE in the 21st century - and perhaps make progress on the odd political crisis or two.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Chuck Penfold