The government of Kazakhstan has hired a Washington lobbying firm to try to change regulations that require countries to make progress on human rights in order to receive US aid. Kazakhstani officials have indicated that they would prefer to not get the money at all, rather than be subjected to the "insulting" standards.
The aid in question totals about $19 million in the current budget year, and is used for a variety of US government programs, including military training and equipment, child health and nonproliferation programs.
According to US law, to spend the money the State Department must certify that Kazakhstan "has made significant improvements in the protection of human rights and civil liberties during the preceding 6-month period." The law refers specifically to obligations that Kazakhstan took on as part of its membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including "election procedures, media freedom, freedom of religion, free assembly and minority rights."
While those requirements have long existed, another provision in the law allows the secretary of state to waive the certification process if it is "important to the national security of the United States." That waiver has been used every year, and Kazakhstan has never undergone the certification.
Kazakhstan's government has hired a Washington lobbying firm, Policy Impact Communications, for a one-year, $1.5 million contract. One of the lobbying firm's aims will be to change existing rules. The amount of aid is small by the standards of the oil-rich Central Asian state, and a source close to the process said that "not only has Kazakhstan not asked for the money ... but Kazakhstan has offered to forego the money, rather than deal with an insulting certification requirement every year."
According to its website, Policy Impact Communications, was founded in 1997 by Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee and currently the sitting governor of Mississippi, and Ed Gillespie, a long-time Republican Party operative who served as an advisor to former president George W. Bush. The firm's current CEO, William Nixon, was once a speechwriter for former Republican president Ronald Reagan.
In an emailed response to questions from EurasiaNet, a spokesman for the Kazakhstan Embassy in Washington, DC, Zhanbolat Ussenov, said: "Kazakhstan is enacting reforms, and the certification requirement is rather arbitrary and unfair in its administration, being applied to a few emerging democracies, while allowing severe regimes to pass altogether.
"Each year the requirement is waived, and each year the United States continues to fund programs that are important to its objectives in Central Asia," Ussenov continued. "As Kazakhstan does not ask for the funding, it also does not seek the waiver. As a consequence, the process seems more political than practical. Progress on human rights continues uninfluenced and undeterred."
The contract with Policy Impact also covers work to place pro-Kazakhstan opinion articles in major US publications, and to revoke the so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment, a Cold War-era provision that requires nations to allow free emigration in exchange for normal trade relations with the United States. While the law was intended to help Soviet Jews emigrate, it remains on the books.
Kazakhstani officials argue that they are doing what they can with regard to human rights. "Kazakhstan continues to make important progress in the area of human rights," Ussenov said. "We have much to celebrate in this area. We also have more to accomplish."
Asked if he thought Kazakhstan would be able to secure human rights certification, Ussenov said he didn't know. "Whether or not Kazakhstan could be certified by another nation is a question that can only be answered by the nation requiring the certification process."
In July, the State Department determined that Kazakhstan "had not made significant improvements in the protection of human rights during the previous six months," said Andrew Laine, a department spokesman. However, in accordance with the law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived the requirement and allowed the assistance, Laine said. As for what the State Department would do if Kazakhstan offered to decline funding, Laine declined to answer: "We cannot comment on hypothetical questions," he said.
Kazakhstan is by far the most active of the Central Asian republics in getting its voice heard in Washington. Until April 15 of this year, Astana had a contract with another lobbying firm, APCO Worldwide, whose executive vice president, Elizabeth Jones, is a former ambassador to Kazakhstan.
Human rights activists said the law does little to push Kazakhstan toward human rights reforms. "Language like that is useful when it is used as a policy tool, and we don't know how it's been used because it's been waived every year," said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Taking the language out of the government appropriations bill would not lessen the scrutiny on Astana's human rights record, she said. "The OSCE chairmanship is catapulting them [Kazakhstani leaders] even more into the limelight and scrutiny of their human rights record," she said. "That scrutiny is going to be there no matter what." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The fact that the certification has been waived every year suggests that Kazakhstan has not made the appropriate progress on human rights, said Tom Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House a democratization watchdog group. "They can't certify that any progress has been made - you have to waive it. And that underscores that whatever movement there is has been negative, not positive," he said.
He also disputed the notion that the certification process was insulting. "What should be more embarrassing to them is the action of the government toward the people of the country," he said.