When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe finally decided to designate Kazakhstan as the chair of the group in 2010, the general hope in Vienna was that the responsibility would encourage Astana to liberalize its political system. But with just weeks to go before Kazakhstan's assumes the helm at the OSCE, those early hopes are proving illusory, leading Kazakhstani civil society activists say.
"Unfortunately, our worst fears have come to pass: things have not only not gotten better, they have gotten worse," said Ninel Fokina of Kazakhstan's Helsinki Committee, summing up the current situation in Kazakhstan. "Our leadership has come to believe that they were given the [OSCE] chairmanship ... as a validation of their policies." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Fokina was part of a team of Kazakhstani activists that visited the United States in mid-November to raise awareness about democratization developments in the Central Asian state. They held talks with members of Congress and representatives of the Obama administration, and attended the November 18 introductory reception of the Congressional Caucus on Central Asia. In addition, they made public appearances in both Washington and New York. [Editor's Note: The appearances were co-sponsored by the Open Society Institute (OSI) in New York. EurasiaNet operate's under OSI's auspices].
Kazakhstan is backsliding in a number of areas, including freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, the activists asserted, echoing a Human Rights Watch report released last May. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The group additionally expressed concern about the government's conduct of the recent trial of Yevgeny Zhovtis, a prominent human rights advocate who was convicted in September of vehicular manslaughter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"One of our messages during our meetings in Washington was that the human rights situation at this point is not just our responsibility, it's the responsibility of all the members of the OSCE," said Vera Tkachenko of Kazakhstan's Legal Policy Center during the discussion in New York. Tkachenko served as one of Zhovtis' defense attorneys.
Of late, press freedom has become a particular point of concern, said Tamara Kaleeva, an activist for Adil Soz, a media rights group. The government has steadily increased its grip on mass media outlets and is cracking down on the Internet, Kaleeva added. "If there are 3,000 registered media organizations in Kazakhstan, five of them are opposition sources, plus several websites," she said during a public appearance November 20 in New York.
A law adopted on November 19 that expands punishments for invasion of privacy will only make it more difficult for independent-minded journalists to do their jobs, Kaleeva said. The law considers defamation of character to be a criminal offense and does not distinguish between public figures, including elected officials, and private individuals, which could mean harsh punishments for reporters who try to investigate officials' actions.
Fokina shared her concern over recent court cases against protestant, scientologist and Hare Krishna groups in Kazakh courts, as well as the 700 cases brought against non-traditional Muslim groups over the last three years. Kazakhstan's Constitutional Court halted in February the passage of a law on religious activity that activists had assailed as overly restrictive. But a new version of the legislation could come up again for a parliamentary vote in 2011, just after the end of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship, Fokina said. She added that special units monitoring non-registered religious groups are operating under the auspices of the Ministry of Interior, security services and the Prosecutor General's office. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Given the West's emphasis on developing economic relations with energy-rich Kazakhstan, it is not surprising that talk of developing civil society has largely fallen by the wayside, Fokina said. The situation may change only after foreign investors have learned some painful lessons, Fokina intimated. "It seems that we have to explain to the business community what they are getting into, and what they can expect in a country with no rule of law, where everything depends on personal connections," she said.