Over the past few years, Kazakhstani non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that concentrate on environmental issues have wielded growing influence over government policy. That influence was on display at a conference held in Almaty in early June that focused on developing new "green" legislation. The meeting resulted in the establishment of a working group that will work to fine-tune the legislation so that it can be introduced for parliamentary consideration later this year.
"The main goal behind [setting up] the working group is that the law will be drawn up from the outset by interested NGOs, users of natural resources and the Environmental Protection Ministry," Deputy Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Iskakov told the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency.
Kazakhstan's environment was ravaged by the Communist experiment in central planning. Experts estimate that roughly 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan today almost one in every 10 citizens is grappling with the effects of over 400 nuclear bomb tests conducted in Semipalatinsk during the Soviet era. Decades of industrial waste also are posing serious hazards. According to a United Nations Environmental report, 20 billon tons of industrial waste, 7 billion tons of which are toxic, have accumulated on Kazakhstani territory.
On top of the Soviet legacy, disturbing trends have been registered in recent years. The state committee for statistics, for example, said air pollution in many cities has risen dramatically. The recorded air pollution level in Astana, the capital, was 190 percent higher during the first quarter of 2003 than during the same period the previous year. In Karaganda, the level was 90 percent higher, while Shymkent recorded a 24 percent increase.
For roughly the first decade following independence in 1991, environmental issues received scant attention from Kazakhstani authorities. Lately, however, the government has come to realize that environmental issues are capable of galvanizing large numbers of Kazakhstanis into a cohesive pressure group.
Over the last three years, state spending on environmental protection has increased nearly three-fold, but still stands at a relatively modest figure of 400 million tenge (roughly US $2.6 million), according to Kaisha Atakhanova, the founder and the head of Kazakh environmental group EcoCenter.
NGOs have played a key role in helping to harness grass-roots concerns into cohesive pressure on policy-makers. A key moment for Kazakhstan's environmental movement occurred in early 2003, when an NGO coalition mounted a successful campaign to force the government to shelve a revenue-generating scheme to import nuclear waste. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"After the campaign against the importation of nuclear waste, we understood that we had been counted, we had been heard; that we possess power and ability to activate people," Atakhanova said.
A letter-writing campaign, in which citizens barraged legislators with complaints, was a critical component of the NGO coalition's strategy to blunt the importation scheme. Setting aside importation plans provided "a chance for our government to put an end to its highly damaged reputation," Atakhanova said.
Building the NGO movement's influence was a painstaking process, according to Atakhanova. Just two summers ago, "major media outlets did not pay much attention to the nuclear waste issue," she added. Today, as the June conference on legislation attests, NGO influence has reached the point that officials seek the input of activists when formulating environmental legislation.
Nazarbayev recently indicated that environmental protection would be among the government's top policy priorities in the coming years. In recognition of the activists' role in putting environment concerns at the forefront the government's agenda, the United States is poised to increase assistance to the NGO sector, US officials have indicated.
"Our new priority at the moment is to draw up a policy for a rational distribution of the new budget. There is a lot of work to be done on the transparency and effectiveness of environmental programs," Atakhanova said. She added that NGOs are advocating the use of revenue from oil and gas exports to address pressing environmental issues, including the safe storage of existing nuclear waste in Kazakhstan.
NGO activists expect the environmental lobby's influence to grow with the approach of parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2004. "We'll use this time to raise public awareness throughout the country and promote public control over the environmental issue," Atakhanova said.
At the same time, environmentalists are taking nothing for granted. They say government support for environmental issues is capable of evaporating as quickly as it materialized. In addition, they do not exclude the possibility that Kazatomprom, the state nuclear agency, may try to revive the nuclear waste importation plan. They note that Mukhtar Jakishev, the Kazatomprom chief, remains a proponent of the idea.
"We have information that Jakishev has personally lobbied government officials in order to convince them about the merits of the proposed [importation] plan," Atakhanova said. "Jakishev has extensive contacts within government and we fear that, using these contacts, he could influence the government's decision on the matter."
Elina Karakulova is a research associate at EurasiaNet.