Legislation approved last month by Kazakhstan’s parliament is creating onerous rules on how nongovernmental organizations are funded and sparking alarm among activists of a fresh crackdown on civil society.
Critics of the bill have drawn comparisons to a 2012 law adopted in Russia that requires foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents,” a label with toxic Cold War-era associations.
Although the wording of the bill in Kazakhstan is different, many fear the results may be similar.
The law will grant the government “ideological control over NGOs,” activist Amangeldy Shormanbayev warned on October 6.
Over 60 NGOs have signed an appeal for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to veto the bill, which was approved by the lower house of parliament on September 23 and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.
The petition warns that “if this draft law is adopted, it will seriously restrict human rights,” including the rights to freedom of speech, conscience and association.
Since the constitution guarantees those rights, the law is anti-constitutional and also breaches international human rights commitments to which Astana subscribes, the appeal said.
The law will establish a single state operator through which funding for NGOs must be channeled. Activists believe that will give the state a veto over which NGOs receive funding, and for what kind of activities.
The law “contradicts the principles of open civil society, because NGOs cannot be 100 percent dependent on the state,” Shormanbayev, a representative from the International Legal Initiative, a nongovernmental foundation offering legal advice, told a news conference in Almaty on October 6.
The legislation will require all NGOs to register with the state, much as a controversial law on religion that came into force in 2009 obliged religious groups to register. Many were refused registration and subsequently closed down.
One provision in the draft bill allows officials to suspend and shut down NGOs for submitting imprecise data in their registration bids. Any small mistake or change in status could result in an NGO being summarily shuttered, warned Tamara Kaleyeva, president of the Adil Soz (Free Speech) watchdog.
This is a tactic frequently wielded to close down independent media outlets, she said.
In August, hard-hitting investigative magazine Adam was suspended for failing to publish in the Kazakh language, although it stated in its registration documents that it would publish in both Kazakh and Russian.
Opposition parties have also fallen victim to such technicalities. This summer, the Communist Party was closed down on the grounds that it fell 2,000 members short of the legally-required 40,000 members.
The authorities “are now trying apply to the NGO sector the arrangements via which inconvenient political parties have been destroyed and inconvenient media have been purged in our country,” Kaleyeva said.
Campaigners hope their call to veto the law will be heeded by Nazarbayev, who normally approves bills that reach his desk after passing through the rubberstamp legislature.
Nazarbayev has form in vetoing legislation that proves too controversial and with potential for damaging Kazakhstan’s international image.
In May, he struck down a bill that would have outlawed “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors, amid an international row over the bill ahead of Kazakhstan’s ultimately failed bid to host the Winter Olympics.