Central Asian non-government groups are holding their own event ahead of the December 1-2 summit of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which they hope will push human rights up the official meeting’s agenda.
Like the summit, the alternative meeting is taking place in the Kazak capital Astana, and convenes on November 28-29.
As this year’s chair of the OSCE – the first former Soviet state to hold the post – Kazakstan is hosting the summit. Critics say the country has failed to live up pledges to improve its human rights record as a condition of being awarded the chairmanship. (For a report on the formal event, see Kazak Capital in Shutdown Mode for OSCE Meeting .)
The NGO event is being organised by Human Rights Watch; Freedom House; Civicus; the Helsinki committees; the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law; Kylym Shamy and Citizens Against Corruption from Kyrgyzstan; Nota Bene from Tajikistan; and a number of rights groups from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus.
Its aim is to discuss how the OSCE should change to improve promotion of democracy and rule of law among its 56 member countries. The conference will also debate increased NGO participation in the work of organisation’s institutions.
The meeting will produce recommendations that will be submitted to the OSCE event.
Organisers were concerned that the Kazak government tried to obstruct the NGO meeting.
They announced plans for the event at an OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in the Polish capital Warsaw between September 30 and October 8. They then received news that their advanced bookings for the conference venue had been cancelled. The authorities later dropped their objections.
IWPR asked one of the members of the organising committee, Vyacheslav Abramov, deputy director of Freedom House Kazakstan about the controversy, and about Kazakstan’s performance as chair of the OSCE.
Vyacheslav Abramov: First, the Kazak authorities realised that it was extremely important to allow such an [NGO] event and that it would be of great importance to all OSCE member countries. Second, many foreign governments were backing the parallel conference, expressed explicit support for it and mentioned it in talks with Kazakstan.
The Kazak authorities realised that if they prevented the conference from taking place, they would provoke a further wave of criticism.
IWPR: Will Kazak officials be attending the NGO summit?
Abramov: An official from the foreign ministry is expected to speak at the opening of the conference. We also expect several representatives of Astana city administration to be there; they have registered as participants.
IWPR: The idea for this came from Yevgeny Zhovtis, head of the Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, who was jailed last year for causing a death in a traffic accident. Rights activists criticised his trial which they say was marred by procedural irregularities, and believe he was deliberately given a harsh sentence to discredit and isolate him.
Will he be able to address the conference participants in some way?
Abramov: We don’t want to give away specific details but he will play a direct part in the conference. Participants will hear his views on developments in the OSCE region.
IWPR: What circumstances is he in now?
Abramov: As far as I know, nothing has changed; in other words there’s no visible improvement in his situation. His rights continue to be violated.
Most prisoners serving sentences in this penal colony get to work outside it, unguarded. Zhovtis has been there a year and in that time he hasn’t been allowed to leave even once, unguarded and without an escort. In my view, that’s a clearest indication that he’s being treated differently.
IWPR: What is the reason for holding an NGO conference to coincide with the summit?
Abramov: For most NGOs it’s absolutely clear that non-government organisations should have a greater role in the OSCE process. Currently, it’s restricted to participation in the annual Human Dimension conference in Warsaw, where NGOs present their view on what is happening in individual OSCE countries.
Many of them are now designing a large package of recommendations about how to develop the OSCE, improve its internal processes, and make it more effective.
The parallel conference is directly linked to the OSCE summit. We believe it is a unique opportunity which NGOs should use. They will gather in the same place where the summit is held… they will have opportunities to meet official delegations and hand over the recommendations they’ve drafted.
IWPR: Which organisations are taking part in the NGO summit?
Abramov: So far, more than 200 organisations have registered, mainly from the Commonwealth of Independent States. In addition, European and American organisations that follow developments in the OSCE will take part.
IWPR: There were reports that some Turkmen civil society activists faced difficulties attending the OSCE conference in Warsaw. It was reported that they were prevented from participating by the organiser, at the request of the Turkmen authorities. Will they be able to attend the NGO conference in Astana?
Abramov: Yes, I am sure they will.
IWPR: What are the problems facing NGOs in Central Asia?
Abramov: One of the main ones is the attempt by states to establish total control over NGOs. This is true of Kazakstan, where the state is increasing the amount of [government contracts for] social projects, and many NGOs are being drawn in, thereby subjecting their programmes to censorship.
At the same time, the number of international donors that support NGO work is falling, so that many organisations are forced to turn to their government for financial support.
Moreover, in all the Central Asia countries, the role and influence of NGOs is a big issue because in most of them, they are disregarded or completely ignored. As a result, NGOs working in the area of public policy, trying to amend legislation or change government attitudes to various issues achieve virtually no impact. This is disappointing for the NGOs themselves, for donors and for society.
IWPR: How would you describe the media situation?
Abramov: I would describe the situation in Central Asia as critical. Previously we were saying that it was gradually getting worse, but now it has deteriorated so much that it’s on the edge of the abyss. All countries in the region are sending out clear signals that they want to control and censor the media. There’s clearly no progress, and the backsliding will most probably continue.
IWPR: With Kazakstan’s OSCE chairmanship nearing its end, how would you assess it?
Abramov: There are two aspects to this. The first concerns its chairmanship outside the country. In some areas, this has been quite useful. Kazakstan has, for example, intensified the Corfu process [aimed at advancing dialogue among OSCE members] in the security field, advanced economic processes and held several successful international conferences. Although these have not always led to tangible results, they have prompted serious debate.
The second aspect is the domestic situation in the country that holds the chair. In my view, this has got substantially worse, because back in 2007 when Kazakstan was awarded the chairmanship, there were no political prisoners, whereas now there are several.
At that time, several [opposition] newspapers, were published freely, while now the newspaper Respublika, for example, has not come out for more than a year.
Many internet sites have been blocked. Many organisations, including faith groups, feel they are being pressured by the authorities. Some have been closed by court orders, stripped of their registration, or have experienced so much pressure that they’ve effectively been forced to stop operating Many religious activists have left Kazakstan because the rules for issuing visas to missionaries have changed.
The situation has got so bad that one cannot hold Kazakstan up as a good example of the kind of country that should lead the OSCE. It sets a very bad example for the OSCE states.
It would make sense to set rigorous conditions requiring any country to meet certain criteria before they can even join the OSCE, let alone take the lead in it…. If such a list of criteria had existed, Kazakstan would have never got to chair the OSCE.
Irina Mednikova is a correspondent for the Golos Respubliki newspaper
This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.