Hard Times Ahead for Kazakstan Civil Society

Despite progress on talks to amend upcoming NGO bill, other legislation imposes worrying restrictions.

Hard Times Ahead for Kazakstan Civil Society

Despite progress on talks to amend upcoming NGO bill, other legislation imposes worrying restrictions.

Aigul Kaptaeva addresses a May 22 discussion organised by IWPR and the Institute for National and International Development Initiatives. (Photo: IWPR)
Aigul Kaptaeva addresses a May 22 discussion organised by IWPR and the Institute for National and International Development Initiatives. (Photo: IWPR)

Human rights activists in Kazakstan say their work is threatened by the new Criminal Code passed earlier this month, while upcoming legislation on NGOs could do further damage to the sector.

Kazakstan’s parliament approved the Criminal Code on June 11, and once President Nursultan Nazarbaev signs off on it, it is expected to come into force by next January.

Officials say the code will reduce the burden on the prison system by allowing use of alternative penalties such as fines. It also reclassifies a number of crimes as lesser offences, and makes it easier for vulnerable people such as pregnant women and minors to qualify for early release.

But human rights defenders, who are already lobbying hard against forthcoming legislation on NGOs, say the Criminal Code also contains provisions that will restrict their scope to operate. 

“Making the legislation more humane has not affected NGOs, and what’s more, lawmakers have expanded certain types of offences that could be applied to NGOs, along with harsher punishments for them,” said Aigul Kaptaeva, a consultant at the Kazakstan office of the International Centre for Non-Profit Law.

For instance, leaders of NGOs and faith groups could face up to six years in jail if they fail to register their group with the state, receive funding while the group is still unregistered, or are deemed to have interfered with the operation of state institutions.

Kaptaeva was speaking at a May 22 public debate organised jointly by IWPR and the Institute for National and International Development Initiatives which brought together local NGOs, international organisations and the media.

The meeting discussed how best to strengthen lobbying against the Criminal Code, as well push for changes to the proposed law on state support for NGOs.

The latter law reflects a growing trend that has seen state funding for NGOs – channelled through government contracts – increase over the last decade. Presented last year, the bill sets out a lengthy, convoluted process for NGOs to access government contacts, with only 15 groups from a list of approved groups receiving funding. 

Civil society activists say that this approach is wrong because it treats charities like profit-making concerns, with beneficiaries chosen solely on the basis of the cheapest project bid rather than on an assessment of the likely social impact.

Instead of contracts, activists argue, the sector needs broader support in the form of grants and tax relief for non-profits.

Campaigners say they have had some limited success in lobbying for changes to the NGO bill. It was due to come before parliament at the end of last year, but it was delayed as efforts were made to negotiate amendments with the culture and information ministry, which drafted the legislation.

The ministry has accepted a number of proposals, including provisions for state-funded grants, involving NGOs in the work of the grant-making commission and in monitoring and evaluating projects, as well as simplifying the procedure for qualifying for government contracts.

Svetlana Ushakova, director of the Institute for National and International Development Initiatives, noted that the talks had slowed in the last couple of months. In March, culture and information minister Mukhtar Kul-Muhammed was promoted to the post of State Secretary, and was replaced by Arystanbek Muhamediuly.

Tolganay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy, told IWPR that since political decision-making dominated by the president and his inner circle, the final shape of the NGO law was likely to be determined by orders from above rather than consultations. But she insisted that the negotiations were a major achievement for civil society groups, demonstrating that they could mobilise to defend their common interests.

The Criminal Code is the first of a series of legislative acts going through parliament. Still to come are the Criminal Procedure Code, which will include changes to the way some cases are investigated, while the Criminal Procedures Implementation Code will change the treatment of prison inmates. Certain offences are being shifted from the Administrative Offences Code to the Criminal Code, implying stiffer penalties.

On the day the Criminal Code was approved by parliament, 18 leading NGOs published a letter urging Nazarbaev to veto the whole series of laws, arguing that they “significantly restrict and infringe human rights”, contrary to both Kazakstan’s constitution and its international obligations.

Human rights defenders fear the authorities are using new legislation to curb civil society groups that are critical of the government or work on sensitive issues.

“NGOs that work on protecting rights or are engaged in politics are under tough pressure from the Kazakstan authorities,” Umbetalieva said.

In 2012, Russia introduced a law that requires NGOs receiving money from abroad to register as “foreign agents”. This clampdown has influenced official thinking in Kazakstan, too.

Member of parliament Dulat Kustavletov recently referred to some NGOs as “destructive elements”, and called on the authorities to heed the Russian example and tighten controls on groups that might be used by outside powers to stage what he described as “colour revolutions, unrest organised using the internet, and flash-mob revolutions”.

Yerkin Irgaliev, head of the Aspandau academic foundation, argues that the government is not interested in having an independent and strong civil society sector, and it views NGOs that receive foreign funding as hostile forces.

Political analyst Aigul Omarova said civil society groups had failed to recruit wider public support to defend their position, as ordinary people simply did not understand what their work involved or what impact it could have on their own lives.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, founder of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said that in an authoritarian country with a strong Soviet legacy, there was little acknowledgement of the value of human rights work. But he said things were changing, noting that people whose relatives had been mistreated or tortured in detention were increasingly coming to his organisation for help.

A student from Almaty, Ainura Kasymova, told IWPR that she and her friends only got to know people from the NGO sector when an awareness campaign on reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases was held at their university.

“There is no understanding among the public that NGOs help to protect their constitutional rights,” she said. “Many believe that activists are just foolhardy people who don’t agree with the authorities and stage protests against them.”

Igor Kolov, head of the Public Committee for Human Rights, said interest in the work of civil society groups was building.

“I think that despite the pressure which means they have to fight for their survival, the NGO sector is developing,” he said. “It is their activists and not political party supporters who have become the most active section of society in Kazakstan.”

Dauren Altynov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Kazakstan.

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