Kazak Reform Bills Offer Little New

Government critics say proposed changes won’t improve political and media rights, and won’t fool the OSCE either.

Kazak Reform Bills Offer Little New

Government critics say proposed changes won’t improve political and media rights, and won’t fool the OSCE either.

Wednesday, 26 November, 2008
Opposition members and human rights activists in Kazakstan have dismissed a set of bills on political and media reform as a woefully inadequate attempt to impress the international community.

None of the changes on offer brings Kazak legislation up to the standards required of a country that is going to chair the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, OSCE, in 2010, they say.

The government signed off on a package of proposed amendments to the country’s laws on elections, political parties and media on November 11.

Unveiling the bills at a cabinet meeting five days earlier, Prime Minister Karim Masimov made it clear they were designed to allay any concerns the OSCE might have about the state of democracy in Kazakstan.

“This will be an indispensable buttress for our chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010,” he said.

The plan is to rush the bills through parliament by the end of November. There is a fair chance this will happen, since all the seats in the legislature held by President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan party, so that the amendments could be in place in time for a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Helsinki on December 4-5.

Kazakstan’s application to hold the rotating OSCE chair was approved at an OSCE meeting in Madrid last year, at which Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin pledged further political reforms.

The Kazak bid, launched in 2003, has not been a smooth ride. The November 2007 approval came only after a year’s delay caused by questions among OSCE members about whether Kazakstan was fit to chair the grouping. International concerns centred on elections judged as undemocratic, curbs on freedom of speech, the government’s effective monopoly of the media, mistreatment of political opponents, and other matters.

Opposition from some OSCE members including Britain and the United States prevented the Kazaks winning the chairmanship in 2009, as they had wanted, and the final decision compromised on the following year.

Many analysts view the OSCE bid as the personal project of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is keen to demonstrate that his country is a respected major player in the international arena.

The government is presenting its new bills as a genuine step forward. Foreign Minister Tazhin told the November 7 meeting that the changes had been planned over several years and were “an absolutely clear, open and firm signal from Kazakstan and its head of state about the need to continue political reforms”.

Critics of the government have, however, been quick to unpick the detail of the proposed legal amendments, and have found them wanting.

The revised election law would guarantee that Kazakstan’s parliament always have two political parties represented, instead of the current one, the presidential Nur Otan.

Justice minister Zagipa Balieva explained, “If only one party surmounts the threshold, the party that won the second-largest number of votes will be included in the allocation of parliamentary posts.”

Quite how that will done is less than clear, as the bill does not lower the current seven per cent threshold required for representation, so some kind of fix will have to be found.

Political scientist Yermurat Bapi recalled that it was President Nazarbaev who first set out this idea. “But this is nonsense – the president sits there and decides who is to get in [to parliament] and who isn’t,” he said.

According to Petr Svoik, a political commentator and deputy chairman of the Azat party, the Central Electoral Commission and even Nur Otan have previously said they would accept a five per cent threshold.

Vladislav Yuritsyn, journalist with the internet news site Zonakz.net, is in no doubt as to why this particular change has been proposed, “There’s no precedent for the OSCE chair being held by a country with a one-party parliament.”

Ninel Fokina, chair of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, regards the entire legislative package as “mock-progress”. In particular, she believes little will come of a change proposed in the law on political parties which would reduce from 50,000 to 40,000 the number of members a group needs before it can register as a legal party.

“This is a completely insignificant change,” she said. “They might just as well have put 49,999.”

Fokina was equally dismissive of other changes to the procedure for setting up a party, arguing that the real problem which had been left unaddressed was that government agencies often dragged out the approval process to prevent a new group getting started and taking part in elections.

As for the electoral process itself, she said real change would only come if opposition parties were allowed to be present during the count. “The election commissions are in the authorities’ pocket, and the opposition has no representation on them,” she said.

Svoik agreed that election management was a serious problem. “It’s completely obvious how the ruling party plans to get 93 per cent [of the vote],” he said. “It’s no secret to anyone that the one-sided [election] commissions fabricate poll results on the orders of [provincial] governors.”

Because of the extent of ballot-rigging, Svoik is less than optimistic about another recommendation set out in the draft legislation – that media outlets should carry equal amounts of information about all candidates. This, he said, “would matter if there was no falsification, but since there is, all the rest is of no significance whatsoever”.

In remarks made on November 12, Information and Culture Minister Mukhtar Kul-Muhammed hailed the changes to the media law as a stride towards “protecting the rights and professional interests of journalists”.

As proof of this, he said that “journalists will no longer be required to ask permission before using audio and video equipment to conduct an interview”.

While Fokina agrees it is a step in the right direction, she said the restriction should never have been there in the first place. “It would be exaggerating to suggest that removing a draconian clause represents a serious step towards democracy,” she said.

Meanwhile, she argued, more important issues had not been dealt with. For example, the law still allows libel to be prosecuted under criminal as well as civil laws, and the amendments contain nothing to curb media monopolies or guarantee public access to official information.

In the area of libel, the media law does level the playing field a little, so that the burden of proof no longer lies entirely with the journalist who stands accused. In the past, the accused had to prove conclusively that his or her allegations were true, which made it easy for plaintiffs – including officials accused of various abuses – to win such cases.

Journalist Yuritsyn does not foresee much change coming out of the revised media law or the other pieces of legislation.

“Just as freedom of speech is prohibited now, it will continue to be prohibited. The asymmetry between political parties will remain as it is now. And as for elections, it’s been possible to forge ballot-papers until now, and that will continue to be the case,” he said.

Svoik doubts the changes will have their intended effect of impressing Kazakstan’s western partners.

“These amendments are an attempt to render an account to the OSCE. Time is nearly up, and something must be done,” he said. “But it’s such a poor effort that it’s unlikely to look good to the OSCE.”

Irina Stupakova is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.
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