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Kazakstan: Nazarbaev Rounds on “Foreign Meddlers”

Media groups raise fears of clampdown after Kazak leader tells foreigners not to meddle in lawmaking.
By Roman Ivanov

Human rights and media watch groups in Kazakstan have voiced concern at President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s recent outburst against those he said were meddling in his country.


Speaking at a national gathering of Kazakstan’s various ethnic groups on December 23, Nazarbaev warned overseas organisations to stop interfering in his country’s internal matters. "We are asking them [international organisations] to understand us correctly and not to interfere in our internal affairs,” he said. “Nor do we want them to tell us which laws to adopt and which to reject."


Most observers believe the president’s remarks were directed against the campaign conducted by local and international press groups in recent months to persuade officials to soften some of the more restrictive provisions of a draft media law.


The link with the lobbying campaign was made clearer a day later, when a member of parliament’s legislative committee, Mukhtar Tinikeev, wrote to Kazakstan’s chief prosecutor asking him to take action against foreign organisations which he said had incited local groups to get the law amended. He singled out the Open Society Institute and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe for criticism.


Although Tinikeev is a relatively unknown figure, his public statement backing up the president’s position will have set a strong message to his colleagues in parliament. Just two days later, the law was passed by its lower house. Approval by the upper house is a near certainty, and the legislation will then go to the president for final approval.


In the months before the law was passed, local media groups such as Adil Soz and Journalists in Trouble made representations to both government and parliament to ask for it to be amended.


But in its final form, the worst aspects of the legislation remains substantially unchanged, including provisions which critics say will give officials excessive powers to control - and even close down - both press and broadcasters. Robert Menard, secretary-general of the international group Reporters Without Borders, says “the draft law is not compatible with international standards on free speech and guarantees of freedom of expression. It represents an attempt to secure government control over the entire information space”.


Most observers agree that the authorities have been irked by the international spotlight the recent debate has cast on free speech issues.


According to Yevgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, “In the last six months Kazakstan has been literally flooded by statements, protests and comments about how the draft law is incompatible with international standards.


“This activity by international organisations has greatly unnerved the authorities.”


Adil Soz head Tamara Kaleeva says Nazarbaev’s remarks showed how rattled the authorities were by the international reaction, “Arguments such a request not to meddle in the country’s internal affairs are used whenever there is no meaningful case that can be made to dispel concerns.”


Kaleeva and others fear that the hostile attitude to those who spoke out against the draft law is a sign that the government plans a new crackdown on independent media which criticise it. “After [the law comes into force], real and effective repression will begin,” said Kaleeva.


Rozlana Taukina, who heads Journalists in Trouble, warns that the net could widen so that Kazak non-government organisations, NGOs, as well as the media outlets themselves are targeted by the government. “I think that after the media, the next target for pressure will be NGOs funded from abroad.”


Taukina believes that NGOs enjoy increasing influence in Kazakstan, “and our authoritarian regime doesn’t like that because it wants to control the entire electorate and information space”.


She now expects a two-pronged attack – legislation to restrict NGOs’ activities, coupled with “pressure on individual activists, who will begin to be driven out of the political arena”.


Focusing on foreign grants received by local non-governmental groups is a deliberate ploy, says Vladimir Namovir, spokesman for the opposition Democratic Choice movement in Akmola. “It’s a favourite propaganda cliché for adversaries of democracy in Kazakstan to claim that the local opposition makes its living on Western funding,” he said. “A simple idea is planted – with some success - in the mass consciousness, to the effect that Kazakstan’s democrats are a ‘fifth column’ for the West, financed by foreign foundations.”


Political scientist Andrey Chebotarev believes that as well as the furore over the media law, the authorities are more generally displeased by the role that some major international institutions are playing in Kazakstan. “Most likely, this is a reaction to statements that have been made in support of the political opposition,” he said, citing OSCE support for two journalist Sergey Duvanov and opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakianov, both jailed for what many believe are political reasons.


“This is just a reminder to international organisations what their position in Kazakstan is. They can offer some recommendations and advice. But that is not allowed to go beyond certain limits,” said Chebotarev.


However, if this was meant as a warning, at least one international institutions plans to ignore it. “We will continue expressing our opinion in the way we usually do,” said John Penny, a senior adviser at the European Commission mission in Kazakstan. “I want to emphasise that our statements are not always critical…. Mr Nazarbaev’s statement will not affect our relations.”


Roman Ivanov is an independent journalist in Almaty.


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