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Kazakstan: NGOs Fear Losing Independence

Nazarbaev’s new vision for dealing with civil society groups has them feeling distinctly nervous.
By Gaziza Baituova
A Kazak government strategy ostensibly to develop civil society will in practice further curtail the activities of independent NGOs in the country, analysts and activists fear.

A legal framework formulated last year, and approved by President Nursultan Nazarbaev on July 25, marks a significant change in how the authorities deal with NGOs. In the past, that has involved harassment and restrictive conditions, but now civil society groups will receive financial support - although some fear this may prove to be compromising.

Critics worry the Nazarbaev regime aims to create a network of pro-government NGOs that will eventually sideline their foreign-funded, independent counterparts.

“If in previous years NGOs were financed almost entirely from abroad, now the government is planning to organise an alternative civil field [paid for] with budget money,” said Pyotr Svoik, chairman of an Almaty NGO that monitors monopolies.

“The government is not really interested in the opinion of civil society. The government is interested in controlling citizens.”

Natalya Chumakova, director of the Kazakstan Democracy Support Centre, worries that newly created government NGOs will simply drown out independent groups. “They are designed to neutralise truly independent organisations,” she said. “This is why financing of NGOs from the state has been increased.”

Analysts say that although independent Kazak NGOs are small in numbers, they offer real opposition to the government. In its recent report Countries at the Crossroads, the research institute Freedom House cited the Almaty Helsinki Committee and the Kazakstan International Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, KIBHR, as NGOs that are particularly active.

In a positive development, Freedom House points out that the government last year backed off from severely limiting the rights of independent NGOs when the Constitutional Council vetoed two laws on the civil society groups in August 2005.

Observers speculate this apparent softening could be related to Kazakstan’s bid to chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009 - which is closely tied to Astana convincing the international community of its commitment to democracy.

Freedom House, however, has reservations about Nazarbaev’s democratic credentials.

It speaks of “intensified pressure on the country’s civil society sector through harassment of, and attacks against, opposition activists and independent journalists; new restrictive laws, including legislation on extremism and national security that further curtailed the activities of religious groups, media outlets, political parties, and nongovernmental organisations”.

In February 2005, Nazarbaev signed off on legislation that hands law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor’s office greater surveillance rights and the power to disband groups suspected of extremism. Human rights activists said the definition of “extremism” was vague and could be used against nearly any political party, religious group, or NGO.

In July the same year, the president approved amendments to national security legislation that imposed new restrictions on criminal and civil procedure codes and on laws regulating political parties, NGOs, religious groups and the media. Although the amendments were ostensibly designed to strengthen the country’s security, they served to further undermine civil liberties, said Freedom House.

Leading human rights groups like KIBHR have had their offices broken into and documents rifled through. Human Rights Watch was among those expressing concern that the break-in was a politically motivated attempt at intimidating the organisation.

Responding to Nazarbaev’s new strategy for dealing with NGOs, KIBHR director Evgeny Jovtis said direct state intervention in the development of civil society goes against international practice, adding that governments should merely create appropriate conditions under which the sector can flourish.

At the same time, media organisations have also been coming under pressure. A new draconian law requires news organisations to re-register with the authorities when they change editor, address or circulation - a process that requires them to pay a fee. The legislation also stipulates that candidates for editor positions will be disqualified if they have previously edited a media outlet that has been closed down by a court order. And cyberspace is unlikely to provide a refuge for journalists, as plans are afoot to regulate the internet.

The government has sought to put a positive spin on the latest developments, describing its NGO strategy as a progressive approach towards civil society development.

Prepared by the National Commission on Issues of Democratisation, the government says the plan adhere strictly to democratic principles.

Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president’s daughter and commission member, insists that NGOs will benefit from the change of approach, as they will work with the state in an equal partnership.

“The state must be interested in a situation where institutions of civil society stand firmly and influence decisions passed by the state and the domestic and foreign policy that the state follows,” she said.

Alexander Skryl from KIBHR doubts the promises of more harmonious relations between the state and NGOs, saying any of the latter that don’t toe the government’s line will continue to be treated with suspicion and closely monitored, “It is no secret for anyone that there is extensive surveillance of the activity of independent NGOs.”

Another independent analyst had this gloomy prediction for the future, “In Kazakstan, whatever happens, there will never be civil society in the classic definition of the word.”

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR correspondent in Taraz.

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