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Less Civil Society in Kazakstan

Yet another set of changes to the law may further hamstring non-government groups.
By Vyacheslav Tairov

Civil society leaders in Kazakstan have expressed concern about a new package of laws that are explicitly intended to curb the activities of foreign non-government organisations, NGOs.

The parliamentary deputies who drafted the legislation cite a need to prevent international organisations from stirring up dissent against the Astana government, especially in the wake of the recent revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Critics of the bills – who perceive a link between the latest proposals and recent efforts to toughen national security legislation – say they are an overreaction which could strangle the emerging non-government sector.

Politicians involved in drafting the proposed laws make no bones about what they hope to achieve.

“The draft laws are designed to increase control over the activity of foreign... non-commercial organisations,” deputy Valery Kotovich, one of those involved in the drafting process, said as the bills were presented to parliament.

Deputy Mikhail Troshikhin, who also worked on the bills, said, “There have been case where foreign organisations have financed terrorist and extremist activity.” He refused to discuss such security threats in detail, saying the information was secret.

Erasyl Abylkasymov, another figure behind the planned laws, is clear about the more immediate reasons for drafting them.

“We don’t need a repeat of the events in Kyrgyzstan,” he said at a meeting with representatives of Kazakstan’s NGO community on May 20. “All these revolutions are financed by foreigners through their organisations.”

The proposed legislation envisages the introduction of tough controls on the activity of foreign NGOs in Kazakstan, including requiring them to inform the authorities whenever they intend to hold an event.

Under the proposals, international organisations would only be able to work in the country through local branch offices, which would have to be headed by a Kazak citizen.

There would be a ban on international organisations whose purpose is “to express the political will of citizens”.

At the same time, home-grown Kazak NGOs would be required to inform the local authorities if they wanted to apply for foreign funding. Banks would have to seek approval from the authorities before handling finances for an NGO.

The Kazak authorities would be free to shut down an organisation the first time it was caught stepping out of line.

The latest proposals come in the wake of a decision by the lower house of parliament in May to approve a series of amendments to laws governing not just NGOs, but also political parties, media outlets and religious organisations.

The government argued that these moves were necessary to bolster national security and prevent extremist groups from operating in Kazakstan. But many experts – some citing the speed with which they were passed by the lower house of parliament – saw them as a direct reaction to the recent revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

The laws approved by the lower house of parliament in May are currently being reviewed by the upper chamber, and could well be passed by the end of the month before deputies go on their summer holidays.

In the meantime, the Kazak government has given its support to the new package of bills focusing specifically on NGOs and has recommended that they too be examined by parliament.

Representatives of international and local NGOs have expressed concern. At a May 20 conference in Astana titled “Freedom of Association – the Future of Civil Society in the Republic of Kazakstan”, the leaders of over 50 NGOs tried to convince deputies to retract the proposals and also to backtrack on the amendments approved in May.

The new laws “restrict a wide range of human rights and freedoms”, argued the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina. The rights which would be infringed, she said, include “freedom of association, freedom of speech and religion [and] the right to inviolability of private and family life”.

Fokina views the amendments passed in May and the latest draft legislation as “part of a single package”.

“One gets the impression that a crusade has been declared against institutions of civil society in the interests of national security,” said Fokina. “Today we are at a dangerous stage – the constitutional principle of supremacy of human rights and freedoms is yielding to the principle of supremacy of national security interests.”

Her views are upheld in this instance by Valentina Sivryukova, the head of the Confederation of NGOs of Kazakstan, which is generally loyal to the authorities.

Sivryukova expressed concern during the Astana conference that the proposed laws, which she said are unconstitutional, “threaten the further development of the non-government sector”. The result, she warned, could be “a graveyard for civil institutions”.

Deputy Sergei Kiselyov – who heads a working group set up in the lower house of parliament to help develop the laws – acknowledged to journalists on May 24 that a number of particularly controversial clauses would need to be removed.

At a sitting of parliament this week, deputies agreed to continue debating the proposals on June 15.

Vyacheslav Tairov is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Astana.

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