Social tensions have been rising in Kazakhstan since December, but unlike recent flare-ups, this conflict is not simply about economic discontent. This time, the government is going after the best tools that workers have to peacefully and constructively address sources of discontent – independent trade unions.
The Kazakhstani government’s cautious approach to unions – and public dissent in general – is not entirely new. I paid an official visit to Kazakhstan in January 2015 in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful association and assembly. At the time, I got the impression that the country’s laws had long been more focused on limiting strikes than on facilitating the exercise of the right to freedom of association in the workplace. The same was true about authorities’ approach to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, which is burdened by so many oppressive and nonsensical restrictions that it is rendered meaningless.
Developments since December, however, may represent an escalation from cautious to antagonistic.
The most alarming example came on January 4, when an economic court in Shymkent ordered the closure of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan, one of the most outspoken and important labor groups in the country. The rationale? The group had failed to “confirm its status” as a national union in accordance with Kazakhstan’s new trade union law, which imposes exceedingly burdensome requirements on trade unions.
Even more worrisome, the government is now going after the Confederation’s president, Larisa Kharkova, with whom I met during my 2015 visit. Only five days after the court order, authorities opened a criminal case against Kharkova on charges of embezzlement. Law-enforcement officials searched her home and office, confiscating her computer and documents related to the trade unions. She is now under tight police surveillance, barred from traveling, and is required to report to the police every day.
Her colleagues view these actions as intimidation that is designed to deter her from filing an appeal over the shutdown of the confederation. The confederation did appeal, though, on February 2; a decision is expected in the coming days.
Meanwhile, hundreds of oil workers went on hunger strike from January 5 to January 20 protesting the closure of the confederation. Authorities forcefully stopped the peaceful protest by arresting two union leaders, Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev, and fining the hunger strikers for participating in an illegal strike. The union leaders are also facing charges of embezzlement now, as well as punishment for calling for a purportedly illegal strike. They are being held in a pre-trial detention facility in Astana.
The right to form and join independent trade unions is a central component of the right to freedom of association, as I noted in my report for the UN General Assembly last year. Indeed, this right is also critical in creating democratic, stable and just societies. A nation cannot call itself democratic when it sweeps social conflicts under the rug; our differences must be constructively aired, debated and confronted. These differences may not always be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but refusing to even acknowledge them is a sign of a failing system.
I am not alone in raising red flags over Kazakhstan’s restrictive labor laws. In June 2016, a monitoring committee of the International Labor Organization harshly criticized Kazakhstani authorities for failing to amend the country’s restrictive labor union law. There was some hope that the government would take my and the ILO’s recommendations seriously, and engage on a genuine reform that would allow independent trade unions to operate and entitle all workers to feel represented. Instead, by forcing the closure of the country’s main independent trade union, harassing union leaders, labeling a legitimate strike illegal and arresting workers who engaged in a peaceful strike, authorities are going in the wrong direction.
After my visit, I praised President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s commitment to empower his people through economic reform and modernization. But for this process to be truly successful and sustainable, it cannot be a top-down approach. People must have a voice, and independent trade unions play a central role in amplifying that voice. Shutting unions down may create a patina of tranquility in the short term, but it only destabilizes society in the long run.
My UN mandate is soon coming to an end, but the world’s scrutiny of Kazakhstan’s labor policies will not. I urge President Nazarbayev to meet his country’s current challenges with the same energy and resourcefulness that Kazakhstan has used to foster economic development since 1991. It is time to reform the 2014 law on trade unions, and end the crackdown on workers’ rights.
Maina Kiai is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.