Astana is set to take over as chair of one of Europe's leading democratization groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in 2010. For Astana, becoming the OSCE chair will mark the successful culmination of a multi-year campaign for recognition of the country's growing regional political and economic importance. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But it is also focusing unwanted attention on the country's less-than-stellar rights record. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The question facing the Kazakhstani government today is what kind of human rights leader it is going to be," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based international rights group. "Is it going to lead by example, or is it going to be a leader plagued by hypocrisy?"
Roth made those comments in early June during a visit to Kazakhstan. With less than seven months to go before Astana assumes the helm of the OSCE, Roth urged Kazakhstani officials to make "modest, do-able steps" to improve the country's rights image. The areas most in need of improvements, according to Roth, included religious, political and media freedoms and freedom of association.
In some areas, Roth said, there has been progress: a controversial new law on religion, which critics said would discriminate against minority faiths, was struck down by the Constitutional Council in February, and constitutional amendments that came into force the same month somewhat eased registration requirements for political parties and the media.
These are among changes that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's administration points to when it faces criticism from the outside world. Rights groups, including HRW, have criticized Nazarbayev's government in recent years for stifling political competition and for concentrating power in the hands of the chief executive. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, critics point out that all but a handful of media outlets are loyal to authorities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Officials maintain the latest changes to political and media legislation are part of ongoing efforts to liberalize society. "For young Kazakhstan, full democracy is not the start," Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, Yerlan Idrisov, said in US Helsinki Commission hearings in Congress last spring. "It is, rather, the destination through an exciting and challenging journey. We are proud that we have successfully embarked on that journey and we are motivated by the milestones we have so far achieved."
Idrisov pointed to several measures that underscored Kazakhstan's good faith, including media and judicial reforms, efforts to combat human trafficking and a reduction in the presidential term from seven years to five in 2007. At the same time, he avoided mentioning that another amendment lifted term limits for Nazarbayev, leaving him free to stand for president for life. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Detractors characterize many of the changes cited by Kazakhstani officials as cosmetic. Speaking at the same hearings, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, director of the Almaty-based International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, took issue with the substance of the reforms. "Amendments to legislation pertaining to political parties create additional obstacles for the formation of political parties," he said.
A case in point is the unregistered Alga! Party, which has long been seeking official registration. Its organizational committee was shut down at the end of May, and on June 2 a court upheld a ruling in which Alga! leader Vladimir Kozlov was fined for speaking in the name of an unregistered party.
Alga!, which emerged from the ashes of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement and is linked to fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, is a thorn in the government's side. It is precisely this, Roth said, that makes Alga's registration a good gauge of Astana's commitment to basic OSCE principles. "Alga! is clearly a very dynamic movement," he told a news conference in Almaty. "A significant test of the government's commitment to genuine political pluralism is whether it will now register Alga!."
HRW is also calling for action to liberalize the media environment: a moratorium on criminal libel prosecutions, the abolition of criminal (rather than civil) prosecutions for libel, and a cap on the size of damages. In addition, Roth expressed concern about aspects of a controversial new law governing the Internet that is currently passing through parliament.
Roth indicated that his organization is seeking a government pledge that any future new legislation governing religious activity will conform to international standards. HRW would also like to see Astana ease potential restrictions on freedom of assembly.
"We're not shooting for the moon," he said. "We're not living in a fantasy world. We're trying to focus on realistic steps that could be taken in the next seven months to demonstrate the government's sincere commitment to international human rights standards."
In a tacit recognition that not much happens in Kazakhstan without Nazarbayev's endorsement, HRW is calling for action from the top. "If the Kazakhstani government does not show a firmer commitment to international human rights standards, Kazakhstan's day in the sun could be tainted by the dark cloud of its own behavior," Roth said. "So we ask President Nazarbayev and Prime Minister [Karim] Masimov to exercise leadership now -- now, while there is still time to avoid an embarrassing squandering of an opportunity to show Kazakhstan's better side."
The administration is certainly keen to showcase the country. Central to its OSCE agenda -- which includes fighting terrorism, narcotics smuggling, human trafficking and the illegal weapons trade -- is promoting tolerance and intercultural dialogue. With 130 ethnic groups living side by side in relative harmony, Kazakhstan sees itself -- with justification -- as an ideal advocate of tolerance.
However, there is more to tolerance than ethnic relations, observers point out. "If the government's professed interest in tolerance is genuine, it is going to have to start respecting the rights that go along with tolerance and diversity," Roth concluded.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.