Kazakhstan on the right path to strengthen its civil society
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Kazakhstan on the right path to strengthen its civil society

Thursday, 10 October 2019
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2019 was held in Warsaw, Poland in September. Credit: OSCE
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Europe’s largest annual human rights conference was held in Warsaw, Poland during 16-27 September. This year the event brought together 57 OSCE participating states, hundreds of international experts, civil society representatives and human rights activists to take stock of how states fulfil their obligations on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The latest civil society challenges and current political situation in Kazakhstan were discussed at a side event, organized by Kazakh civil society NGOs, on 26 September during the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw. Particular attention was paid to the torture in Kazakh prisons. This issue emerged on the agenda after shocking video surfaced on YouTube in July, which shows guards torturing inmates at prison in Zarechny, near Almaty.

“According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, authorities have detained five prison officials and dismissed seven others,” Alexander Danchev, head of the Kazakh Coalition for the Protection of the Rights of Prisoners, said. Danchev, introduced participants to the situation in Kazakhstan, and emphasized the positive changes associated with the establishment of a working group on the reform of the country’s penal system, earlier this year. The working group, which included civil society NGOs and government representatives, including the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, made about 200 recommendations, of which some have started being implemented.

In addition to reports of torture, participants paid attention to police actions during anti-government protests, which took place in several large cities. Since June, police have detained according to various estimates from several dozen to several hundred people at various rallies.

According to a 20-year-old activist Rustam Zhantassov, the growth of citizen activity in Kazakhstan is pushing the authorities towards a more active dialogue with civil society NGOs. The response of the international community, according to participants, is also crucial. In June, the UN Human Rights Office expressed concerns “about the significant scale of arrests and convictions for peaceful and legitimate expression of political opinion and dissent.”

Over the past year, more than ten new initiatives have emerged that deal with political reforms, human rights, and electoral observation – unprecedented for the Central Asian country. “We see positive changes that have been taking place in Kazakhstan since the end of July. The creation of the National Council of Public Trust is among them. The authorities are seeking dialogue with civil society. We hope that the government will listen to the recommendations from civil society and the members of the National Council of Public Trust,” emphasized Zhantassov.

The issues of the authorities regular blocking of popular internet sites such as YouTube, Telegram, Instagram, as well as leakage of personal data of more than 11 million citizens of Kazakhstan over 18 years of age were also raised during the side event. “In mid-July, Kazakh mobile providers urged users, particularly in the capital Nur-Sultan, to install security certificates on their Internet devices, otherwise they might face limitations accessing certain websites,” Arsen Aubakirov, coordinator of the youth movement NEXT.kz, noted.

State security officials said its goal was to protect Kazakh users from “hacker attacks, online fraud and other kinds of cyber threats”. However, after harsh public criticism, authorities halted the implementation of the new system. The Kazakhstan State Security Committee said in a statement that the move was a simple test that was now completed and that users could remove the certificate and use their apps as usual. By that time, Google and Mozilla had already blocked Kazakh certificates from Chrome and Firefox.

At the end of the meeting, the speakers voiced recommendations to the state actors of Kazakhstan and expressed hope for positive changes and building a constructive dialogue with civil society. Nevertheless, the old shortcomings still exist – such as the registration of NGOs, parties and trade unions remain problematic in Kazakhstan. Participants also urged the government to amend The Law on Peaceful Assemblies requiring a simple notification procedure instead of the current authorization requirement.

The Kazakh civil society is actively engaged in finding a solution. A number of new organizations, initiative groups and projects have been lunched in the country, which in the future can play a fundamental role in changing the situation and attracting Kazakhstan to democracy.

Although no one doubts that NGOs play an important role for the strengthening of Democracy and Human Rights, however more and more NGOs are being politicized or earning money by lobbying for the interests of third parties, and Kazakhstan is no exception. This issue was also discussed on September 18 at another side event – “Role of NGOs in strengthening of Democracy in CIS countries”. An example is the activity of Kazakh fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov who allegedly finances a number of NGOs in Europe, and who is accused of embezzling more than $7 billion from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, has served prison sentences in his home country and in France, and has a 22 month term in an English jail.