New round of opposition harassment
NDI, 13 August 2001
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI)
Âriefing report on current conditions in Kazakhstan.
DEVELOPMENTS IN KAZAKHSTAN
The government of Kazakhstan, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has grown increasingly authoritarian in recent years. This central Asian state, which gained independence in 1991, initially displayed openness to political diversity and human rights. In 1995, however, President Nazarbaev disbanded the newly elected parliament and then conducted two questionable national referenda to extend his presidential term and change the Constitution to increase his own power. In January 1999, the president once again expanded his tenure and authority through hastily called presidential elections, which domestic and international observers criticized as failing to meet international standards.
This concentration of power within the executive branch has posed barriers to civil society’s activity and development, particularly in the area of mass media. In the first years following Kazakhstan’s independence, private radio stations, television channels, and newspapers were allowed to function openly. In 1995, the government initiated a media crackdown that closed virtually all private outlets by requiring high fees for the use of frequencies. Only wealthy businessmen and individuals with connections to President Nazarbaev managed to purchase stations. Also, independent newspapers, such as Sol-Dat, DAT, and 21st Century, encountered harassment, including being blackballed by printing houses, closed for alleged tax evasion, and physically attacked by assailants. Although the government of Kazakhstan claims that opposition journalists face punishment because they print unsubstantiated information, the fact remains that freedom of the press, as well as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, have all been curtailed.
II. RECENT EVENTS
Over the past 12 months, President Nazarbaev has been trying to convince the West that Kazakhstan is moving towards democracy. The government has hired American public relations firms and enacted new laws that are democratic in form. It has sent delegations to the U.S. to present a pleasant front to their American hosts.
Individuals in Kazakhstan continue to speak out and some have begun to challenge repressive laws. In early 2001, a loose network of non-governmental organizations launched an advocacy campaign to halt president-backed amendments to the Law on Media and Information, which were about to be considered by parliament. These amendments inhibited independent media by requiring local websites to be registered, limiting the amount of foreign-produced news on television broadcasts, and making local news outlets liable for foreign content re-broadcasted domestically. The surprising outcome of the non-governmental organization pressure on the legislature was an initial rejection of the amendments on March 14, 2001. It was a short-lived victory, however, as a small group of parliamentarians re-visited the issue and pushed through the restrictive legislation sought by the president.
Within days of the media law’s consideration, local authorities began to harass and intimidate members of the non-governmental organization network. Individuals that had not taken part in the advocacy campaign were targeted along with those that had been involved directly. Non-governmental organizations received letters from bodies such as the local Prosecutor’s office, Tax Committee, or Financial Police, erroneously questioning the legality of their finances and insinuating that the groups either sever their international contacts or face continued investigation. Non-governmental organization leaders were also summoned for questioning and visited by officials, who repeated the message and warnings intimated in the letters. The threats grew more personal and concrete when offices and homes of civic organization members were raided, personal computers and program files were seized, and ominous inquiries about relatives were made.
These episodes of harassment were taken up with the government of Kazakhstan by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan. NDI’s Chair, Secretary Madeleine Albright, likewise spoke to top Kazakhstani government officials about the mistreatment. By mid-May 2001, the threatening incidents appeared to have ceased.
Events which took place in June 2001 have led NDI to wonder whether another round of harassment has begun. A non-governmental organization member conducting advocacy training in the city of Atyrau was escorted to the local police department and detained. After several hours, he was released without explanation. Additionally, a non-governmental organization leader in Almaty received an anonymous phone call warning him to stop his advocacy activities, and another member was approached by an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), who hinted that physical violence might ensue should advocacy work continue.
III. THE FUTURE
Since re-opening its office in Almaty in 1999, NDI has been witness to the fact that citizens in Kazakhstan are increasingly interested in moving towards a democratic system. NDI trained thousands of citizens to become election monitors for the 1999 presidential elections. Non-governmental organizations with training from NDI gathered tens of thousands of signatures during advocacy campaigns in the past year. Citizens throughout Kazakhstan volunteered to participate in advocacy initiatives promoting freedom of the press and other democratic ideals. These groups have remained undeterred in the face of government intimidation. Non-governmental organization programs and strategies in Kazakhstan are growing more widespread and sophisticated, meaning that controlling this civic activity requires a greater effort by the government.
NDI remains concerned about the harassment of ordinary citizens in Kazakhstan. The repressive behavior of the government may even increase as the opposition grows more organized and ordinary citizens become more involved in demonstrations of disapproval. This harassment, imprisonment, and assault of independent media journalists, opposition figures, and non-governmental organization leaders constitute a major threat to the development of democracy in Kazakhstan.
NDI, 13 August 2001