As Kazakhstan’s term of chairmanship of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) draws near, state officials have intensified diplomatic maneuvering, constantly shuttling between Western capitals and Astana. Outwardly, Kazakhstan has made some impressive steps toward democratization of political processes to justify its claims for a higher place on the international scene. Over the past decade it has significantly updated its election and media law and granted more civil liberty and press freedom than other Central Asian states. In the 1999 elections, nine political parties vied for 10 seats in Parliament, and in the 2004 parliamentary elections 12 parties participated, which caused political euphoria at home and abroad.
But face-lifting improvements in Kazakhstan’s legislation have alternated at times with draconian regulations. It took the OSCE and the European Union Council a great deal of patience to persuade the Kazakh Ministry of Justice of to remove a clause from the 2007 election law, which banned street demonstrations and protests in the period between the end of campaign and the official announcement of the results. At the same time, the new law led to the highly controversial victory of the pro-presidential Nur Otan party, which has been the sole winner in the last six parliamentary elections, giving the ruling party unshared legislative power. Kazakh Minister of Justice Zagipa Baliyeva admits that at least two parties should take part to ensure political pluralism (Delovaya Nedelia, November 14).
Addressing a recent meeting in Helsinki of the foreign ministers of OSCE member states, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin reproached the organization for using “double standards” and a “selective approach” in world politics, pointing out in the same breath that Kazakhstan had made significant progress in implementing OSCE recommendations for improving its human rights records and updating laws on elections, the media, and political parties (Aikyn, December 6).
Window dressing reforms in Kazakhstan are, however, a far cry from what OSCE officials call democratic standards. At a public meeting in Almaty, leaders of Kazakh opposition movements harshly lambasted the amendments to the media law drafted by the Ministry of Culture and Information and reportedly approved by 35 NGOs. Critics say that the proposed bill, despite its sugar-coated wording, leaves most of the existing restrictions on freedom of speech intact and provides legal loopholes for the persecution of journalists on charges of libel. These amendments will ruin opposition media outlets by imposing heavy fines on them under any pretext, a commonplace tactic in Kazakhstan. To cite only a few cases, Romin Madinov, a member of parliament, demanded the exorbitant sum of 300 million tenge ($254 million) from the editor of the opposition paper Taszhargan as compensation for running an article about Madinov’s shady dealings. The editor was taken to court; although he was never proven guilty, he is still being persecuted. The Almaty Department of the Interior Ministry also sued Taszhargan on similar charges and appealed to prosecutor’s office to fine the paper 50 million tenge ($423,000). On November 29 the house of Ramazan Yesergepov, chief editor of the Almaty Info newspaper, was searched by security officers without a warrant allegedly for the unauthorized publication of an article containing national security secrets. Reportedly, Yesergepov escaped abduction by security police to Taraz, Zhambyl region, and found shelter in the American embassy in Almaty (Azat, December 4).
Recently leaders of political parties, non-governmental organizations, and editors of opposition media outlets issued a join statement denouncing the government’s proposed amendments to the media law as undemocratic and highly restrictive, second only to Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov, known for his unbridled despotism in adopting conservative laws limiting civil rights. Opposition leaders fear that new amendments to the media law will allow corrupt officials to imprison any journalist for the slightest criticism of the regime and close down opposition newspapers. They demand the revision of the proposed bill in conformity with Article 39 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan and OSCE standards. The complicated procedure of registering media outlets with the Justice Ministry has been criticized repeatedly in the past, but little has changed since the adoption of the first media law of independent Kazakhstan in 1998.
In view of the forthcoming OSCE chairmanship of Kazakhstan in 2010, however, the authoritarian establishment is trying to put a democratic gloss on political processes but so far with little success. The root of the problem lies not in the government’s failure to improve the legislation to comply with OSCE standards but in the utter reluctance of conservative leaders at the national and regional levels to accept new regulations that they fear will lead to collapse of the regime. As long as the West puts oil above the interests of genuine political reform, a weak opposition poses no threat to the regime. But one question is inevitable: What sort of democratic lesson will Kazakhstan teach the outside world when it comes to chair the OSCE?