The history of the First President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev’s almost 30-year rule in independent Kazakhstan was one of creeping authoritarianism, a hurdle in the early years of independence, when the nation – like most of the post-Soviet world – briefly flirted with the idea of establishing Western-style democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The departure of Nursultan Nazarbayev opens a window of opportunity for change in the problematic human rights record of the country, and there are signs that the new administration may grab it if it determines that this is in its interests. Tokayev, who became a president of the country after Nazarbayev’s resignation, describes himself as a “reformer.”1 He reassured that he will open discussion line with civil society; agreed to liberalize restrictive laws restricting the right to protest; and permitted several demonstrations.
Kazakhstan’s violations of democratic and civil liberties are routinely ignored by the West for purposes of expediency. Newly elected Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is proposing a more inclusive policy, but he still has a lot to do to ensure that the regime is serious about liberalization, especially when it comes to civil liberties. The first years after independence of the country saw the emergence of a new-born Kazakh non- profit sector operating independently from the state but highly dependent on Western donors. At that time, about 400 non-governmental organizations were set up with financial and operational funding from the international donor community, supplying them with substantial grants and capacity-building training. In this first step, non-governmental organizations developed their objectives throughout accordance with the goals of foreign donors, concentrating in particular on the advancement of the human rights and democracy agenda along with environmental issues.
Generally, civil society in Kazakhstan has been fairly prosperous until the early 2000s: there have been no strict restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) functioning as a democratic tax-free entity since 2000. However, official fears of civil society rose in 2003–2005, as repressive post-Soviet states (with Russia leading the way, naturally) started to accuse Western-funded democracy-promoting NGOs of fomenting “color revolutions” (Hinkle, 2017: 23). Unlike Russia, Kazakhstan has not omitted international non-profits for human rights activism.
However, as the idea that “color revolutions” represented an existential threat to authoritarian regimes became a common notion, the government began to look more closely at organizations promoting democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law (Pierobon, 2016). Government-led attempts to control civil society have escalated since 2004, when many autonomous Organizations were not invited to join the new National Commission on Democracy and Civil Society. The government is now using a mix of financial incentives and coercion to get NGOs into line. Since 2015, the legal environment has become more stringent, with charity support being expected to move through a state-run agency. This helps the authorities to choosewhich organisations are eligible for funding. Nazarbayev dismissed the request of 60 charities toveto this rule.3 In 2016, burdensome rules on the reporting of funds were imposed, adding substantially to the pressure of enforcement on civil society.
The Government is implementing a top-down model of collaboration with civil society. This strategy has grown into what is often described as an “astro-turf” paradigm – i.e. a virtual community engagement – in which GONGOs (government-organized NGOs) and super- GONGOs (GONGO affiliates) are incestuously associated with the government. Independent groups, especially those pushing pro-democracy causes, are viewed with suspicion and face pressure in various forms, including unjustified tax inspections and media defamation campaigns.4 In July 2019, activists and journalists were targeted by the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, a well-known NGO, in conditions that sparked fears of government complicity.
Civil society in Kazakhstan is viewed by the authorities more as a vassal to further government policy than as an individual entity. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan broke from any real commitment to building a thriving democratic civil society in favor of a paradigm in which NGOs and other non-profit groups work under not only political oversight but government control.
There is a chance for change with Tokayev becoming the president. He professed to see civil society as a problem-solving tool, and vowed that the state should respond to positive demands. In July 2019, the National Council of Public Trust was set up to build a consensus on the principle in “pluralism of view.” While critical voices are included, most of the members of the new council are government supporters, raising concerns as to whether this will become an open venue for meaningful debate, or a talking shop to build a forum for discussion.6
As for now, fundamental freedoms have been harshly restricted on an ongoing basis. Civil society leaders, writers, demonstrators and others, who oppose the officials in government encounter threats and abuse, as well as prosecution on charges brought against their lawful practice of freedom of expression, affiliation and assembly. The repression of political and civil liberties exposes deep-seated instability within the government. Widespread abuses of political and civil liberties ring alarm bells for the future: if the government continues to silence dissension, widespread resentment will begin to simmer. At a time of political instability, if dissension is not resolved by mediation rather than coercion, the effects will be volatile and potentially harmful to Kazakhstan. The bubble resentment can explode any time.
- Lillis, Joanna (2015): Kazakhstan: Campaigners Urge Nazarbayev to Veto NGO Law. Eurasianet, https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-campaigners-urge-nazarbayev-to-veto-ngo-law, last downloaded on 10/03/2020.
- Lillis, Joanna (2017): Kazakhstan: Space for Civil Society Shrinking? Eurasianet, https://eurasianet.org/kazakhstan-space-for-civil-society-shrinking, last downloaded on 10/03/2020.
- Hinkle, Katherine (2007): Russia’s Reactions to The Color Revolutions. Dudley Knox Library, Monterey.
- Pierobon, Chiara (2016): The Development of State-Civil Society Relations in Kazakhstan. University of Bielefeld, Germany.
- Simmons, Ann (2019): Kazakhstan’s Newly Elected Leader Calls Himself a ‘Reformer’. WSJ, https://www.wsj.com/articles/kazakhstans-newly-elected-leader-calls-himself-a-reformer-11560452047, last downloaded on 10/03/2020.