WORLD REPORT 2000 - Kazakhstan

Human Rights Developments

The deteriorating human rights situation in Kazakhstan in 1999 mirrored the country's deepening economic and demographic crisis. During preparations for pre-term elections for president, parliament, and local councils, the government continued to harrass opposition political activists, cripple the independent media, and block public demonstrations.

Political rights became the first casualty of early elections. After blocking several opponents from the ballot on grounds that they had participated in an "unregistered public association," including former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, President Nazarbaev won re-election on January 10 with more than 79 percent of the vote. International monitors including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that the election "fell far short" of meeting Kazakhstan's international commitments. An OSCE assessment mission noted interference in the campaign efforts of the Communist Party candidate and extremely one-sided media coverage, as well as irregularities in voting procedures.

Under international pressure, Kazakhstan amended its election law, lowering registration fees for candidates, and lowering to forty the number of administrative offenses for which candidates could be excluded. The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) also relented, admitting to the parliamentary ballot scheduled for October several candidates who had earlier administrative offenses. However, the courts once again prevented former prime minister Kazhegeldin from standing for election, citing an ongoing criminal investigation for tax evasion. The day after his disqualification, police arrested him in a Moscow airport in response to an extradition request from Kazakhstan's procuracy. The Russian procuracy released Kazhegeldin several days later, and Kazakhstan's procurator general later announced he was withdrawing the order to arrest Kazhegeldin. Opposition candidates claimed extensive vote fraud in the October 10 poll, the results of which were announced a full seven days later, further heightening doubts about falsification. Many single-district seats will be decided in a second round of voting, while of the ten seats allotted by party slate, only the opposition Communists gained entry, with two seats.

Civil freedoms suffered, too, in the 1999 election. In July, parliament passed a new Law on the Mass Media which even the speaker of parliament himself criticized as "undemocratic," though, like previous laws, it forbids censorship. In June, a court in Almaty closed the popular newspaper Nachnem s Ponedel'nika (Let's begin on Monday) for two months, pending the outcome of several libel actions totaling nearly 500 million tenge. Damages of more than five million tenge (nearly U.S. $36,000) awarded in mid-September in another libel action will most likely force the paper to close. The paper likewise stood accused of inciting national enmity. Many believe that actions against the paper aimed to silence its harsh criticism of President Nazarbaev's rule, and in particular an article published in May entitled "Kazakhstan must not become a bandit-run police state." Authorities closed Radio Rik after two journalists whose previous television and radio ventures had been lost in the 1997 closed auctions took over the management of the radio.

Harassment of the media through various government agencies continued as well. After government and private presses canceled printing contracts for Sol-Dat (successor to the independent Kazakh-language paper Dat closed in 1998; "that Dat," in Kazakh playing on the Russian word for soldier, soldat), the paper was forced to publish in Russia; in September, customs agents impounded several issues of the paper.

In a rare positive development, parliament declined to consider a more restrictive draft law on religion early in the year after the draft drew harsh criticism from home and abroad. Nevertheless, in June, a court in western Kazakhstan gave an Islamic activist a six-month suspended sentence and fined him a fifth of his monthly wages for that period for allegedly establishing an illegal public institution. In July authorities detained sixty participants in an Islamic summer camp, seven of whom were charged, held for one month, but then released. In September, President Nazarbaev created a commission to counter the threat of religious "extremism."

Though President Nazarbaev claimed that Kazakhstan had 2,000 registered NGOs, the government continued to use registration procedures to prevent the operation of groups it deemed politically threatening. The nongovernmental Movement for Honest Elections, despite submitting its registration materials in October 1998, never received an official response to its application. The organization of the Russian Community ( Russkaia obshchina ) held a press conference on June 23 to protest authorities' two-year denial of national registration, which renders its members ineligible to serve as observers at polling stations. Several of its members who had planned to stand for election to parliament and local councils were disqualified after being charged with administrative offenses. After the Russian Community demonstrated in August, it was promised national registration.

In April, police in Almaty stopped members of the Union of Semirechie Cossacks from entering an Orthodox cathedral for Easter services, claiming that the traditional military uniforms worn by the Cossacks violated the ban on creating "military organizations with uniforms and insignia"; the Almaty procurator charged the Cossack's leader with this offense.

In February, Kazakhstan forcibly deported three young Uighur political asylum seekers to China, where they were reportedly executed.

Prosecutor General Iurii Khitrin announced his office discovered that eighty-three citizens were illegally detained in the first six months of 1999. Reports of twenty-one attempted suicides among convicts in May showed that conditions in Kazakhstan's places of detention remain appalling. Prisoners cut open their abdominal cavities to protest "repeated beatings" by the administration of their labor colony. In a cost-cutting measure, the government decided in June to free one-quarter of Kazakhstan's prisoners, or 20,000 persons.

Defending Human Rights

There were no known instances of direct harassment of Kazakhstan's main human rights organizations, the Almaty Helsinki Group and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR). However, authorities in Petropavlovsk once again refused to register the local KIBHR bureau, after the branch submitted its documentation in 1998.

The Role of the International Community

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

After protesting the exclusion of opposition candidates from the presidential ballot and the preparations for early presidential elections, the OSCE declined to send a full observer mission to the January 10 elections, dispatching instead a fourteen-member assessment mission. That mission proclaimed that the vote "fell far short" of OSCE standards. From January through July, the OSCE, which opened a center in Almaty early in the year, exerted pressure on the Kazakh government to amend election legislation.

The Representative on Freedom of the Media visited Kazakhstan in April and criticized Kazakhstan at the Permanent Council in May for its pre-election crackdown on the independent media. After refusing to send observers for the January poll, the OSCE announced on September 1 that it would send a full observer mission to the October 10 elections to the lower house of parliament, cautioning that, in its view, the decision to observe "does not, in and of itself or a priori, add legitimacy to the election process." Its preliminary assessment of the vote claimed that conduct of the polling was satisfactory in most of the polling stations but observed that "illegal interference" by authorities before the vote "undermined" the process.

Council of Europe and the European Commission

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe sent a delegation to Kazakhstan in May, after taking the decision to consider Kazakhstan for observer status.

The European Commission criticized Kazakhstan's presidential elections in a January statement, but did not allow this criticism to delay the entry into force of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan on July 1. Three weeks later, the E.U.-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council reviewed that agreement and, while "emphasizing the importance they attach to democratic values," concluded that cooperation in 1999/2000 should focus first and foremost on "the improvement of the business climate."

United States

The United States (U.S.) relied mainly on exhortation to convince Kazakhstan to uphold its human rights obligations, publicly criticizing Kazakhstan's human rights record on several occasions. The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1998 provided a full and unstinting account of violations in Kazakhstan. The Department of State made several public statements condemning the November 1998 exclusion from the ballot of Mr. Kazhegeldin and expressed disappointment in the conduct of the January 10 presidential elections. In response to congressional inquiries, the secretary of state wrote on July 9, that "we had made it clear to the highest levels of Kazakhstan's government that harassment of opposition figures is not acceptable," and that "a fundamental component of U.S. policy in Kazakhstan is promotion of democracy and human rights...."

Only when scandal erupted over Kazakhstan's transfer of conventional weapons to North Korea, however, did the Administration intimate in September that it would consider cutting assistance to Kazakhstan.