Kazakhstan will celebrate the New Year by fulfilling a cherished ambition: on January 1 it assumes the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, held in Athens December 1-2, offered a stark reminder that doubts remain over Kazakhstan's suitability for the job, due to its controversial record on political and democratic freedoms.
Kazakhstan routinely brushes aside criticism, and Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev assured OSCE ministers in Athens that Astana would "rigorously adhere to the OSCE's fundamental principles and values."
Saudabayev was speaking at the same forum where, two years ago, Kazakhstan's then-foreign minister, Marat Tazhin, took the floor to convince skeptical member states that Astana would not let the OSCE down. His pitch was successful, and OSCE representatives decided to designate Kazakhstan as the 2010 chair of the organization.
In the two years since Tazhin outlined Kazakhstan's "grand-scale political modernization" to OSCE ministers, his speech has often been held up as a litmus test of whether Astana has met its commitments to create a more pluralistic political and media environment. Human rights groups and civil society activists continue to insist that Astana has fallen far short of embracing wholehearted reform. Kazakhstani officials are just as steadfast in their insistence that Astana has fulfilled its obligations.
Kazakhstan's political system is one of the most controversial aspects of its pending chairmanship. Tazhin addressed the OSCE in November 2007, three months after a one-party parliament had been installed for the first time since independence, and six months after the groundwork had been laid for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to remain in office for life through constitutional amendments lifting term limits for "the first president." Officials billed those amendments as part of Kazakhstan's political liberalization efforts, pointing out that they also reduced the presidential term from seven to five years.
That was the political landscape when Tazhin sought to persuade the OSCE of Kazakhstan's worthiness to lead one of Europe's top democratization organizations. He pledged to "take measures" to reform electoral law, liberalize registration rules for political parties, and change media legislation to "reflect the OSCE recommendations." Saudabayev recalled those pledges in Athens, saying Kazakhstani legislation had undergone "substantial changes." Legal amendments came into force in February 2009. They were touted by the administration as a grand liberalization gesture, but critics accused Astana of merely tinkering, instead of making far-reaching changes.
Rights advocates say the legal changes have failed to alter the political status quo ahead of Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship, pointing to the amended election law as a case in point. The new version rules out a one-party parliament in the future by exempting the party that comes second in an election from clearing the mandated 7 percent barrier for legislative representation. That hurdle proved too high for other parties to clear in the last election (declared flawed by the OSCE's own observers), when only Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party received enough support to enter parliament.
At present, the next parliamentary poll is scheduled in Kazakhstan for 2012. Persistent rumors of a snap election under the new rules never materialized, thus leaving Kazakhstan poised to assume the OSCE chairmanship with a one-party parliament.
Kazakhstan's democratic record came under further fire during the run-up to the chairmanship over a proposal to exempt Nazarbayev not just from term limits but from elections altogether. The idea of an OSCE chairman country with a president-for-life raised eyebrows in Western democracies, but it remains on the table.
Critics say the political landscape is further restricted by laws limiting opportunities for public protest. Helping to cast a spotlight on the restrictions was a spate of small, unsanctioned demonstrations in late 2009 over the imprisonment of a prominent human rights advocate. The activist, Yevgeny Zhovtis, received a four-year prison term in September on charges of vehicular manslaughter. The sentence was condemned in some quarters as politically motivated, an accusation rejected by officials, and his trial was widely criticized for procedural violations.
The administration counters that it has taken steps to ensure the rule-of-law and to liberalize the criminal justice system, guaranteeing that arrests are sanctioned by the courts, and ratifying international agreements to combat torture and to allow citizens to file complaints with the UN Human Rights Committee.
Astana also maintains it has met its commitments to the OSCE to amend media legislation, simplifying the registration process for outlets and giving journalists legal recourse over access to information. However, the media environment is another area where rights campaigners say Astana has failed to show good faith. The changes to media law were followed this year by the adoption of two new laws affecting the press, one governing the Internet and one on privacy. Both these new measures came under attack from democratization experts for being unduly restrictive.
Meanwhile, journalists continue to be pursued through the courts. Two independent newspapers have been hit with crippling damages awards this year, with the independent Respublika weekly ordered to pay $400,000 to BTA Bank and the Taszhargan weekly forced out of business by a $200,000 award in favor of a parliamentary deputy. Journalists also face prison sentences: For example, Ramazan Yesergepov, editor of the Alma-Ata Info weekly, was sentenced to three years in August on charges of revealing state secrets.
This atmosphere amounts to "a chilling environment in which media outlets and journalists are faced with the constant threat of lawsuits and crippling defamation penalties," Human Rights Watch argued in a November 25 briefing paper.
Kazakhstan categorically rejects criticism of its record on political and media freedoms, arguing that a fully developed democratic system can be built only over a prolonged period. The administration also points out that every one of Tazhin's pledges has been met to the letter. Yet, continuing criticism of Astana's performance seems set to dog its OSCE chairmanship.
Editor's Note: Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.