As the Republic of Kazakhstan ascends to its year-long chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, human rights and basic freedoms from Vilnius to Vladivostok will be faced with a curious challenge.
I know this challenge intimately: not only am I a Kazakhstani citizen, but I am also a human rights defender, which in Kazakhstan, as in many other repressive regimes, is work fraught with difficulty. The idea that my country's government will chair the OSCE this year is a little analogous to asking the fox to guard to the henhouse, yet that is the situation we now face.
The history-making Helsinki Accords of 1975 which created the OSCE envisioned three 'baskets' of equal importance: security, economic and that of 'the human dimension,' by which we understand fundamental human rights. Under the aegis of this third basket, human rights defenders in many of the states of the former Soviet Union began to organize and advocate for stronger protections of human dignity. Today, the standards which activists in the late 70s had been striving for have yet to be enjoyed by ordinary Kazakh citizens. We see this in three key areas of democratic practice: the rule of law, political processes and the freedom of expression.
It is a step forward that jury trials have just recently been introduced in Kazakhstan, but the acquittal rate over our early experience is less than fifteen percent. With time, we hope that juries will become bolder in questioning the allegations of state prosecutors. The trial last year of one of my colleagues, longtime human rights defender Evgeniy Zhovtis, highlighted multiple areas in which he was denied the benefit of due process before being sentenced to four years for vehicular manslaughter. In a sign of how the Kazakh public thinks about the rule of law, a recent national poll asked whether respondents had heard of his case which found, not surprisingly, only 20 percent had. But when asked whether he'd had a fair trial, over a third of respondents--regardless of whether they knew anything about my situation or not--believed he hadn't, which is a reasonable reflection of the low expectations in Kazakhstan when it comes to justice.
Among the responsibilities of the OSCE is observing elections in member states. Monitoring missions have documented substantial flaws and noncompliance with international electoral standards in every Kazakhstani election since its independence from the USSR in 1991. Moreover, despite speculation last year that Kazakhstan's pro-presidential parliament would offer head of state Nursultan Nazarbaev the sobriquet "president for life," lawmakers ultimately deemed the gesture unnecessary because current election law already guarantees he will never face real competition. But insodoing, he was able to appear gracious, and it is only in these instances of imperial generosity that Kazakhstan has gained a reputation for being more democratic than other Central Asian states, albeit slightly and superficially.
Opposition politicians are not alone in facing daunting obstacles in my country. Independent media are kept in line by onerous libel laws. Recently, one newspaper was effectively shut down after being subjected to an impossibly large penalty in a libel suit for having reported on the economic woes of a state-held bank. Journalists are frequently cowed into self-censorship by arrests and charges of defamation. The names of reporters hounded into silence by the authorities are too numerous to list in a single editorial. In the last month alone, two journalists have been murdered in Kazakhstan. This past year, the Kazakh parliament passed an Internet law that subjects new media, blogs, and citizen journalism to the same judicial strictures as those of the traditional press; this has done nothing but further diminish outlets for free expression.
Throughout the region, both human rights activists and international organizations monitoring human freedom around the world have experience similar repression. Often, states borrow tactics from one another, as is evidenced by the passage of similar measures to restrict speech, assembly, and electoral rights in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan. Should the Kazakhs be successful in their goal of holding the first OSCE summit in a decade, what message will that send to all the member states headed unequivocally in the wrong direction.
What the former Soviet space needs are positive examples for liberalization, but too often, the exact opposite trajectory is seen in practice.
When Kazakhstan won its bid to chair the OSCE, I saw an opportunity to shine a light on the country's own human rights record in the hopes this would encourage Kazakhstani authorities to improve their performance and grant their citizens broader freedoms. But my own experience - together with Kazakhstan's imposition of newly-restrictive measures over the past twelve months - foreshadow a dark cloud hanging over the very institution to which I and countless other human rights activists across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have looked to for support, encouragement, and validation since the fall of the Berlin Wall. As 2010 begins, I, for one, have good reason to be concerned about what will follow on the fox's watch.
Abramov is veteran journalist and an activist for media freedom in Kazakhstan who heads MediaNet, a non-profit project that trains independent journalists in investigative techniques.
THE HUFFINGTON POST