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Kazakhstan: Authorities Frightened of Increased Civic Engagement

Despite the reforms meant to expand civil liberties announced by the president of Kazakhstan, the freedom of speech situation did not become any better in 2020. According to the ‘Adil Soz’ freedom of speech fund, 12 attacks on journalists took place in 2020, and 25 employees of media outlets, bloggers and activists were detained for expressing their views.

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“The authorities have turned to be unprepared for the open dialogue with the society. In terms of practical interaction with journalists and civil activists, they used old methods of repressions, intimidation, ignoring of information enquiries, various kinds of censorship, attempts, including through court, to disavow negative information both general and private,” according to the final 2020 report of ‘Adil Soz’.

Also, according to the experts, the country clearly shows fear of rising activity of the civil society and attempts to control the freedom of speech via enhancing regulatory and executive authorities.

According to political analyst Viktor Kovtynovsky, there is no question of any changes in democratisation of the society.

“It hasn’t become worse, but the improvements are minor. Repressive crackdowns on the press, human rights defenders and political activists can be called targeted against certain persons or organisations, or seasonal, which are related, for example, with election campaigns,” the political analyst said.

At the end of 2020, a range of non-governmental organisations in Kazakhstan faced some pressure from tax authorities due to some inaccuracies in their statements. Since November 2020, 15 organisations received notices of heavy fines and suspension of their operations for a certain period.

Such international organisations and associations as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Frontline Defenders, Transparency International, Freedom House, ‘Solidarity’ Civil Platform, have spoken in favour of non-governmental organisations. 

Targeting over a dozen prominent human rights groups with alleged financial reporting violations is more than gross overreach by Kazakhstan tax authorities,” said Marie Struthers, Eastern Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty International. “It is a cynical attempt to silence independent and critical voices precisely when these voices matter the most.

Representatives of Kazakhstan-based NGO said the real basis for the pressure was the instruction from the authorities to create obstacles to the organisations just before the parliamentary election of January 10, 2021, not the real violations of tax standards.

However, after a turbulent campaign held by the organisations, coverage of the issue on the media and the public response of international human rights organisations, the tax authorities abandoned their claims. On February 4, the tax authorities cancelled fines to three organisations and lifted the ban on operations. Administrative cases were closed because of the absence of the event of a crime and submission of documents. 

According to human rights defender Evgeny Zhovtis, the actions of the authorities can be explained by the prevention of protests amid events in Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

“This is the attempt of the authorities to prevent the impact on domestic policy of NGOs. It’s a mistaken opinion, though. We implement projects to promote democracy and rule of law and order,” said Zhovtis.

From pressure against activists to attacks on organisations

According to The Human Freedom Index for 2020, Kazakhstan took the 75th place out of 162 in the human freedom index, which contains indicators of personal, civil and economic freedoms in various areas of activity.

Detentions during protests on January 10, 2021 on the day of the parliamentary election in Kazakhstan. 

The Human Freedom Index is based on 76 indicators such as rule of law, security, freedom of religion, freedom of association and civil society, freedom of expression, property rights protection, etc. The remarkable fact is that Kazakhstan scored 3.7 out of 10 in the category of freedom of association and civil society, which is below all other indicators.

The leaders in the ranking are such countries as Canada, Hong Kong, Switzerland and New Zealand.

In early February 2021, police officers detained the editor of ‘Uralskaya Nedelya’ newspaper, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, who was driving to Atyrau to prepare materials about civil activist Maks Bokayev, who was released after five years in prison. Later on, Akhmedyarov was charged under the Administrative Code. 13 media outlets supported Akhmedyarov by calling his persecution a political one and demanded to stop it.

In early January 2021, the court made a decision to arrest the 46-year-old activist based in Shymkent, Nurzhan Mukhamedov, for two months. The activist spoke in favour of political prisoners and against the “Chinese expansion.” He is charged with participation in a banned organisation.

“There are more and more reasons for detaining people. The society has become more active, and there are more detentions. I am concerned about the fact that the focus has shifted from activists to human rights organisations that do not make any demands on streets, work as experts and within the law,” said human rights defender Tatyana Chernobil.

ТTatyana Chernobil. Photo: bureau.kz

The ‘state that listens”, which was mentioned many times by President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, must respond to the people’s resentment and aspirations, instead of taking decisions behind closed doors. A person in a democratic society must have the right to express their opinion peacefully in public places, while disputes must be solved in a legitimate way.

According to Chernobil, the story with the tax pressure on the NGO group in Kazakhstan means that along with detentions of particular activists, attacks on organisations increasingly take place. Despite the fact that the authorities have not banned their operations after all and cancelled fines, the case may be seen as a negative case in future.

“This is bad for the whole society because human rights organisations are committed to monitor how well and in full the organisation performs its obligations in the field of human rights. Such organisations perform monitoring activities, analysis, communicate with the authorities, reach positive changes in the society,” said the human rights activist.

So far, according to political analyst Kovtunovsky, there is no enforcement or expansion of political repressions in Kazakhstan.

“The events in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan or Russian Federation probably impress our officials, but they still make decisions based on the political agenda of Kazakhstan or on the activities of our off-system opposition,” said the expert.

Despite the fact that the state authorities have cancelled tax claims addressed to the non-governmental organisations, this case is not over. However, the fact that the state can stop the operations of any associations by using relevant force authorities at any time is an alarm signal both to the Kazakhstan society and to foreign partners.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project.

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