President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration played down the country’s troubling press freedom and human rights record as they successfully pursued chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Vienna-based human rights monitoring body.
In a divided decision on November 30, the ministerial council overseeing the OSCE named Kazakhstan to the 2010 chairmanship. Russia and former Soviet bloc nations backed Kazakhstan’s bid, while Western countries were split. The ministers delayed the country’s chairmanship by a year—Kazakhstan had sought the 2009 slot—as a compromise that would enable Nazarbayev to implement democratic reforms. Greece was chosen for 2009.
Nazarbayev benefited from the European Union’s Germany-driven Central Asia strategy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country presided over the EU in the first half of the year, declared as early as mid-January that Central Asia would be a priority for her state’s EU presidency and singled out Kazakhstan as a potential economic partner. Anxious to diversify its oil and gas resources to reduce reliance on Russia, as well as balancing the regional clout of Russia and China, the EU declared its intentions to develop better energy, economic, and political ties with Central Asia.
Germany repeatedly assured rights defenders that it had a “two-track” plan for developing relations with the region, one that would not sacrifice human rights for energy interests. The United States, too, adopted an accommodating tone on Kazakhstan, tolerating the administration’s nepotism, its total control of influential broadcast media, and its record of unpunished attacks on the press. After a February 27 meeting with Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher called the oil-rich state a “strategic partner” and emphasized the importance of security, economic, and antiterrorism cooperation between the two states. He did not mention press freedom and human rights.
Only a day later, during his annual address to parliament, an emboldened Nazarbayev said regional economic integration remained a priority for his country, and declared that Kazakhstan will pursue its “own Kazakh way” of political reforms, which the country would implement gradually.
A joint session of the Kazakh parliament approved a constitutional amendment on March 18 that abolished term limits for the country’s first post-Soviet president—giving Nazarbayev the right to remain in office for life. Nazarbayev, who had run Kazakhstan for a total of 18 years (two before the Soviet Union’s collapse and 16 since), signed the amendment into law on May 22. Though he previously said he would not remain in office after his current term expired in 2012, the amendment sparked considerable speculation—especially in the absence of a strong potential successor. The constitutional change was part of a package that included a reduction in presidential terms from seven to five years after 2012, and the transfer of some presidential powers to the parliament. Despite intense criticism from the Kazakh opposition, the U.S. State Department lauded the reforms. At a press briefing on May 22, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: “It’s a step, ultimately, when you look at the balance of these things, in the right direction.” He added: “Is it all that the rest of the world would like to see? No, it’s not. But again, this is a country that … we have high hopes for, that we’re working closely with, [and] they have a lot of potential.” An outraged Kazakh opposition accused the United States of employing double standards.
Amid tolerant signals from abroad, critical journalists continued to suffer retribution from authorities at home.
On January 22, a judge in Almaty sentenced Kaziz Toguzbayev, staff reporter for the independent biweekly newspaper Azat and contributing writer for the news Web site Kub, to a two-year suspended prison term under Article 316 of the criminal code for “insulting the honor and dignity” of the president. The Committee for National Security of the Republic of Kazakhstan had charged Toguzbayev in August 2006, after he wrote two commentaries critical of the government for Kub. Defamation laws remain part of the criminal code in Kazakhstan, and authorities readily use them against critical journalists.
From December 2006 to mid-January 2007, three printing companies consecutively refused to print the independent biweekly Uralskaya Nedelya—a popular newspaper based in western Kazakhstan that had recently published a series of articles exposing local government corruption. Editor-in-Chief Tamara Yeslyamova told CPJ that sources at Poligrafservis, the local printer that had produced Uralskaya Nedelya since 2001, informed her that local officials had threatened the company with closure if it continued to produce the paper. Uralskaya Nedelya was forced to seek an alternative printer outside the region.
Little attention, domestic or international, was paid to the first case of a missing journalist since the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Oralgaisha Omarshanova, an investigative reporter for the Astana-based independent weekly Zakon i Pravosudiye (Law and Justice), went missing on March 30. Omarshanova headed the paper’s anticorruption department. At the time of her disappearance, she was in Almaty, on a business trip with several colleagues. The colleagues said they last saw her getting into a jeep, the Moscow-based news agency Regnum reported. Four days before her disappearance, Omarshanova had published an article in Zakon i Pravosudiye about ethnic clashes between rival Chechen and Kazakh residents in the Almaty-region villages of Kazatkom and Malovodnoye. The clashes, which took place on March 17 and 18, claimed at least five lives, according to local and international press reports. In her article, Omarshanova identified the instigators of the unrest and mentioned their alleged connection to the government and local businesses, the Almaty-based press freedom group Adil Soz reported.
In February, Zakon i Pravosudiye published an investigative report by Omarshanova that described the dangerous working conditions of miners in the central city of Zhezkazgan. At an April press conference, the journalist’s brother, Zhanat Omarshanov, told reporters that in the weeks prior to her disappearance, Omarshanova had received several telephone death threats, Regnum reported. Despite the threats and the journalist’s sensitive beat at the paper, Kazakh prosecutors announced in September that Omarshanova’s disappearance had nothing to do with her work and was likely connected to a personal matter. They did not provide a rationale for their conclusion.
In May, a television station and a newspaper found themselves caught in the middle of a political scandal. An Almaty court suspended Kommerchesky Televizionny Kanal (KTK) and the weekly Karavan for unspecified violations of Kazakh media laws. Prosecutors accused KTK of broadcasting predominantly in Russian in violation of what is commonly known as the “language law,” a 1989 provision requiring that half of all programming be in Kazakh, according to local and international press reports. Authorities had not applied the law to KTK before. Authorities also suspended for three months the Russian-language weekly Karavan for violating unspecified media regulations.
The suspensions came a day after Rakhat Aliyev, the owner of both media outlets and then-son-in-law of President Nazarbayev, was charged with kidnapping and assaulting two senior employees of Nurbank, a commercial bank he partly owned. Aliyev had denied involvement in the disappearance of the two men. Local journalists attributed suspension of the outlets to their coverage of the Nurbank scandal and tensions between members of the presidential family. Aliyev was at the time married to the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga, who owns several major media outlets and has been seen as a possible presidential successor. The couple divorced in June.
Shortly before the suspension, the Almaty prosecutor’s office sent KTK and Karavan letters warning them not to cover details of the Nurbank employees’ disappearance without permission of law enforcement agencies, according to local and international press reports. In August, the original Karavan was forced to close, and was replaced by a paper similar in format and carrying the same name—but owned by Zhanai Omarov, a former Nazarbayev press secretary. Authorities called it a “restructuring,” The Washington Post reported.
The August 18 parliamentary elections brought an absolute victory for Nazarbayev’s ruling Nur Otan party, which got all 98 contested seats in the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament. None of the opposition parties managed to pass the 7 percent bar required to enter the Mazhilis, leaving Kazakhstan with a one-party system for the first time since the Soviet era. Nazarbayev called the elections free and fair, but international observers disagreed. OSCE monitors said the vote did not meet international standards with its opaque ballot-counting system and high bar for parties to enter the legislature. In two years, Kazakhstan will be in charge of such monitoring.