Opinion

EU missing the boat on Kazakhstan reform

30.06.14 @ 13:44

  1. By Yevgeniy Zhovtis

ALMATY - It may not make headlines that the EU and Kazakhstan are upgrading relations, in the form of an enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA), even as a delegation of government officials prepares to depart for Brussels for the next round of negotiations, on 30 June and 1 July.

  • Kazakhstan rocket launch: the country has a long history of hosting both Russian and EU space missions (Photo: Nasa/Carla Cioffi)

For all of Kazakhstan’s efforts to bolster its international image and standing, the country is still a far cry from a household name. And relatively few are aware of the existing EU-Kazakhstan PCA, so efforts to upgrade economic, trade and political relations, might barely register.

But as a longstanding member of Kazakhstan’s human rights community, I can’t help but take note. Here’s why.

From the outset, the EU side sent a critically important message by underscoring that “strengthening EU-Kazakhstan relations does not – and cannot – occur independently from the progress of political reforms in Kazakhstan.”

The EU foreign affairs chief went on to elaborate on this stance by specifying that “the success of negotiations on the new agreement will be influenced by the advancement of political reforms and fulfilment of Kazakhstan’s international commitments.” The European Parliament reiterated this message in two separate resolutions adopted in 2012 and 2013, stressing that “progress in the negotiation of the new PCA must be linked to the progress of political reform.”

In short, I don’t think the EU could have stated it any more clearly: Kazakhstan must demonstrate improvements in human rights and democratic reforms for negotiations with the EU to proceed.

For those of us trying to secure human rights improvements in Kazakhstan, the EU’s role as a potential catalyst for change took on a renewed meaning.

But three years later, I am sorry to say there isn’t much to applaud.

From my front-row seat in Kazakhstan, I can tell you that the human rights situation in my country has significantly deteriorated since negotiations for an enhanced partnership began in June 2011. Meanwhile, the EU seems to have forgotten about its pledges to link enhanced relations to rights reform. It hasn’t even articulated specific improvements Kazakhstan should make to guide advancement in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has intensified its repression.

In December 2011, Kazakh authorities responded to an outbreak of violence after a seven-month strike in western Kazakhstan by lethally shooting oil workers and others.

In the aftermath, courts imprisoned labor and opposition activists, including the Alga! opposition leader Vladimir Kozlov, to long prison terms, blatantly disregarding serious and credible allegations of torture, such as by oil workers Rosa Tuletaeva and Maksat Dosmagambetov and violations of fair trial standards.

I monitored Kozlov’s trial, and saw how the principles of free and fair trial, equality of arms and right to defence were openly violated.

The same could be said about the trials of Vadim Kuramshin, a rights defender, Aron Atabek, a public figure, Sayat Ibrayev, a religious leader, and Mukhtar Dzhakishev, manager of the state nuclear company, all of whom Kazakhstani human rights organisations consider political prisoners.

Early parliamentary elections in January 2012 did not come close to meeting international standards. The OSCE/Odihr observation mission concluded that the authorities did not provide “the necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections” and the vote did “not meet fundamental principles of democratic elections.”

Starting in November 2012 - and as recently as April - independent and opposition newspapers and Internet media outlets have been suspended or shut down. Today there are only a handful left. Over these three years, the authorities have repeatedly rounded up and detained peaceful protesters.

As a lawyer, and someone who spent over two and a half years in a Kazakh prison after an unfair trial, I am equally disturbed by the recent overhaul of criminal, criminal-procedural and administrative legislation.

Kazakhstan has squandered a golden opportunity to bring core pieces of legislation in line with international human rights standards, opting instead to keep disproportionate criminal and administrative sanctions for violations of media, religion, assembly and association laws, for example.

Human rights groups have spoken out collectively to express serious concern about the draft laws and called on President Nursultan Nazarbayev to veto the bills.

So, both from a de jure and de facto point of view, Kazakhstan has not made the human rights and political reforms that the EU said were necessary for negotiations toward upgraded relations.

Will the EU heed the concerns of rights groups and activists, myself included, about the deteriorating human rights situation in Kazakhstan and use what is left of the negotiations process to push for meaningful reform?

Or will the EU continue to turn a blind eye?

The writer is chair of the board of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law