Saturday

18th Jan 2020

Opinion

EU missing the boat on Kazakhstan reform

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

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.

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

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

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Kazakh 'father-creator' comes technology shopping to EU

Kazakhstan's septuagenerian President Nursultan Nazarbayev has brought over 50 businessmen on a three day visit to the EU that is to see the European Investment Bank open a €1.5 billion credit line to help fund technological upgrades.

Nato woos Kazakhstan at security forum

The remote capital of post-Soviet petro-state Kazakhstan hosted this year's security forum of Nato's partner countries, the first time the event took place outside Europe in a bid to secure more support for the alliance's mission in neighbouring Afghanistan.

EU needs to press for Kazakhstan reforms now

With several trade union leaders in jail, the EU has one last chance to push Kazakhstan to improve its human rights record before ratifying a new cooperation agreement.

Why EU subsidy schemes don't work - the evidence

Counter to popular beliefs among policymakers, the positive effects of support schemes are found to be very limited. In order to revitalise Europe, the newly appointed EU Commission needs to reconsider government's role in innovation and entrepreneurship.

News in Brief

  1. 'No objection in principle' on Huawei cooperation, EU says
  2. French aircraft carrier goes to Middle East amid tensions
  3. EU suggests temporary ban on facial recognition
  4. EU industry cries foul on Chinese restrictions
  5. 'Devil in detail', EU warns on US-China trade deal
  6. Trump threatened EU-tariffs over Iran, Germany confirms
  7. EU trade commissioner warns UK of 'brinkmanship'
  8. Germany strikes coal phase-out deal

Column

Why nations are egomaniacs

A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Maltese murder - the next rule-of-law crisis in EU?

While Poland's government is escalating its rule of law crisis by introducing even more drastic measures against the country's judges, another problem is looming over the EU's commitment to upholding the rule of law: Malta.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us