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Central Asia: Uprisings, Democracy Movements Prompt Kazakh Curtailments

  • Andrew Tully --> Have recent events prompted Nazarbaev to tighten his grip? (file photo) Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is widely regarded as an authoritarian post-Soviet leader. Yet the press in Kazakhstan has enjoyed more freedom than in some other Central Asian states, and nongovernmental organizations have operated without significant interference. Until now, that is. A month ago, the government shut down "Respublika," a popular opposition weekly newspaper. And there is new legislation -- some passed, some still in draft form -- that would severely limit the rights of politicians to register as candidates, the rights of people to demonstrate, and the rights of NGOs to operate freely. RFE/RL spoke with several observers of the Central Asian political scene and files this report about Astana's recent tightening of political control.

Washington, 7 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Some analysts see President Nursultan Nazarbaev as governing a fairly open Kazakh society, despite his authoritarian style. And one even suggests that U.S. President George W. Bush should do more to court Nazarbaev, at the expense of Uzbekistan.

Stephen Schwartz is the Washington-based author of several books and many articles dealing with the Arab and Muslim worlds. He tells RFE/RL that it is important for the United States to have influence in Central Asia -- but not if it means continuing close ties with Uzbekistan under President Islam Karimov.

Nazarbaev, he says, is far more democratic.

"I would prefer that we develop a better relationship with Kazakhstan," Schwartz says. "We don't have a bad relationship with them, but we should designate them as the people that we're talking to more [in Central Asia]. Because they also have a dictatorship, but they do have a thriving free press, and their attitudes about these things [being responsive to the public] are much less Soviet and post-Soviet."

But the political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan may have changed all that. One analyst, Marina Ottaway, predicts that, ironically, those movements could actually end up interfering with democratic reforms in postcommunist states.

Ottaway is a senior associate with the Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private policy-research center in Washington. She says the U.S. State Department is carefully choosing in which countries to exert pro-democracy efforts to ensure they won't be wasted.

According to Ottaway, there is a shrinking number of countries where these efforts can be successful, as their leaders learn what they see as the "lessons" of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

"A lot of these governments that know that they may become targets for that kind of maneuver are becoming much more leery of allowing U.S. assistance to NGOs," Ottaway says. "So there is a lot of concern among democracy-promotion organizations that they cannot operate in these countries the way they used to be able to do in the past."

This appears to have become true in Kazakhstan.

Horton Beebe-Center, the executive vice president of one such NGO, the Eurasia Society, believes that the civil limitations being imposed in Kazakhstan do have a connection to the events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Despite such limitations, however, Beebe-Center says in an interview with RFE/RL that the Eurasia Society will continue its efforts, just as it has in the past. He says it makes little sense for an NGO to try to constantly anticipate how a government's policies may shift.
Civil limitations being imposed in Kazakhstan may have a connection to the events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

"First of all, we can't predict what would be of the utmost sensitivity to a local government," Beebe-Center says. "And secondly, if we are engaged in legitimate work that is motivated and initiated by local citizens, then as long as we follow the law, and as long as we follow our moral compass, then we should proceed."

The presidential election in Kazakhstan is not scheduled until December 2006, 11 months after Nazarbaev's current term expires. Opposition groups are urging him to call elections in six months, but there is no indication he will agree to a new date.

Holding the election after Nazarbaev's term expires is problematic, according to Acacia Shields, the Central Asia researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. But she tells RFE/RL that Astana can still restore confidence in its electoral process:

"To me, the most obvious gesture [by Nazarbaev's government] that needs to be made would be to make sure that all opposition parties are registered and that you have a strong set of options for voters, and they feel like they're going into the new presidential election knowing that they have real choices," Shields says. "Obviously, the role of the media is going to be key if the election is going to be fair."

Shields says Kazakhstan has much in common with Kyrgyzstan. One similarity is that the people of Kyrgyzstan once enjoyed some freedoms under President Askar Akaev -- then resented Akaev's efforts to revoke some of those freedoms.

She says the same resentment could soon begin brewing in Kazakhstan.