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Kazakhstan: Tough Bill On NGOs Meets With Unexpected Opposition

  • Bruce Pannier --> Tough new legislation on nongovernmental organizations in Kazakhstan has run up against unexpected opposition. After being approved by the lower house of parliament, the bill sparked renewed debate in the upper house. Then, the country's foreign minister came out in opposition. What does the bill say? And what's behind the sudden opposition to it?

Prague, 28 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- After the bill on NGOs moved from the Mazhilis to the upper house of Kazakhstan’s parliament, it seemed like only a formality that it would pass and go to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for his signature.

Surprisingly, however, the bill encountered resistance in the Senate.

The debate was sufficiently fierce that it caught the attention of Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev. Toqaev has served as either Kazakhstan's foreign minister or prime minister for more than a decade.

On 20 June, he chose to make his views on the NGO bill known. “There should be mutual understanding," Toqaev said. "If this law is under discussion so many times, and there is no consensus, surely this law will damage Kazakhstan’s image.”

The controversial proposal would allow the financing of foreign or local NGOs only with government approval. NGOs would be required to inform the authorities about the amount of such financing and how the money is intended to be spent. Tax inspectors would have the right to seize banking information to obtain data on NGO funding.

Foreign and international NGOs also would be required to re-register within three months of the bill becoming law. That has raised concern that the authorities could reject the applications of organizations that have been critical of the regime or helpful to its opposition.

One member of the Mazhilis, Toktarkhan Nurkhamet, told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that some NGOs in Kazakhstan have a clear bias. “We are not calling for shutting down all NGOs," Nurkhamet said. "We are not saying they work against the state. But there are some [NGOs] using foreign money who are working against us. And that is why we undertook this measure.”

The role of NGOs in the “colored” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan is still being debated. Some believe NGOs -- particularly Western-funded NGOs -- actively assisted opposition movements topple the governments in those countries.
"We are not saying they [NGOs] work against the state. But there are some using foreign money who are working against us." - Mazhilis deputy

As have other governments in the region, the authorities in Kazakhstan have paid heed to such views.

Another member of parliament, Serik Abdrakhmanov, argued that for most organizations working in Kazakhstan, the new law will not change anything.

“According to international standards, the United Nations, and similar organizations are working in accordance with their charters, and we cannot interfere in their activities. That is why the law we are discussing will not destroy the international agreements signed between them and Kazakhstan. Only the activities of the other, foreign noncommercial organizations will be restricted,” Abdrakhmanov said.

One of the bill’s opponents in the Senate is opposition deputy Zauresh Batalova. She says the law would conflict with Kazakhstan’s international agreements. “Many points [of the law] are against international standards and the standards of our country," Batalova said. "That is why it would never do to adopt such a law.”

Batalova says the problems with the bill should have been obvious when it was being debated in the Mazhilis.

“We don’t have the right to even discuss this law," she said. "I’m sure that in the Mazhilis, there were several mistakes when the law was discussed. I mean procedural mistakes. The law was proposed by five deputies [eds: the Mazhilis has 77 seats], but on 15 May, deputy Erasyl Abukasymov withdrew himself from this group, and there were only four deputies left [to introduce and support the bill].”

Zharqinbek Seitimbek, a branch chief for the organization Kazakhstan’s Independent Observers, believes the new law would be bad for Kazakhs.

“I think that if the law is adopted, the social activity of our citizens will suffer. Even now, our citizens are reluctant to participate in the activities of NGOs. They are very hesitant to be involved in social discussions. Imagine if tomorrow the local authorities demand that they register in order to be able to do social work legally? They would surely refuse to take part in it anymore,” Seitimbek said.

The bill is going back to the Mazhilis for further review.

(Merhat Sharipzhan and Julduz Toleu of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)