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Kazakhstan: Washington Spotlights Press Rights

  • Andrew Tully

Two men from Kazakhstan were supposed to be the focus of several events in Washington during the past week to examine the rights of journalists in their country. Because of a brief detention by the security force KNB in Almaty, they could not travel to the U.S. in time. But as senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports, the events took place anyway, and shed light on human rights in Central Asia's largest nation.

Washington, 20 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington was the scene of several events this past week highlighting press rights in Kazakhstan. But two people who were supposed to be the focus of the attention were not able to come to the U.S. capital.

Amirzhan Kosanov, chairman of Kazakhstan's opposition Republican People's Party, and Yermurat Bapi, editor of the independent newspaper "SolDat," were detained for about two hours Monday (16 July) at the airport in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty. As a result, they missed their flight and could not get to Washington in time for the events.

The government of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev says the two men were mistakenly detained and that the agents of the country's National Security Committee, or KNB, who were responsible for their detention had been severely punished.

Despite the absence, at least three events were held in Washington to focus on the problems journalists face in Kazakhstan, including a hearing by the U.S. Congress.

On Wednesday (18 July), two officials of the U.S. State Department appeared before a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee on the status of human rights in Kazakhstan. Kosanov and Bapi were to have testified, but even with their absence, members of Congress had enough witnesses to shed light on how the U.S. views Kazakhstan's record on press freedom and other human rights.

The witnesses included Michael Parmly, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor; and William Taylor, the coordinator of U.S. assistance to the states of the former Soviet Union.

Parmly and Taylor repeatedly told the hearing that they believe it is important to engage Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states even if they appear to be slow in establishing good human rights records. Some members of the subcommittees expressed concern about this approach. One was Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), who bluntly declared that the countries of Central Asia are now being ruled by the same "puppets" -- in his words -- who ruled the region during the Soviet era.

Another member of the subcommittee expressing concern was Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), who also serves as co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. That panel, better known as the Helsinki Commission, routinely deals with human rights matters.

Smith noted that many observers believe that the U.S. subordinates human rights to trade with countries that have something that Americans want, like petroleum. He said he understands that it is important to engage these former Soviet states to encourage reform, but asked Parmly when engagement becomes inappropriate. Parmly responded:

"You posed a fundamental question, sir, that those of us working in human rights -- and you've been working in human rights for a long time: 'To what extent -- At what point does engagement become basically a support for a repressive regime and stop being an inducement to go to positive change?"

He said he and his colleagues struggle with that question daily, and he said it is not an easy question to answer. But he said he is reluctant to support a policy under which the U.S. offers help to a financially struggling country if certain conditions are met, and withdraws the help if these conditions are not met. Ultimately, Parmly said, the question is difficult to answer, and in the end he left it unanswered.

On the other hand, Taylor said, countries like Kazakhstan, with its oil wealth, is struggling less and less every year with its economy. But he conceded that it still has trouble establishing a thriving democratic system.

A former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, attended the hearing at the invitation of Congress. During the session, representatives of the Astana government entered the hearing room and formally served him with a subpoena to submit to investigators' questions. Kazhegeldin, the founder of the Republican People's Party, is charged with taking bribes and other official misconduct while he was prime minister.

The chairwoman of the hearing, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), demanded that the Kazakh Embassy explain the intrusion. Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev apologized. Embassy officials said the subpoena was served in the hearing chamber because they could not find Kazhegeldin elsewhere. Kazhegeldin has recently been living outside of Kazakhstan.

On Thursday (19 July), RFE/RL's Washington office was host to a briefing about press rights in Kazakhstan. The speakers were Sergei Duvanov, a free-lance journalist who has worked extensively in Kazakhstan, and Tanya Deltsova, formerly the news director and anchor for Channel 31 television news in Almaty.

Duvanov and Deltsova spoke of the subtle ways in which they say Nazarbayev's government curtails press freedom. Duvanov said the repression is so effective that only two kinds of journalists remain in Kazakhstan: those who are resigned to silence, and those who actively cooperate with the government.

According to Deltsova, perhaps the most insidious form of intimidation is psychological. She said a technician at her television station told her that he knew what she did each day -- at the studio and elsewhere. He never made threats, Deltsova said, but his manner made it clear that she was at his mercy.

The former anchorwoman said such intimidation is far more effective than physical violence, because it can cause a journalist to avoid publishing or broadcasting stories embarrassing to the government. And yet there is no evidence -- not even a black eye, she said -- that anyone was behind the change in the journalist's behavior.

Duvanov was asked if he fears that journalists soon may be killed in Kazakhstan as they have in other countries that once were part of the Soviet Union. The questioner mentioned slayings in Belarus and evidence cited by the U.S. State Department that the government of Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may have had a role in them.

The journalist responded that there are two kinds of press repression in many former Soviet states. According to Duvanov, one kind is more brutal and is practiced by political leaders like Lukashenka and Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov. The other, he said, is more subtle, and it is practiced by Nazarbaev and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Duvanov said Lukashenka has earned the mistrust of world leaders. But he said Nazarbaev's approach is to neutralize journalists without killing them -- by intimidating them or buying their loyalty. This, he said, is more subtle, and therefore more effective.

"Nazarbaev, on the other hand, doing basically [the same thing] and -- achieving the same results, yet being more crafty and sly, is still retaining his image of a great democrat."

Duvanov and Deltsova were asked how they would compare freedom of the press in Kazakhstan with other Central Asian states on the one hand, and with U.S. and European press freedoms on the other.

Duvanov said Kazakhstan's press is far less encumbered than the media in Uzbekistan, for instance. But he stressed that this comparison is ultimately meaningless. In fact, he said, the Astana government often dismisses complaints about a controlled press in Kazakhstan by saying that things are much worse in other Central Asian countries.

"This kind of comparisons are really those that shouldn't be made. One should not compare two wrongs, but should compare the wrong situation with the normal and correct situation."

Instead, Duvanov said, it would be better to compare Kazakhstan's press with that of the West. He said Kazakhs want to be "civilized" -- as he put it -- and therefore they should follow the Western model without reference to worse human rights abuses in other Central Asian states.

Deltsova went a step further, saying it would be equally inappropriate to compare Kazakhstan's press with the West. Ultimately, she said, Nazarbaev's government should compare its behavior with the pledge it made to respect human rights when it joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

She said it is time for Kazakhstan's government to begin honoring that pledge.