For the last 3 years the Kazakh government has been declaring to its people that the country's assumption of the chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010 signals Kazakhstan's growing importance in the world. It will be the first of the post-Soviet states to do so.
Given the importance the government clearly attaches to this impending event, how has it been preparing to take the helm of an organisation whose objectives include ensuring ‘full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; to abide by the rule of law'? Have relations between the Kazakh government and the media, which have been stormy in recent years, been improving?
A review of recent developments is sobering. There was the three-year prison term served on Ramazan Yesergepov, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Alma-Ata Info on 8 August 2009. He was arrested on 6 January 2009 by armed, masked security officers while being treated for hypertension at the Cardiology Institute in Almaty. The charge of "illegal gathering and dissemination of state secrets" stem from an article he published on 21 November 2008 entitled 'Who rules the Country - the President or the CNS?' The article is said to deal with a tax fraud allegation involving a local prosecutor and a judge. The CNS, or Committee of National Security, is Kazakhstan's KGB.
Yesergepov, who comes from the small town Taraz, was also prosecuted for the disclosure of an official letter from the head of the local CNS. This letterincluded in article on the local wine and vodka factory and detailed actions to be taken against the management. The management claimed that these actions amounted to a hostile takeover. Evgeny Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan's Bureau of International Human Rights and the Rule of Law, testified that nothing in the memos supported the charge that Yesergepov had disclosed official secrets. But the testimony of the CNS proved stronger and the journalist was sent down. The signal was clear: Yesergepov was being punished to warn others off crossing the CNS.
Next the authorities targeted Yesergepov's defender, Evgeny Zhovtis. In July Zhovtis was involved in an accident at night on a deserted road, in which a man was killed. He was given a 4-year prison sentence on 4 September. "Political considerations led the court to ignore openly the country's legislation" declared a well-known Kazakhstan journalist, Sergei Dubanov. "Evgenii Zhovtis' defence was given 40 minutes to prepare for the presentation of their case, so they refused to to present. The judge withdrew and in 30 minutes came out with a prepared verdict. How do we know the verdict was prepared? Because it would have been impossible to type it all up in 30 minutes". Dubanov has his own reasons for not trusting the courts. After publishing a series of articles on ‘Kazakhgate', he was himself first accused of defaming President Nursultan Nazarbayev, then of raping an underage girl.
According to Zhovtis' defence lawyer, the proceedings were so full of procedural infringements that "it's hard to see it as anything but a farce and political reprisal against a public activist well-known both inside and outside the country". For the last 20 years Zhovtis has indeed been a leading opponent of the illegal actions of the regime. He has led the chorus of those insisting that Kazakhstan must comply with the standards of the OSCE if it is going to take the chair.
Zhovtis also chairs a foundation called Bota, a post to which he was nominated because of his impeccable reputation in Kazakhstan and beyond. The foundation was entrusted with distributing $84 mln which the US government confiscated in 1999, because it suspected that it had been criminally acquired. Only after trying unsuccessfully to get its hands on the money did the Kazakh government finally admit that its provenance was criminal.
The foundation was about to start disbursing these funds for educational purposes and to help poor families. Conveniently, Zhovtis's imprisonment also serves to paralyse the charity just as it was due to start operating. The selection of another president will take some time.
The relationship between the newspaper Respublika and the Kazakh government has never been an easy one. When it opened in 2000, the staff were greeted at the door with funeral wreaths, sent by ‘admirers', plus the severed head of a dog with the note saying ‘You're next'.
Since then there has been an arson attempt and a string of court cases. The latest was brought by the BTA Bank, which claimed that an article in Respublika had prompted customers to withdraw $40 mln from the bank. The plaintiffs could furnish no proof that the withdrawals were a response to the article, or even that they had happened after its publication. But the paper lost the case and was ordered to pay $500,000 in compensation. On 18 September, when the court ruling took effect, the paper's print run was seized, as were the bank accounts of its owner and its publisher.
The chair of Respublika's editorial board, Irina Petrushova, maintains that the bank brought the case at the behest of a 'higher body', in order to close the paper down. The period for appealing the court decision ran out on 24 September and on that day the print run was seized. Hürriyet Daily News reported Respublika as saying:. "Despite this technical censorship, we continue to work. The newspaper is coming out and in just the same way as before."
Since April, the independent the newspaper's internet site http://www.respublika.kz/ and another online news outlet http://www.zona.kz/ have also been repeatedly subjected to hacking and cyber attacks, some on a scale requiring tens of thousands of linked computers. No such attacks have been sustained by government-controlled websites.
On the legislative front, a new law has also been passed recently which subjects all material on the internet- from online shops to blogs - to the same constraints as the media. Now a new media law is on the way. One of the most dangerous of the Ministry of the Interior's proposals is that journalists should be held responsible for ‘disseminating slanderous information on the private lives of individuals'. This would effectively prevent the media from reporting anything about the amoral behaviour or abuses of power of public figures.
The closer the Kazakh government gets to assuming the chair of the OSCE, the more determined it seems to be to show that it can do without even the pretence of abiding by the rule of law.