Will Trump Encourage Repression in Kazakhstan?

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by Victoria Tyuleneva, Project Director, Kazakhstan

A White House visit by a Central Asian ruler presents an opportunity for renewed U.S. leadership on democracy and human rights.

U.S. president Donald Trump will welcome President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to the White House on January 16. Although the reported agenda for the meeting includes discussion of topics ranging from regional security and economic cooperation to nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one crucial topic seems to be missing: human rights.

Washington has maintained a partnership with Kazakhstan due to its role in combating violent extremism and because it is arguably the most prosperous, secure, and stable country in Central Asia. But this status will not endure beyond Nazarbayev’s presidency unless it is guaranteed by democratic principles like respect for human rights and the rule of law, both of which are lacking in Kazakhstan.

Although Nazarbayev refers to his country as a young democracy, it is in fact a consolidated authoritarian state whose leader has been in office since it gained independence in 1991. The president chairs the ruling Nur Otan party, which controls both houses of parliament; the only other parties with parliamentary seats also support the government. Genuine opposition parties are not allowed to register or operate.

Kazakhstani authorities regularly restrict the most important tools of democracy by banning independent media and bringing criminal charges against peaceful protesters, bloggers, social media users, and civic activists. Torture is reportedly widespread in the country. In 2017, authorities liquidated the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions and secured criminal convictions against union leaders. As a result of these practices, there is little space for political pluralism, dissent, or public participation in Kazakhstan.

The government’s abuses have been thoroughly documented in the reports of respected human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the offices of the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of peaceful assembly and association and freedom of religion and belief.

Given the strategic importance of Kazakhstan’s long-term stability, the following points, at a minimum, should be raised during the presidential meeting:

  1. Kazakhstan has a special responsibility to honor its international commitments to uphold human rights given its status as the economic leader of Central Asia and the country with the region’s strongest ties to the global diplomatic and business communities.
  2. The country must develop an open society, free of restrictions on political opponents, independent media, bloggers, and civic activists.
  3. The Kazakhstani government should ensure a secure civic environment where no one is criminalized for exercising his or her fundamental human rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly and association.
  4. The Kazakhstani authorities should allow and cooperate with an independent  international investigation of a 2011 incident in the city of Zhanaozen in which more than a dozen protesters were killed by police, clearing the way for perpetrators of human rights violations to be brought to justice and victims to obtain redress.
  5. The Kazakhstani government must enact and fully implement a strict ban on torture.

If the U.S. administration fails to include human rights on its agenda, it will effectively be encouraging an authoritarian leader and his government in their continuing efforts to suppress the fundamental rights and insult the dignity of the country’s population.

President Nazarbayev’s visit to the United States is a vital opportunity to remind him that respect for human rights is the only sound basis for Kazakhstan’s long-term economic growth and for Kazakh-American cooperation and partnership, including on security matters.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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