Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe: U.S. Helsinki Commission
Kazakhstan: As Stable as Its Government Claims?
Associate Professor and Director of the International Development Studies
Program, GWU’s Elliott School for International Affairs
Ambassador William Courtney (Retired),
Former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia,
Director for Eurasia Programs,
The Hearing Was Held at 2:00 p.m. in 200 Rayburn House Office Building,
Washington, D.C., Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) Moderating
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Federal News Service
REPRESENTATIVE CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH (R-NJ): (Sounds gavel.) The commission
will come to order. And I want to thank you all for being here this afternoon,
and especially to our very distinguished panel.
Today we will discuss the state of human rights and democracy in Kazakhstan.
The government of Kazakhstan, controlled by the authoritarian
President-for-Life Nazarbayev, has long sought to obscure its serious human
rights and democracy deficiencies by claiming that at least it is a haven of
stability in central Asia. Stability has in fact become the basis of the
government of Kazakhstan’s claim to legitimacy. Of course, stability can never
be an excuse for dictatorship or widespread torture and similar abuses. We
simply can never accept the hidden premise of the Kazakhstan government’s talk
of stability, that human dignity can be bargained away in some exchange for
Likewise, we cannot accept at face value the claim that Kazakhstan is in fact
as stable as it government claims. This claim must be carefully examined.
That is what this hearing is about today. Too often, in Washington and within
the OSCE, the government of Kazakhstan’s claim to stability is tacitly
accepted. And that allows the government to set itself up as a model for other
Asian and European countries.
After last year’s events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, we have to look
carefully at authoritarian claims to stability – all the more since last month,
when there were (riots ?) in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, which the
authorities put down with deadly force. At least 16 people were killed, and
some estimates go as high as 70. Many of us have seen terrible videos
circulating on YouTube that clearly show government forces firing on fleeing
protesters and beating those who fell to the ground. I doubt many Kazakhs will
soon forget these images.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty reported the harrowing testimony of a
21-year-old girl who was detained while out looking for her father the night of
the riots. She described witnessing the torture, the abuse and humiliation of
dozens of people who had been rounded up and taken to the basement of police
headquarters, including girls who were stripped naked and dragged into an
adjoining room. She herself was beaten. She reported what she saw to
authorities, who returned with her a week later. The basement had been
scrubbed clean, and the police claimed that nothing had happened. The woman’s
father returned home after two days. He said he had been badly beaten by
police, and he died of his injuries on December 24th.
There are many such stories. AP reports a journalist’s main police department
heard screams coming from what appeared to be interrogation rooms, while men
with bloodied faces were lined up in the corridors with their faces against the
wall. Sadly, reports of police abuse and torture in Kazakhstan are not new.
In December of 2009, in his report the U.N. special rapporteur on torture
concluded that, quote, “evidence obtained through torture or ill treatment is
commonly used as a basic – basis for conviction.”
Since the violence in December, the government of Kazakhstan has said it is
open to an international investigation, and has said many other things that we
would expect a responsible democratic government to say. It has also
established a governmental investigative commission. I certainly hope the
internal investigation will be transparent and serious, and that there will be
an international investigation soon – but best of all, by the OSCE – and that
many good things the government has said since the violence are the harbinger
of a new openness to reform.
At the same time, we have reason to be skeptical. Just yesterday, the chief
editor of an opposition paper was jailed as part of an investigation. So far,
charges against police have only been for stealing cellphones and cash from
protesters. And the focus of the investigation has been focused instead on the
political opposition. Access to the town itself and to potential witnesses
have been severely restricted. While some journalists were giving (ph) access
on December 18th and 19th, they reported that they were under close supervision
and not permitted to speak freely with detainees or residents.
Prison reform international, which the Kazakhstani government claims met with
detainees and found no evidence of torture, told my staff that they only
assisted in getting access for local human rights monitors to a very limited
number of detainees, far below the official number of those who had been
arrested. Contrary to the government’s statement that no evidence of torture
was found, in fact the monitors cited four suspected cases.
There are reports that those who have tried to come forward may have been
threatened. Surprise, surprise. At least one of the local monitors who
visited detainees will no longer discuss it. The young woman I mentioned
earlier will no longer speak about her ordeal. The persons who filmed the
YouTube video from their window reportedly were sought by the authorities and
have gone into hiding out of fear for their safety. Many people reportedly are
still missing, but their families are afraid to come forward.
Of course, we will also want to talk about the January 15th parliamentary
elections, which the OSCE concluded, quote, “did not meet fundamental
principles of democratic elections.” The OSCE details significant problems,
including the exclusion of opposition parties and candidates, electoral
commissions controlled by the ruling party, media bias, restrictions on freedom
of assembly and problems during the counting process.
I have spoken to participates (ph) in the – participants in the election
observation mission who personally observed outright fraud, including
falsification of the final protocol in favor of the ruling Otan party. Other
American observers reportedly – reported falsification of protocols to the
party’s advantage, as well as ballot stuffing and people being paid to vote.
I’d like to now introduce our very distinguished panel to the commission. And
again, I thank you for being here, because your information not only is
received by members of this commission, but we disseminate it very widely among
the leadership of the House, Senate, Democrat and Republican. And then there’s
an even wider distribution, obviously, to the executive branch and to others in
the diplomatic circles. So your testimonies will make a difference.
Beginning with Ambassador William Courtney, who was a career foreign service
officer in the U.S. Department of State from 1972 through 1999: In his past
post – last post, I should say – he served as senior adviser to this commission
– so we welcome him back – and co-chair of the U.S. delegation to review – to
the review conference of the OSCE, which prepared for its 1999 summit in
Istanbul. He was an adviser in the 1999 re-organization of foreign affairs
agencies; special assistant to the president of Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia;
and ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.
Earlier he headed a U.S. delegation to the implementation commission of the
U.S.-Soviet Threshold Test Ban Treaty and was deputy U.S. negotiator for
defense and space in Geneva. He’s a member of the Council of Foreign
Relations, on the boards of directors of the American Academy of Diplomacy and
World Affairs Council of D.C. – Washington, D.C. He graduated from West
Virginia University with a B.A. and Brown University with a Ph.D. in economics.
We will then hear from Susan Corke, who’s director of the Eurasian programs at
Freedom House. Ms. Corke is a skilled practitioner in supporting human rights
and democratic reforms in Europe and Eurasia. Before joining Freedom House,
she spent seven years at the State Department, first two as Presidential
Management Fellow, and most recently as a deputy director for European affairs
in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where she worked to promote
human rights and democratic reform in some of the most oppressive countries in
the region, such as Belarus and Russia.
She oversaw the editing of – for the State Department; she even writes country
reports for Europe and had supervisory oversight of DRL’s 25-plus civil society
meeting and human rights programs in Europe. She also did stints at the U.S.
embassy in Moscow, U.S. embassy Prague, in the Bureau of European and Eurasian
Affairs and the Bureau of Public Affairs.
Prior to the State Department, Ms. Corke helped found and manage the U.S.
foreign policy institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs at
George Washington University. She also worked with the – at the German
Marshall Fund, and as a media strategist at several advertising agencies in New
York. Ms. Corke has a master’s degree in international affairs from George
Washington University – its Elliot School of International Affairs – and a
bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary.
And finally, we’ll hear from Dr. Sean R. Roberts, who is the director of the
International Development Studies program and associate professor of practice
at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He
has spent substantial time over the last 18 years living in Kazakhstan, both
doing academic research and working for the United States Agency for
While at USAID, Dr. Roberts managed projects in civil society development,
political party assistance, independent media development and elections
assistance. During this time, he also served as a short-term elections monitor
for the OSCE missions to the 1999 and 2004 parliamentary elections, as well as
the ’05 president elections in the country. He has a forthcoming article
coming out in the summer issue of Slavic Review entitled: “Doing the Democracy
Dance in Kazakhstan: Democracy Development as Cultural Encounter.”
So we have three outstanding witnesses, and we look forward – beginning with
you, Mr. Ambassador – to your testimonies.
WILLIAM COURTNEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is an honor to appear before
you today. Kazakhstan has a population of over 16 million. Ethnic Kazakhs
comprise three-fifths; ethnic Slavs one-quarter; and Uzbeks, Uighurs, Tatars
and others the remainder. Given this diversity, the term “Kazakhstanis” best
refers to all the people of the country, and Kazakhs to the ethnic group.
In many ways, Kazakhstan is blessed. It is larger than Western Europe and
endowed with a minerals bounty. People tend to pragmatism. Ethnic differences
are muted – regrettably in part because political expression is limited.
Rulers encourage inter-ethnic harmony – although some Kazakh advantages, such
as political dominance, raise concerns. Selection to chair the OSCE last year
was a mark of the country’s international respect and weight.
Kazakhstan has achieved notable economic gains. Modernizing reforms, private
property, talented people, and booming exports of energy and minerals make the
country far wealthier than in Soviet times. In 2010, according to the World
Bank, per capita GDP in current U.S. dollars stood at 9,136 (dollars) in
Kazakhstan: slightly lower than Russia’s 10,440 (dollars), but three times
higher than Ukraine’s $3,007.
These data, however, do not tell the full story. Much wealth disappears into
corruption. Construction of the extravagant new capital in Astana diminishes
state funding for the rest of the economy. The economy is unbalanced: for
example, the World Bank reports that labor productivity in agriculture is just
1 percent of that in America.
Political development in Kazakhstan is stunted by 20 years of authoritarian
rule. The tragedy last month to which you referred, Mr. Chairman, highlights
the risks. On December 16, security forces in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan
fired on unarmed demonstrators, including striking oil workers, killing and
wounding scores. A chilling video on YouTube shows security forces firing on
and beating fleeing people, as you pointed out.
Rather than apologizing, offering amends and opening a credible investigation,
the authorities did the opposite. They blamed hooligans, shut off
communications to the city and imposed martial law. The hardline response may
not have calmed tensions; martial law was extended. A former interior minister
became the new regional governor: a hint of unease about the loyalty of
Today, on the date of this hearing, Kazakhstan’s chief prosecutor announced
that criminal charges are being brought against several regional police
executive and state oil company officials. It will be important that due
process be followed and that judicial proceedings be transparent. Otherwise,
many Kazakhstanis will wonder whether these officials are culpable for the
Zhanaozen calamity, or whether they are lambs being sacrificed to exculpate the
guilt of those higher up or better connected.
The violence was an aberration in the country’s generally peaceful life. The
callous response, however, is symptomatic of a wide gap between rulers and
ruled, between reality and expectations, and between those who live honestly
and those who do not.
In history, Kazakhs do not meekly submit to arbitrary power. In the 19th
century, Russian colonization was slowed by uprisings and wars. In World War
I, many Kazakhs resisted the czar’s conscription. And then: the communist
takeover. A decade later, Kazakhs opposed brutal Soviet collectivization of
agriculture, such as by killing their own livestock rather than turning it over
to the state. Over a million Kazakhs perished.
In World War II, Stalin exiled ethnic Germans, Crimean Tatars and North
Caucasian Muslims to Kazakhstan. A million Poles were banished there. Many of
these peoples, starving or ill, were taken in by Kazakhs and survived. Vast
numbers lost their lives to Soviet cruelty. Nikita Khrushchev hurled huge
numbers of ethnic Slavs into northern Kazakhstan for the wasteful Virgin Lands
Campaign, aimed at turning pasture into a grain belt. Other Slavs built and
operated raw materials (and ?) military facilities. Alexander Solzhenitsyn
labored in Kazakhstan in a prison camp
The Soviets used much of Kazakhstan for military purposes. They tested nuclear
weapons at Semipalatinsk, operated the world’s largest anthrax factory at
Stepnogorsk, tested biological weapons in the open air on an island in the Aral
Sea, tested anti-ballistic missiles and lasers at Sary Shagan, assembled
torpedoes in Almaty, deployed giant SS-18 intercontinental missiles in two
locations, and conducted ballistic missile tests and space launches from
Baikonur. Amid the military activity, most of the country was closed.
Kazakhstanis had few contacts with the outside world. A vital lifeline was
shortwave broadcasting by Radio Liberty, VOA, BBC, Deutsche Welle and others.
After the Soviet collapse, Kazakhstan returned nuclear weapons to Russia and
became a model partner in the Nunn-Lugar program to eliminate weapons of mass
destruction and their infrastructure. Kazakhstan welcomes substantial U.S. and
other investment in Caspian Energy. It is a critical partner in the Northern
Distribution Network, which provides logistical support to U.S. and NATO forces
Close cooperation on core interests has yielded a productive U.S.-Kazakhstani
strategic relationship – one of America’s most valued. Yet as Egypt shows,
rulers must retain the consent of the governed in order to sustain foreign
support. The lesson is salient for Kazakhstan.
First, the legitimacy of personalized rule is in decline, and Zhanaozen is
accelerating it. Transitions beyond President Nazarbayev, now 71, are
uncertain. No evident successor has broad stature or appeal. Few, if any,
independent groups combine the experience and acceptance required for effective
political intermediation. None is so strong or enduring, for example, as the
liberal Yabloko party in Russia or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
On January 15 Kazakhstan held elections for a new parliament, but no genuine
opposition parties were allowed to participate. OSCE election monitors found
that the elections, quote, “did not meet fundamental principles of democratic
elections,” end quote. In another anti-democratic step, earlier this week
security forces raided the office of the opposition party Alga and the home of
its leader. The courageous suffer. Journalist Ramazan Esergepov, labor union
lawyer Natalia Sokolova, and human rights activists Aidos Sadykov and Yevgeny
Zhovtis languish in prison.
Multiple factors, some unforeseen today, could shape Kazakhstan’s political
evolution. One might be the demonstration effect of the Arab Awakening. Other
factors may include: elites empowered by economic liberalization; educated and
connected young people; restive citizens in western Kazakhstan; Islamic
interests; disadvantaged groups; and Russia’s policy toward neighbors.
Kazakhstan’s burden of autocracy could render its politics less resilient
against extremist pressures.
Second, the accumulation of wealth by President Mubarak and his family, and
popular resentment of it, have a disturbing parallel in Kazakhstan. President
Nazarbayev is rightly credited for improving the economy, but personal
aggrandizement arouses concern and cynicism. Moreover, several in his family
are multibillionaires. Third, Zhanaozen may propel more unrest.
One risk is western Kazakhstan, which does not benefit commensurate with its
contribution to the economy. Another risk is ethnicity. Zhanaozen was largely
Kazakh-on-Kazakh violence. If large-scale lethal force were ever turned on
unarmed ethnic Russians, consequences could be far reaching. The Kremlin is
vocal about protecting the interests of Russians abroad. Kazakhstan’s regions
with higher proportions of ethnic Russians lie along the border with Russia – a
key reason why the capital was moved northward.
In conclusion, political risks in Kazakhstan are rising even as the economy
expands. The arrogant, official response to Zhanaozen suggests dulled
leadership awareness of human conditions. Repeated promises of democratic
reforms go unfulfilled. Popular expectations may be climbing faster than the
brittle political system can accommodate. Limits on independent political life
weaken safety valves for peaceful change.
American and Europe are widely respected in Kazakhstan. They should bite the
bullet and do more to promote political and human freedoms. While some may
resist, this will be a prudent investment in an important country and a
friendly people with good long-term prospects. I will be pleased to answer any
questions you might have and hear your further perspectives. Thank you.
REP. SMITH: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so very much for your testimony and your
SUSAN CORKE: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, it is an honor to appear before you and
Helsinki Commission staff today to discuss whether Kazakhstan is as stable as
its government claims at a pivotal moment in its history. I’m also pleased to
appear in distinguished company with Ambassador Courtney and Dr. Sean Roberts.
While working in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
Labor, I worked in common cause both with Helsinki Commission staff and Freedom
House, before, during and after Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE to press
together for human rights improvements.
Just over one year ago, Kazakhstan’s foreign minister said at the OSCE summit
in Astana that that was a sign of the objective recognition by the
international community of Kazakhstan’s successes in its socioeconomic and
democratic development. It continued to say that they endeavored to fully live
up to their motto – trust, tradition, transparency and tolerance – and be
worthy of the confidence placed in them by the OSCE.
Unfortunately, as we gather today to consider Kazakhstan’s stability and human
rights record, it seems that the nation is not deserving of that confidence.
While those who supported Kazakhstan’s chairmanship argued that it could
galvanize human rights reform, it has failed to do so. In our recently
released Annual Freedom in the World report, Kazakhstan continued to earn it’s
“not free” ranking.
This week, as we take stock of the situation, it’s been a pretty bad week.
Additional repressive measures have been launched in Kazakhstan, including
raids of the opposition Alga Party offices and detentions of opposition
activists and journalists. All of civil society feels under serious pressure
and is nervous about what will happen next. Our Freedom House office in
Almaty, led by Mr. Vyacheslav Abramov, and his small but dedicated staff,
continuously working on human rights and reporting on developments. They are
fearful now, and say that the common belief amongst NGOs is that NGOs will be
the next place raided.
I’ll focus primarily today on the current human rights situation as gathered
from their reporting, which demonstrates that Kazakhstan is heading down a path
of increasing instability. The recent riots and violence are not simply a
random outburst. A leading Kazakh NGO, The Bureau, documented the growth of
civic engagement this past year – interestingly, the emergence of ordinary
citizens as leading organizers of public assemblies, and 78 percent of these
were on socioeconomic problems.
As the government severely restricts freedom of assembly, however, the fact
that more people are willing to challenge the government to have their voices
heard is a sign of societal discontent. And if the government continues on its
repressive path, more peaceful protests will turn to violent ones.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan with an iron fist since ’91, and remains fixed
on retaining power. When stability, however, is defined as keeping the lid on,
it is only a matter of time before the pot starts to boil over. We’ve already
talked about Zhanaozen. And the international community watched, taken aback,
as violence erupted there the day of Kazakhstan’s –
STAFF: Excuse me. Thanks.
MS. CORKE: -- 20-year celebration of independence from the Soviet Union. For
those who had been paying attention, the pot had been simmering there for a
while, and as already discussed, there were some underlying elements of social
unrest. The oil strike had been going on since last April, when a large group
of oil workers in western Kazakhstan began to demand higher wages and better
working conditions. While Kazakhstan has several billionaires, these strikes
signaled that uneven distribution of the country’s resources was sparking a
Starting in May, many workers began camping in the city square in an indefinite
protest – a challenge to a government that had tried and succeeded in
squelching dissent. On December 16, the situation took a deadly turn. We’ve
already talked about the videos that showed police firing with lethal force at
citizen’s backs. Our reporting on the ground had 18 deaths, which is higher
than some of the other reports. And we were horrified, too, to hear of the
abuse in police headquarters.
Soon after, President Nazarbayev took decisive steps to try to regain
stability, as already discussed, imposing emergency rule. Surprisingly he
dismissed his son-in-law, the head of the state oil holding company. He
demanded a public inquiry and vowed to severely punish perpetrators. At the
moment the city remains closed to public defenders and journalists, who may
enter the city only if official permission is granted.
The presidential administration, while it was swift in trying to usher in
stability, shows no real signs of understanding the root causes. Nazarbaev’s
political adviser called the disorder a provocation against the president and
then continued to say that criminals were responsible. He said: The president
dealt with it, and the situation is back to normal. If only that were the case.
We’ve already gone into – my – Ambassador Courtney went into detail on the
elections, so I’ll just note that Kazakhstan continued its 20-year tradition of
failing to observe democratic norms. The election was a sham effort to meet
its stated goals of increasing the number of parties in parliament.
Interestingly, two days after the election, Nazarbayev issued a fast rebuttal,
revealing what he really thinks about political modernization, saying that
Kazakhstan would no longer invite international experts who criticize its
elections. The government of Kazakhstan seems to only want the OSCE’s input
when it is good news.
In looking to place blame for the growing instability, the obvious target was
the opposition for the government. In December the leaders of the unregistered
Alga party in Astana and in the Mangistau region were both arrested. After the
election, Vladmir Kozlov, the leader of Alga in Almaty, predicted Kazakh
authorities would continue to try the – to blame the opposition. This has been
On Monday, police and the Committee on National Security organized a search in
at the central office of the Alga party and at the homes of Kozlov and others.
Several were detained, including Kozlov, who was then accused of inciting
social discord. The government said the raids were part of the investigation
into Zhanaozen. By tightening the screws rather than allowing for political
competition or dissent, Nazarbayev and his administration are on some level are
admitting their own weakness and vulnerability. A confident leader would not
need to resort to such tactics.
Throughout the past year, the country has been shaken by several attacks,
mostly in western Kazakhstan, that were blamed on religious extremists, and the
government responded by cracking down and passing new legislation broadly
tightening religious freedoms and public expression. When I visited Kazakhstan
last August, there was a palpable sense of fear about what this uptick in
religious extremism would mean for Kazakhstan. Human rights activists I spoke
with warned that speaking publicly about the rise in extremism would cross a
government red line.
The restrictive law on religion soon followed, and was rushed through
parliament in only three weeks, in spite of protests from the OSCE and NGOs.
It gives the government unprecedented authority to regulate the activities and
structures of religious communities and forbids prayer or religious expression
in government institutions. The specifics of the law are poorly defined and
leave much room for interpretation to local authorities
Shortly on the heels of that, the new National Security Act was signed by the
president this month. It not only provides for the empowerment of special
services, especially for combatting terrorism, but it allows for blocking of
the Internet and other communication. In addition, the law imposes a vague
restriction that those who harm the image of Kazakhstan in the international
arena can be considered destructive. This law could be directed against those
who criticize the country at international fora, such as this one.
The government is trying to keep the lid on freedom of expression in other ways
too. The new Broadcasting Act was signed by the president in January after a
year of disregarding recommendations made by the OSCE and NGOs. It contains a
number of troubling regulations that give the state additional control over TV
and radio channels. For example, 50 percent of the broadcasts of foreign
channels must contain domestic content by 2018. This new restrictive measure
occurs in a media environment that is already under siege.
Kazakhstan has preferred to view democracy and freedom as public relations
slogans to boost prestige. It spared no expense in promoting itself with
advertisement campaigns and high-level consultancies, such as Tony Blair.
Admittedly, this has paid some policy dividends for Kazakhstan. However, in
spite of trying to tout its harmony and peace of the country, an essential
truth has been revealed with the latest violence. When citizens have
legitimate grievances without an outlet, when freedoms are denied in the name
of stability, instability and extremism are likely to increase.
It is time to address the political stagnancy and lack of an apparent heir
after Nazarbayev, officially deemed the leader for life. It is time for
pro-democratic forces within Kazakhstan and the international community to
start thinking about how to catalyze a more democratic, stable future for the
country. Given its strategic importance, how Kazakhstan approaches the
immediate future should be a cause for concern for policy-makers on both sides
of the Atlantic.
I will conclude now with five specific recommendations, which were developed in
consultation with civil society in Kazakhstan. One, it is important to
publicly, at high levels, continue to hold the Kazakh authorities to their
international obligations. Kazakhstan must earn positive attention, not buy
it. Two, it is important to express support for civil society in Kazakhstan in
cases of direct repression against NGOs and their activists.
Three, the time is now to increase material support for civil society in
Kazakhstan through funding and participation in various programs. They need
our help more than ever. Four, it is important to put pressure on the Kazakh
authorities, demanding that the domestic and international investigation of the
events in Zhanaozen are allowed to occur openly and transparently.
And finally, it is important to press the government of Kazakhstan to put words
into action and allow political pluralism and not paint the opposition as the
enemy. The opposition will hold a protest rally January, 28th in Almaty and
will try to contest the election results in courts. This is a test for the
government. The West should pay attention.
REP. SMITH: Ms. Corke, thank you very much for your testimony and your very
specific recommendations. Dr. Roberts, please proceed.
SEAN ROBERTS: Chairman Smith and members of the commission, I’d like to thank
you for inviting me here today to speak on this very important and timely
topic: Whether Kazakhstan is as stable as its government claims. As I
recently wrote in a briefing paper commissioned by the Atlantic Council on 20
years of U.S.-Kazakhstani relationship, the Republic of Kazakhstan is something
of an oasis of stability in the desert of uncertainty that represents Central
Indeed, this stability is also largely the result of intelligent policies
adopted by the government of Kazakhstan over the last 20 years. In the 1990s
the government of Kazakhstan, with cooperation from the United States, divested
itself of the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. Also in the
1990s, Kazakhstan’s government was careful to adopt inclusionary policies for
its Russian minority citizens and to establish close relations with the Russian
Federation, which helped to substantially reduce ethnic tension in the
heavily-Russian populated north of the country.
During the later 1990s and into the 2000s, Kazakhstan also adopted substantial
liberal economic reforms that helped the country use its natural resource
wealth to stimulate growth and create a vibrant middle class. All of these
steps have played a role in making Kazakhstan the strongest and most stable
country in Central Asia, both politically and economically. And the government
of Kazakhstan frequently, and justifiably, takes credit for them.
Unfortunately, stability is not something a state can merely establish once in
its history. It is an ongoing duty of governments around the world to meet the
challenges that they face in keeping their citizens secure. This duty requires
adapting to changing circumstances and understanding the changing needs of
citizens. Given the several outbreaks of violence that have occurred in the
country over the last year, one can justifiably ask whether the government of
Kazakhstan today is adapting to the new realities the country faces and whether
the state is as stable as its government suggests.
After all, the Kazakhstan of 2012 is quite different from that of 1992, or even
from that of 2002. But during the past 20 years the same president, who
continues to be advised by many of the same men, has led its government. This
is not a recipe for an adaptive government and long-term stability.
In the interest of time, I want to focus on three critical and relatively
recent changes in Kazakhstan’s socioeconomic environment that, in my opinion,
have contributed to the growing violence and tension we have seen in the
country over the last year. I will also note that the country’s present
government has yet to sufficiently address these changes and may be
ill-equipped to properly engage them, bringing into question whether the
violence we have seen this year is the beginning of a much less stable
Kazakhstan into the future.
The first change is the rapid growth of the popularity of Islam in the country.
In the last several years, the re-engagement of Islam by the people of
Kazakhstan, which has been ongoing since the early 1990s, has suddenly become
apparent in public spaces throughout the country. As somebody who has been
visiting the country frequently over the last 20 years, for example, I was
struck last summer by the number of Kazakh women dressed according to Islamic
custom in the city of Almaty, which is the most cosmopolitan city in the
This rapid growth of public religiosity is not suggestive of a terrorist threat
or even of an immediate move towards political Islam, but it does point to a
changing public culture that is poorly understood by both the government and
the secular middle class of the cities. As such, it is also suggestive of a
growing population (from the Soviet past ?), from which Kazakhstan’s current
leadership emerged, holds little authority.
We know very little about this growing Islamic religiosity in Kazakhstan, but
it is likely quite diverse and represents a variety of different understandings
of Islam. While we know even less about the alleged Muslim extremists who
clashed with authorities in western Kazakhstan earlier this year, one must
assume that these people were representative of at least one part of this
population that is expressing its belief in Islam more publicly.
Again, I will stress that I do not consider that these people or these events
represent a serious terrorist threat to Kazakhstan. Rather, I believe they are
emblematic of the inability of the present government in Kazakhstan to speak to
the needs, perspectives and values of an increasingly religious population.
A second related development in the country is the growth of ethnic Kazakh
nationalism. Like the growth of religiosity, this is a phenomenon that has
been ongoing since the early 1990s, but has taken on new characteristics in
recent years. In particular, the large number of ethnic Kazakh (Oroman ?) who
have come back to the country since the early 90s from exile in China,
Mongolia, Iran and elsewhere, are now becoming much more integrated into
society. They generally have a poor knowledge of Russian language, are
religious and believe that they should have an advantage over non-Kazakhs
regarding economic opportunity.
This situation is increasing ethnic tension in the country, as well as creating
fear among Russian-speaking Kazakhs in urban areas, who see these developments
as also promoting the status of Kazakh language. While the country’s
leadership has tried to balance the promotion of Kazakh patriotism with
policies of multiculturalism since independence, the growth of Kazakh language
use and Kazakh nationalism are developments they are not well-placed to engage,
given their political education in a Soviet system that shunned nationalist
Furthermore, while the ethnic tension created by these developments has not yet
exploded into mass violence, it has already manifested itself in numerous
violent clashes between Kazakhs and Uighurs in the area of Kazakhstan between
Almaty and the Chinese border.
Finally, and perhaps most ominous for the present government, Kazakhstan is
beginning to face a crisis of rising economic expectations that are unmet.
While Kazakhstan is certainly the most economically viable country in Central
Asia, the country’s middle class and skilled laborers have come to expect their
standard of living to improve on a regular basis after a decade of rapid
economic growth. A combination of the global financial crisis, a leveling off
of the Kazakhstan’s post-transition growth and the burst of a substantial
housing market bubble have stunned – stunted these improvements for many
citizens in the country over the last several years.
Given the awareness of the income gulf in the country, these unmet expectations
for improved standards of living have resulted in increased dissatisfaction
with the current economic situation in the country among the middle class and
skilled laborers. This situation undoubtedly contributes to the labor strikes
we saw in the west of the country. And the government’s violent reaction to
these strikes show just how unprepared the present government of Kazakhstan is
to deal with such dissatisfaction.
It should be noted that these changes in Kazakhstan’s socioeconomic environment
are not extreme and are unlikely to immediately cause widespread unrest in the
country. In fact, in a democratic society such discord and socioeconomic
dynamism is expected, and politicians in different political parties compete to
provide the best solutions for them. In Kazakhstan, however, the stagnant
political system has no mechanism to adapt to such dynamic changes.
Furthermore, at a time when many authoritarian states have sought to implement
at least gradual liberalization of their political systems in response to the
Arab Spring, Kazakhstan has shown no such desire, instead holding (controlled
?) elections this past year that differed little from those held in the country
over the last 20 years.
In my opinion, the growing dynamism of Kazakhstan’s society coupled with its
stagnant political system could create a dangerous scenario when the country
finally decides or is forced to decide on a strategy for presidential
succession. With a diversification of powerful interests in the country,
significant natural resource wealth at stake, and no experience with
competitive politics, such a succession could become a flash point for
substantial conflict and sustained instability.
In conclusion, I will note that I believe that Kazakhstan has the capacity to
adapt to these changes, given the country’s rich human resources and relatively
broad economic prosperity. To do so, however, the country must begin taking
measure towards a liberalization of its political system now. The gradual
development of a competitive and transparent multiparty political system now
can prepare the country to deal with presidential succession. But if
Kazakhstan waits until a succession crisis ensues to implement such reforms, I
fear it may be too late.
REP. SMITH: Thank you so very much for your testimony. You know, within the
last couple weeks, as you know, President Nazarbayev put into effect a couple
of new laws – one, putting further controls on broadcast media, but the other
that would make it a crime to damage the image of Kazakhstan. It occurs to me
that, as the three of you have been simply telling the truth and giving your
best insights, all three of you – and I have to put myself in that category as
well – broke the law. I wonder if you might speak to that law. It’s obviously
too soon to tell, I think, if anybody has been rounded up under its provisions.
But what will it do? You know, how much time might one get if you hurt the
image of Kazakhstan?
MS. CORKE: Now, as you – as you mentioned, it provides for the empowerment of
special services, especially for combatting terrorism. It also allows for the
blocking of internet and fixed and mobile communications. As you noted, it
imposes a vague restrictions that the – that those who harm the image of
Kazakhstan in the international arena can be considered destructive. So you’re
right. This sort of fora is the – exactly the sort of thing that may cause our
passports not get visas. But it’s interpreted as closing off further dissent,
closing themselves off to the West, which is – you know, contravenes their
chairmanship of the OSCE and all of their declarations of being committed to
political liberalization and modernization. These things to be – seem to be
mutually exclusive with this law.
REP. SMITH: It occurs to me that it is so parallel to what the Chinese
government does, with disharmonious activity on the part of dissidents. It’s
often used as one big vague way to round up people and put them into the laogai
for long periods of time. So it’s – I think it’s a very ominous escalation or
further sinking into the abyss of dictatorship.
Let me ask you, if you would – you know, the Kazakhstani’s government and the
embassy right here in Washington has put forward what many must think is a very
slick campaign, a PR campaign, portraying the riots in Zhanaozen as instigated
by hooligans and the recent parliamentary elections as democratic, free and
fair. And I mean, honestly, do they think governments and do they think
people, especially a country like the U.S. that does have a free press, are so
foolish to buy into what is so transparently a propaganda – in the worst sense
of that word – effort? Or do they think they might get away with it?
MR. COURTNEY: Earlier last year, President Nazarbayev had an op-ed in the
Washington Post, which could have been written by the propaganda department of
the Kazakhstani government. So yes, one would have to assume that Kazakhstani
officials believe that, in some cases, some official statements can be given
currency beyond what dispassionate analysis of the facts and conditions would
suggest. Thank you.
REP. SMITH: And Dr. Roberts?
MR. ROBERTS: I’ll just add that – I mean, it’s an interesting phenomenon
because so few people in the United States know much about Kazakhstan. And I
think sometimes, you know, if you look at some of these things that come out as
communications in the U.S. that are obviously public relations attempts, if you
know something about Kazakhstan, they seem quite silly. But I would believe
that people who don’t know anything about Kazakhstan may take them very
seriously. And of course, it’s also well-known that U.S. consulting firms
assist them in these – in these endeavors.
REP. SMITH: Do you know who’s assisting them right now?
MR. ROBERTS: Actually, I don’t know because I think their former company was
removed, if I remember correctly. So I’m not sure exactly right now, but maybe
some of the other panelists do.
REP. SMITH: You know, it is tragic and I would say beyond tragic that very
often that is the case. I know that Frank Wolf and I have been raising the
alarm on another country, Sudan, which just got the OK from the Obama
administration to allow a representative group to, you know, present talking
points that would appear to put a gloss over, you know, Bashir’s terrible and
despicable crimes against humanity. He ought to be at The Hague, as we all
know, being held to account for those crimes, and yet he now is being
represented in a way that puts a good finish on his terrible crimes.
Let me ask you, if I could, about the new religion law, which they, in
Kazakhstan, defend as aimed at preventing Islamic radicalism. Your sense of
that law – how bad is it? How will it affect the various religious groups and
individuals? And as you know, Kazakhstan is not – you know, has been reviewed
and has not been designated a country of particular concern under the
International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Does this new law and recent
events make a case that the department ought to do that? You know, the –
(inaudible) – your thoughts on that, whether or not they should get CPC
MS. CORKE: As far as whether it should receive CPC designation, I’d say it’s
too soon to tell.
REP. SMITH: OK.
MS. CORKE: You know, authorities are making the argument that the new law on
religion will help combat extremism. Critics warn that the restrictions under
the new law could backfire and fuel extremism rather than combat it. So at
this point and one of the urgent things that our office is working on, prior to
the swift passage of it, they were trying to mitigate and advocate with the
government against some of the worst provisions of the law. But it was passed
so quickly, with such determination from Nazarbayev and his parliament, that
there was no time for us to have our voices heard on that.
But what we’re focused on now is monitoring the implementation and raising
awareness in the international community when there’s any problematic
implementation of it. I will note that they were in such a rush that before
the law was even enacted, authorities started to – using it as grounds to
harass and detain members of the New Life Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses and
raid these groups’ properties. So they were in such a rush, they didn’t even
wait for the legislation to go through. But you know, international, domestic
civil society and religious organizations, including Kazakhstan’s top Muslim
cleric, took issue with several provisions in the law and think that it will
drastically curtail Kazakh citizen rights to freedom of religious belief. So
time will tell.
REP. SMITH: I would hope that all of you and – would be looking at that and
whether or not – I know the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
is watching it very carefully as well, because it seems to me that we have been
far too slow to designate country CPC and far too quick to lift it when there’s
even a – the slightest hint of a thaw, when it comes to religious persecutions.
And I say that – yesterday in this hearing room, I chaired a hearing. It’s
about the eighth one I’ve had on human rights abuses in Vietnam. Obviously,
it’s a whole different country and – but some of the dynamics on how we respond
to human rights abuse apply. And the situation has so deteriorated in Vietnam
against Catholics, Christians, the Montagnards, Protestants, the Buddhist
Unified Church of – Buddhists, that the fact that they’re not CPC is
outrageous. And yet, again, this slow response of, you know, it was lifted in
order to get the bilateral agreement and, particularly, most favored nation
status effectuated for Vietnam. They made no change. They got worse, and,
again, no CPC.
And I know we have concerns about Kazakhstan. We have interests relative to
our troops. But you know, if that – the price is to tolerate significant human
rights abuse, I would think that that’s too high of a price. And I would
appreciate your thoughts on how well or poorly you think the Obama
administration and the State Department, the U.S. Congress is dealing with
Kazakhstan. Are we speaking forcefully and accurately about what is going on
there, with perhaps some penalties if they don’t change?
MR. COURTNEY: One of the remarkable things about U.S. policy toward the former
Soviet Union for the last 20 years has been how remarkably bipartisan it has
been. There was a very smooth continuity from President H.W. Bush to the
Clinton administration in terms of the emphasis on supporting territorial
integrity, sovereignty, and independence of the new independent republics;
building democracy in the region; providing assistance through USAID and other
mechanisms – National Endowment of Democracy, programs carried out by IRI
–International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute,
International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Those programs have had strong
bipartisan support all the way.
I would argue that, by and large, our policy has continued to be generally
bipartisan for most of those countries. And in Kazakhstan, in particular, we
have to consider the enormous interest that the United States has – one I
discussed at some length, the military activities in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan
has dismantled an enormous amount of infrastructure for weapons of mass
destruction. And that came because Kazakhstan – (inaudible) – and saw that
America was a strategic partner.
The second consideration is Caspian Energy. At the beginning after the Soviet
collapse, a lot of oil companies saw that Russia had the largest reserves, but
it was Kazakhstan, being more moderate, which negotiated the first arrangement
for a super – (inaudible) – the Tengiz Arrangement, initially negotiated by
The third consideration now is that with the situation in Afghanistan and
Pakistan and with the proposed withdrawal or drawdown of American troops, which
has a fair amount of bipartisan support in the United States, if transportation
through Pakistan is going to be limited, the retrograde – the withdrawal of
U.S. forces and equipment via surface transportation – is going to depend very
heavily on cooperation with Kazakhstan, with Russia, other Central Asian
countries. So we have quite a few interests at stake, and no single interest
can be pursued to the exclusion of the others.
But that said, I would say that the statements, for example, most recently by
the State Department and our U.S. ambassador to OSCE about the elections –
those have been fairly honest and straightforward statement. And the work that
this commission does to hold executive branch to a high standard in all
administrations has been particularly important and helped.
MR. ROBERTS: I would just add, I think that Kazakhstan is the type of country
that the U.S. should be engaging on these issues. I don’t think that
necessarily sanctions and just pure criticism is going to really get much
accomplished with the Kazak government. And Kazakhstan – and one of the, I
think, very positive things about Kazakhstan is that it does have a fairly
broad base of elites. And I think there are people who are close to power in
Kazakhstan who have very different ideas about what should be done, than kind
of the old guard that’s been in power for 20 years.
So I mean, I would – I would advocate for engagement. I think it’s important,
at the same time, that the U.S. – one of the things the U.S. has done in the
past and, I think to a certain degree, continues to do is speak out of both
sides of its mouth about issues of democracy and human rights in a country like
Kazakhstan where we have an interest in oil reserves and we have security
issues that we’re interested in. I think it’s important to be very
straightforward about how important issues of democracy and human rights are to
the United States’ interest in the country and not short sell them. But on the
other hand, I think that we really need a policy of engaging Kazakhstan,
because I think that that’s going to bear much more fruit than just beating
REP. SMITH: Ms. Corke.
MS. CORKE: If I may add, so while I was at the State Department in the Bureau
of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and while at Freedom House, I’ve been on
the – my role has been advocating the human rights and democracy part of the
policy equation. So while in full recognition that it’s a complex policy
environment and our bilateral relationship, there’s a range of interest – oil
and gas, the Northern Distribution network, a restive neighborhood, economic
interests – at the same time.
And I was in the State Department in the lead-up to deciding whether or not
Kazakhstan would be chosen as the chairman-in-office, and making sure that it
lived up to its commitments in all three dimensions, and it was found to be
sorely lacking in the human dimension area; and leading up to that, pressing
them to live up to those commitments. And even during its chairmanship, it
didn’t. So I would say that continuing to make sure that human rights and
democracy, particularly at this juncture, remains high as far as the policy
balance is really important. I’ve seen internal battles on kind of the
relative weight of the various policy interests, and it’s important to have
consistency of support for human rights and democracy concerns, because if we
lose the limited space that still exists, it will be hard to regain in the
REP. SMITH: I appreciate that. You know, you mentioned the chair-in-office
and the considerable debate, although there should have been more, about
whether or not that was a wise decision. I strongly oppose that, on the
record, believing that we needed deeds first, and followed by a modest but a
very real reward as being chair-in-office.
And I wonder sometimes that when we put the cart before the horse, you know,
history has told us in country after country – and I believe it’s accurate,
it’s – I would like to know if there’s an example that shows it otherwise –
that usually the day they get it or the day they get whatever the benefit is
the pivotal day when they start turning the other way. And I’ll give you two
examples. When we delinked most favored nation status from China on May 26,
1994, China went into a slide on human rights abuse. It was already bad –
became much worse.
Even more telling – and, again, subject of yesterday’s hearing, in part, on
Vietnam right here in this room – when the bilateral agreement was agreed to
with Vietnam, there were – they were taken off CPC by John Hanford, the
ambassador-at-large, with a hope – he called them “deliverables” – that they
promised him and the department they would come through on – forced
renunciations, all those things that were happening. And there was an
abatement of repression up until bilateral agreement and MFN conference, and
that was the end of it. It went into Block 8407, patterned after Vaclav
Havel’s Charter 77, a beautiful manifesto on human rights and democracy. All
these signers came forward and signed it, and that became the hit list for the
secret police in Vietnam, soon as they got the bilateral agreement through an
MFN from the United States. The chair-in-office of – you know, wasn’t as big,
certainly. But I think in retrospect, we’ve got to get a lessons learned – I
would say to all of us, that – get some concrete actions on the ground, not
even vague promises before.
And I met with the Kazakh parliamentary assembly members – some of whom, you
know, go to these parliamentary assemblies that we have frequently. And I can
say deeds, just (do ?) deeds; all of them – (chuckles) – care about is your
people. You know, this isn’t bashing Kazakhstan because it’s some kind of
sport. This is all about standing in solidarity with your oppressed people,
who you could be next if you fall outside the parameters that have been
circumscribed or established by the leadership and by the police.
So, you know, I sometimes wonder if the OSCE was changing. Mr. Ambassador, you
might want to talk to this. You know, same thing happened with Belarus. When
we invited the Belarusians into the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and I kept
saying, let’s see deeds first before – they were already in the OSCE – the
president of the PA from the U.K. lamented a year later that – how disruptive
and how – what a mistake it was, because there was no movement on the ground;
if anything, they got worse. So you might want to speak to that.
And sometimes I think they try to change, then, what the human dimension
provisions are all about, as well as election observations. All of a sudden
they’re siding with those who want a less robust effort, because
chair-in-office certainly conveys considerable power. So, (Mr. ?) Ambassador.
MR. COURTNEY: Mr. Chairman, let me offer two perspectives on that issue.
REP. SMITH: Yes, sir.
MR. COURTNEY: And that indeed is a very complex issue, and one, sir, that you
and the commission and the U.S. government are going to be facing with
Ukraine’s impending chairmanship of the OSCE. One is, President Nazarbayev
used the chairmanship of the OSCE internally and externally as a very important
legitimizing tool for his reign. So what do you think Kazakhstanis now – how
do you think they interpret President Nazarbayev’s recent statement that we
will not invite election observers who criticize us?
REP. SMITH: Do they get to hear that?
MR. COURTNEY: That we will – that we will not invite – (inaudible) – election.
REP. SMITH: (Inaudible) – press, yeah.
MR. COURTNEY: So Kazakhstanis – what’s happened is that President Nazarbayev
raised expectations in Kazakhstan about Kazakhstan’s role and the way it might
evolve. And now that’s actually made it more difficult for him to be hard-line
in a convincing way in his country. And I think that’s putting more pressure –
more pressure on him.
The second consideration –
REP. SMITH: If I could –
MR. COURTNEY: Oh yes.
REP. SMITH: – Mr. Ambassador, is that true even in spite of the crackdown on
the media and the most recent laws – the Internet and all the other – the
broadcast new law? I know – you know, they – the – it’s not soundproof –
remember, “the Iron Curtain isn’t soundproof,” that famous Radio Free Europe
expression. But if you control the media, you still control what a lot of
people get to hear and say, (or ?) – and think.
MR. COURTNEY: Yes. No, that’s quite true.
REP. SMITH: OK.
MR. COURTNEY: But still, publicly in Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev raised a
lot of expectations with OSCE. And then now he’s – each one of these new laws
that you just cited make it more complex for him internally to justify doing
that, based on the expectations. And as Professor Roberts pointed out in his
presentation, this clash of reality and expectations is going to be one of the
major political dynamics that affects his legitimacy and the transition beyond
Second consideration, sir, is Central Asian security in the wake of U.S. and
NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The one area in which Russia has made clear
that it might be open to cooperation with the United States and Central Asia is
counternarcotics. It has said this over and over. Yet effective cooperation
is going to be difficult if Russia keeps the United States out of Central Asia,
as many in Russia do. There seems to be a schizophrenic approach in Russia to
how it should deal with America’s role in Central Asia, although the clear
predominant view is to certainly remove U.S. participation in the Manas air
base and to have the U.S. take a lesser role.
The Russian government, though – as we’ve seen in north – the North Caucasus –
has not a good – does not have a good strategy for how to deal with Islamic
extremism. And threats – security threats from Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO
forces withdraw could increase. Now I’m not saying that they will, but they
could increase. And it certainly would be prudent on the part of Russia, the
United States, Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia – especially with
the intermediation of the OSCE, which has a legitimacy – and the OSCE has field
presence in those countries – to start thinking harder about security
arrangements and security cooperative mechanisms with that impending change
that’s going to take place.
So I think the shift in the center of gravity of the focus of OSCE toward
Central Asia, caused by Kazakhstan’s chairmanship, has not been a bad thing.
Frankly, I believe too much – too many OSCE resources have been lingering too
long in countries that are hoping to get into the European Union, and not
enough out in – where some of the danger zones are. So there was that benefit
as well, but that benefit will be vitiated if political openness in Kazakhstan
does not improve, and if – especially if it gets worse. Thank you.
REP. SMITH: Just to be clear in terms of my position, it wasn’t that
Kazakhstan never be chair-in-office –
MR. COURTNEY: Right.
REP. SMITH: – it was only when certain benchmarks were achieved. Would any of
our other witnesses like to –
MR. ROBERTS: I think one other thing that I do perceive as kind of a chronic
problem in the United States’ approach to Kazakhstan is, there’s a general
belief that Kazakhstan doesn’t need the United States. There’s a sense that
they have these other partners. They have Russia; increasingly China is a
major trading partner and a major ally.
But I think it’s important to realize that Kazakhstan’s always been very
interested in having a very good relationship with the United States, because
precisely their other partners are countries they don’t necessarily trust
exclusively. I think there’s a lot of suspicion of China’s interest in
Kazakhstan among Kazakhstanis, including within the government. And there
always has been a certain reticence to be dependent on Russia.
So I think it’s important that the U.S. recognizes where it does have leverage,
that there is an interest. It is important to Kazakhstan that they have a
strong relationship with the U.S. And we have to at least express what that
relationship means to us beyond just the oil and gas and security issues.
REP. SMITH: One final question, and I’d like to yield to Janice Helwig for a
question or two, our expert on the commission. The – and back to –
REP. SMITH: Thank you, thank you. (Laughter.) Back to Zhanaozen very
briefly: The government has suggested that they would allow an international
investigation. Do we take that at face value? And in your view, how quickly
must that be done so that evidence, information, victims’ testimonies, can be –
can be appropriately received without retaliation to those who might come
forward? I mean, the fear has always been, you get somebody’s equivalent of a
deposition; the next thing you know, they’re in prison. Can it be done?
Should the OSCE do it? U.N.? Some other, you know, cobbled-together
investigative team? How do you think it should be done, and can it be done?
MR. COURTNEY: That offer was suggested at the very beginning.
REP. SMITH: Yes.
MR. COURTNEY: We’ve had a month of experience now and seen no sign that that
was a serious offer. There have been circumstances in a variety of countries
in which incidents that are murky in nature have raised questions, and the
United States has offered the support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
investigators to help look into circumstances. I’m not in government, but I’m
not aware that Kazakhstan immediately invited that kind of participation; or
that FBI or international law enforcement or investigatory authorities have
been involved in any of the arrangements.
Now as I mentioned in my statement today, the prosecutor general in Kazakhstan
announced that a number – a small number of regional police executive
authorities – a mayor and a former mayor and some officials of the oil company,
the state oil company there – are going to be held criminally liable. But that
came out of the blue with no transparency, although sometimes that happens.
But from the point at which you announce that people may be held criminally
liable, that they’re being charged, there should be transparency in the
proceedings, in the trials and other things, to build confidence among
Kazakhstanis that indeed these people are culpable. And so right now is the
most important time, I think, to hold Kazakhstan to account for having a
judicial process that is worthy of an independent judiciary.
REP. SMITH: Thank you.
MS. CORKE: I agree that it’s vitally important that there be a full
international and domestic investigation. The state of emergency is on until
January 31st, so up until now there’s been – it’s been virtually a closed
environment for information, which is dangerous. And they have not shown –
while saying that they intended to fully investigate and find the perpetrators
– they haven’t shown a real interest in doing so. Their only interest, I
think, is in portraying that as criminal elements as opposed to really wanting
the answers to that.
So yes, I think it’s important that the U.N. be allowed in to do an expert
investigation. And I think if the OSCE could field a team to go in as well –
which would also remind Kazakhstan of its commitments within the OSCE – so I
would encourage the OSCE to continue –
REP. SMITH: Are there U.N. agencies – any treaty bodies, panel of experts,
investigative teams – actively looking to go in – Arbitrary Detention, for
example, the working group?
MS. CORKE: They have announced that they – I think it was the prosecutor
general that announced that a U.N. expert working group would be allowed into
the country. But to my knowledge, it has not –
REP. SMITH: OK.
MS. CORKE: – you know, been given a mandate yet to go in.
REP. SMITH: Thank you.
MR. ROBERTS: I would just add that, if there was any interest from the Kazakh
side of the FBI going in, I think that would be a very bad idea, because there
is experience with that – I believe it’s – I think it was in 2005, there was a
suspicious killing of a prominent opposition figure, Altynbek Sarsenbayev. And
when that happened, the U.S. government did bring in some FBI assistance.
And the problem was that they probably did good work, but none of the
information ever got out to the public, what their findings actually were. And
subsequently there were trials that were – did not have due process and so on.
And so it just became that the FBI investigation was somehow linked to a bad
process overall, and it was a – I think a mistake.
REP. SMITH: Thank you. Ms. Helwig.
JANICE HELWIG: Thank you. I would like to just add a couple of questions.
First I’d like to talk a little bit more about the recent parliamentary
elections. As we’ve talked about, the Kazakhstani government has worked hard
to create an alternate narrative about the parliamentary elections and their
conduct – and has even gotten Western experts, parliamentarians, other
organizations like the CIS to provide public positive assessments of the
elections. You can find a list on the embassy’s website if you go to that here.
At the same time, we’ve also talked about the authority’s moves against the
Alga party in the wake of Zhanaozen, and also that Alga’s never been allowed to
register and wasn’t allowed to participate in the elections. And what I
wondered is, why do you all think that the government has felt it so necessary
to control the electoral process so much by preventing the opposition parties
and the candidates from running; controlling almost all of the levels of the
electoral commissions; and manipulating the count, certainly in some polling
stations, including the one where I observed? And why do you think they find
Alga in particular such a threat? Or do they find it a really serious threat?
MR. COURTNEY: If I may, you know, in Russian history and the Bolsha (ph)
period, the word “spark” has played an unusual role. And when you asked the
question, I was thinking you were going to ask about Yabloko in Russia. But in
fact we’re seeing a very similar circumstance there.
My sense is that leaders in former Soviet countries that have authoritarian
regimes – while in some cases popular, whether it’s Vladimir Putin or Nursultan
Nazarbayev – popular in some circumstances, particularly in which there are no
credible people of national stature who’ve had an opportunity to express their
views politically, had access to free media – are sort of generally popular, or
“acquiesced in” may be a better word in some circumstances – that they’re
They are scared even of a small party, of Grigory Yavlinsky or the Alga party
or – (inaudible). There could be a leader who could start off with maybe not
much knowledge by the electorate, but after voicing opinions in an open
political debate, could catalyze greater support. So I think it’s the fear of
a potential spark, even from a small source.
MR. ROBERTS: I think – I mean, the short answer is – why they control the
process is because they can, and it’s worked so far so why change it? I think
that that, you know, may really be the perspective of the powers that be. In
terms of – I mean, I’ve found that Kazakh – one of the interesting things about
Kazakhstan is the politics are much more complex than they look like – than
they look on the surface. And there’s a history behind every relationship.
I would think that one of the reasons that they’re concerned about Alga is they
feel that there are certain former government officials who are injecting money
into it and support it, and that that’s – these kind of personal vendettas, in
my experience, are extremely important in Kazakh politics. So I think that
that’s part of the reason.
MS. CORKE: To add to that, the Russia comparison is an apt one. I remember
some media reporting saying that the problem with Russia having the huge
demonstrations after the election was that it allowed a little bit of openness.
And Kazakhstan was not going to make the same mistake, it was making sure to
I was in Russia after the elections and attended the protests of 100,000
people. And, you know, I couldn’t believe I was seeing this in Russia that,
you know, we’ve seen even a protest of 200 people be cracked down on so
harshly. And I think Kazakhstan is very much afraid of that same thing.
I’ll just mention one other thing, that in addition to being scared that the
Alga party could gain some popular support, they’re also scared of, if they had
access to the media, what sort of information they might reveal, such as
corruption, murders, you know, other abuses. So keeping them sidelined and
portraying them as enemy number one of the government and, you know, now trying
to blame the Zhanaozen events on them is trying to find somebody to blame for
what’s going on in the country other than the government.
MS. HELWIG: Thank you. And just to follow up on that, a bit more on media and
Internet issues. We’ve talked about the new broadcast media law and also the
Internet law, which went into effect a few years ago. The government seems to
know exactly how to use all these new media; they certainly were using Facebook
and Twitter and Internet updates after Zhanaozen. They brought a team of
bloggers into Zhanaozen right after the events and actually posted their blogs
on the, I believe, prime minister’s website, if I’m not mistaken.
At the same time, independent bloggers seem to have been gone after after
Zhanaozen. One even reported having a gun held to his head while his – while
his film was taken – his video was taken. We’ve seen an editor of a – of a
major newspaper arrested, Stan TV and other broadcasters gone after after
I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you think the new broadcast
law might restrict TV, what the state of Internet control is, and in particular
the role of social media in Kazakhstan, particularly among the younger
generation. I know when I visited there it seems to be that even though there
are controls on it, everybody’s seen the video of Zhanaozen, even though it’s
certainly not been shown on national television.
So if you could just discuss a little bit about that.
MS. CORKE: To start out with the social media question, it – there was a big
discussion in social media after Zhanaozen on the reason and the role of the
government and the opposition in those events. One thing to mention, that most
of the citizens of Kazakh are using Russian social media, which is more
apolitical. So there isn’t the same full openness of views exchanged. Only
about 350,000 people are on Facebook and less than 100,000 are using Twitter.
So those tools have not been fully realized in the country.
So young people are using social media. What our office is reporting, though,
is that it’s more for entertainment than searching for information purposes,
and that the Zhanaozen events were sort of a – them following that so closely
was a relatively new development.
MR. COURTNEY: Let me talk about our media. We made a mistake in ending the
Kazakh service on the Voice of America. That mistake needs to be changed.
Kazakhstan is too important a country to have been excluded. Secondly, Russian
is still the language throughout Central Asia. VOA should establish a Central
Asian Russian service run by Central Asian broadcasters to expand information.
And again, if we’re in a circumstance of withdrawal or drawdown in Afghanistan,
which is going to lead to greater insecurity in Central Asia, it’s time now to
start making these kinds of prudent, very cost-effective investments. The
Kazakh service that Radio Liberty has had has been very important. But, even
Radio Liberty broadcasts in Kazakh and Russian, oriented toward Kazakhstan and
Central Asia, should be strengthened.
MR. ROBERTS: I’ll just – I’ll just add that I think that the Kazakhstan
government has always seen the control of the media as probably its most
important mechanism for preventing political dissent. And they’ve been very, I
would say, smart about how they’ve gone about it. They have not done the type
of things you see in Uzbekistan, where you completely cannot access opposition
media. They just limit it so – they understand that there’s a certain number of
people who are going to be with the opposition. And if they can limit access
to that information, allow those people to share it amongst themselves, then
they feel that they’re fine – that’s it’s safe.
So it’s always been to limit the ability of the opposition – the opposition has
no access to television. You know, they’ve really only had the print media to
date, and they’ve always tried to limit the ability to get those newspapers
out. Now, that said, the Internet is an interesting dilemma for Kazakhstan, I
think, because it’s much less predictable. And I haven’t really looked at this
new law, but my guess is that that would be a major part of it, is trying to
decide how they’re going to be able to limit access to the Internet.
MS. CORKE: Just to add to that, the new law will essentially allow them to
intensify a trend that we saw already in the past year, that the government,
under the guise of extremism and countering terrorism, expanded their attempts
to identify websites that had supposedly, quote, “destructive content,”
blocking the blogging sites LiveJournal and LiveInternet.ru and 20 other sites.
So I think they’re adding – they already have a lot of tools to crack down on
media freedom and the Internet, but they’re just stacking their arsenal, I
think, with the new law.
REP. SMITH: Let me ask one final question on sex trafficking and trafficking
in general. As you might know, Kazakhstan was designated a tier two country in
the last round, and obviously the data calls are out or are going out and we’ll
know soon whether or not progress continued. And perhaps based on what you’ve
heard, is that trend continuing? Kazakhstan is a destination and, to a lesser
extent, source and transit country for women and girls subjected to sex
trafficking and for men, women and children subjected to conditions of forced
Our TIP Report for the most recent report – and that would be for the year 2010
– said that while Kazakhstan does not fully comply with the minimum standards
for the elimination of trafficking, it is making, however, significant efforts
to do so, and noted in pertinent point that there was a significant decrease in
the use of forced child labor in the cotton harvest, increased law enforcement
efforts against human trafficking, and they passed a law that hiked penalties.
And I’m wondering if any of you have any knowledge or information or insight as
to whether or not that trend continued into 2011. That would have been for
2010 calendar year.
MS. CORKE: That’s something I can get back to you with more information.
REP. SMITH: OK, thank you.
MS. CORKE: My understanding of the situation has not been that there’s been a
huge change in the situation, but I can talk to our staff in Almaty and see if
they could get us some more updated information. But I haven’t witnessed huge
– a huge change.
REP. SMITH: Thank you. I want to thank our very distinguished witnesses for
your testimony. If there’s anything you’d like to say before we close? Mr.
MR. COURTNEY: Sir, you made reference to the Arab awakening earlier. In the
former Soviet Union, many people believe that Western Europe is more
politically mature, as well as more prosperous. Many people believe that those
are the kinds of conditions to which people should aspire in the former Soviet
Union, even as many disagree about what should be the tradeoffs today between
democratic change and economic advancement in Russia or Kazakhstan or other
The Arab awakening has had an interesting impact on the former Soviet Union.
Without overgeneralizing, many people in the former Soviet Union have tended to
believe that political culture in the Arab world has been less advanced than in
the former Soviet space. For people in the former Soviet Union to see young
people have the courage go out into the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and now
especially in Syria, where young people are going out in the streets every day
risking death, fighting for some measure of greater political equity or more
competitive, more open political arrangements – and those goals may vary widely
in Syria, in part because of the ethnic makeup of the country – but for people
in the former Soviet Union to see these young people going out and risking
injury and death every day for some more responsive political system, that, I
think to some extent, is embarrassing for many people in the former Soviet
Union, because we haven’t seen people in the former Soviet Union go out and
take those same risks day after day. So I think it’s – this has, if you will,
concentrated the minded a bit in the former Soviet Union, among a number of
people whom we today can’t predict how that’s having an impact. And the impact
may be very different in Ukraine or Russia or Kazakhstan or other places.
But I think what’s happening in the Arab Awakening is concentrating the mind,
and probably is going to have a helpful effect in the former Soviet Union and
causing people to think harder about the choices they should be making for
greater political openness and greater political and human freedoms.
REP. SMITH: Yes, Dr. Roberts.
Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
MR. ROBERTS: To add on that, I think one of the interesting – going back to a
media issue, the people of Kazakhstan consume Russian media on a steady diet.
And so I think that the changes that happened in Ukraine in 2005 and in Georgia
– that didn’t really have much influence on people in Kazakhstan. But if we do
see that these protests in Russia continue and we see that there’s even any
kind of – any kind of change coming out of the next presidential election in
Russia, that would have massive impact, I think, in Kazakhstan, because I think
most people in Kazakhstan kind of see Russia as their reference point. And
that’s partially just because that’s what they watch on TV every day. And you
know, they – I think if they – if they saw changes in Russia, that would very
quickly translate to changes in Kazakhstan.
MS. CORKE: I’d just like to say thank you for holding this panel today. It’s
very important. And I’d like to end just on a final note. Civil society – and
our office as well has noted this, that they’ve noticed a waning interest from
the international community in civil society, following Kazakhstan’s
chairmanship. And right now, they need the attention of the – of Europe and
the U.S. more than ever is my – (inaudible). So I would urge the U.S. to give
support vocally and materially to civil society and urge European counterparts
to do the same. Thank you.
REP. SMITH: Excellent point. And this commission will certainly try to do
that as well. And I thank you for all of your very valuable insights, your –
this is of extraordinary benefit to the commission and, I hope, to the rest of
the Congress by extension. Without any further ado, the hearing is adjourned,
and I thank you again.