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U.S. must press President Nazarbaev to respect human rights and the rule of law
HRW Letter to U.S. President George Bush
December 14, 2001

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C.

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Dear President Bush,

Kazakhstan is a crucial U.S. partner in Central Asia. It is avowedly committed to democracy and a market economy, which have been at the foundation of U.S. relations with the country since its independence in 1991, together with its importance as a stable source of energy. But the government's poor performance in the areas of democratic freedoms and in combating corruption could ultimately undermine Kazakhstan's reliability as an ally. We hope you will deliver this message to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev during your meeting with him on December 21. We hope you will ask President Nazarbaev to ensure the implementation of recommendations the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has made toward a more open political system in that country.

When President Nazarbaev was last on an official visit to Washington in 1999, he made a commitment to then-Vice-President Al Gore to implement democratic reform. Secretary Powell missed an opportunity to raise democracy issues publicly during his recent visit to Astana. That is regrettable, because respect for democratic freedoms has declined precipitously in the past two years.

In 1999, the government manipulated the media and electoral process in order to ensure President Nazarbaev's reelection and the election of a compliant parliament. Since then, it has resisted calls for electoral reform and hounded the political opposition. Unidentified thugs have attacked opposition leaders, journalists, and editors. The government uses criminal and civil defamation suits to silence media outlets critical of government policy. Perhaps the most striking example of the government's clumsy efforts to silence its critics was when Kazakh officials prevented Amirzhan Qosanov, the head Kazakshstan's main opposition party, and Yermurat Bapi, the editor of an opposition newspaper, from boarding a flight in July to the U.S., where they were due to testify at a U.S. congressional hearing on human rights in Central Asia.

Guaranteed unchallenged rule, the government has little incentive to use its vast energy wealth to ease impoverishment or become more democratic, transparent, or accountable. Instead, the trend among Kazakhstan's officialdom has been to consolidate power and drain public funds for personal gain. On June 12, 2000, the United States Department of Justice wrote to Swiss Authorities requesting information regarding the "alleged use of U.S. banks to funnel funds belonging to certain oil companies through Swiss bank accounts and shell companies in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands for ultimate transfer to present and former high-ranking officials of Kazakhstan." At the of time these alleged transactions, President Nazarbaev was consolidating his authoritarian control over Kazakhstan's political and economic life, undermining freedom of speech, assembly, and association, and granting himself extended powers and immunity from prosecution.

Kazakhstan is one of the twenty most corrupt nations in the world, according to Transparency International. As the international media exposed corruption in Kazakhstan, Kazakh reporters and editors seeking to do the same at home have been the most frequent targets of attacks and repression.

An open, fair electoral process is the first step toward creating real democracy and public accountability in Kazakhstan. In 1999 the OSCE made seventeen recommendations on restoring public confidence in the government and reforming the elections law to make for a more transparent electoral process. The government's failure to make any progress on these recommendations prompted three opposition parties in February to withdraw from a joint working group with the government, organized with the support of the OSCE, on electoral reform. One party also withdrew from an OSCE-sponsored roundtable discussions on electoral reform in May, citing the government's failure to adopt a new elections law. Instead of reaching out to the public, the government appears to be alienating it.

We hope that during your meeting with President Nazarbaev you will reaffirm democratic freedoms as the core of the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship, and that you will ask him for a timetable for rapid implementation of electoral reform. But we also hope you make these comments publicly, to let the people of Kazakhstan that the U.S. cares about the state of its troubled democracy.

One opportunity to obtain progress on these issues arises from Kazakhstan's desire to be dropped from the list of countries subject to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. In the past, no country in the former Soviet Union has been "graduated" from Jackson-Vanik without a finding by Congress that it had made meaningful "progress toward democratic rule and toward creating a free market economic system" (as Congress found with respect to both Georgia and Kyrgyzstan). We understand your Administration is considering the conditions under which this law might be retired for the remaining Newly Independent States. We hope you will make clear to President Nazarbaev that meeting the OSCE recommendations on democracy will be critical to meeting the traditional standard for Jackson-Vanik graduation. That is the best way to retire the law while respecting its legacy.

Please accept our sincere wishes for a productive meeting.

Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia division
Tom Malinowski
Washington Advocacy Director


The Hon. Colin L. Powell, Secretary of State
Dr. Condoleezza Rice, U.S. National Security Advisor