Take a map of Central Asia, and German diplomats and business people who know the region are likely to identify Kazakhstan as the most important and stable player in an otherwise troubled part of the world.
Compared, the argument goes, with the isolated and highly authoritarian regimes in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or with the politically unstable one in Kyrgyzstan, at least Kazakhstan – by far the geographically biggest and richest ‘stan’, - is a country you can do business with.
This train of thought may go through Angela Merkel’s mind on February 8 when she greets Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev on the red carpet at her Berlin chancellery. After all, Kazakhstan is Germany’s third largest oil supplier, bilateral trade – reaching Eur5.2bn in 2010 – far outstrips that with other Central Asian states and dozens of major German companies operate there.
Moreover, Merkel will also recall that Kazakhstan sees itself as “a growing democracy” and an increasingly important international actor: it chaired the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, and is current chair of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC).
So perhaps human rights may not be high on Merkel’s agenda – or at least not as high as the bilateral agreement on energy and natural resources she plans to sign. Yet downplaying human rights would be a mistake – for reasons that go to the heart of why Kazakhstan is such an important player in the first place.
Kazakhstan’s standing as the region’s dominant actor rests not only on its wealth of natural resources. It is also, in theory, built on its commitments to uphold the standards it has voluntarily assumed by signing international treaties on, for instance, freedom of speech, rule of law and free elections.
Respect for these norms is the bedrock on which countries such as Germany can plan long term bilateral relations. So it is in Kazakhstan’s interest to get this right. Worryingly, at present, Kazakhstan seems to be getting it wrong, and yet spares no effort to convince the world of the contrary.
Parliamentary elections in January were presented by the government as marking democratic progress, as new rules paved the way for two officially sanctioned “opposition” parties to enter parliament to sit alongside Nazarbayev’s own, dominant Nur Otan party. In reality, according to the OSCE, Europe’s chief election monitoring body, as in previous polls, genuine opposition parties were banned and citizen’s rights “seriously restricted.”
On core human rights, for years Kazakhstan has placed limits, some severe, on freedoms of expression, assembly and religion. Yet concerns over the government’s approach to human rights have really come to a head in recent weeks, following a seven-month strike in Kazakhstan’s oil sector.
Since May, hundreds of oil workers in Zhanaozen, western Kazakhstan, some of them working for international joint ventures, had been on strike for increased pay because of difficult working conditions. Sit-in protests, involving thousands of workers, family members and supporters at times, made international headlines.
Rather than encouraging both sides to find a solution, the authorities used restrictive labour laws – key aspects of which break with recognised international standards - to find the strikes illegal and allowed the companies involved to dismiss large numbers of workers, fuelling the protests.
State prosecutors also brought vague and overly broad criminal charges of “inciting social discord” against Natalia Sokolova, a labour lawyer involved in the dispute. She was jailed in August for six years, in an apparent move to silence an articulate critic. In what appears an ominous trend, opposition activists rounded up in January now face the same charges.
This round-up followed bloody clashes in Zhanaozen on December 16 that left at least 14 people dead. Nazarbayev has promised a thorough and transparent inquiry into the violence, and in January the prosecutor’s office acknowledged that “in some cases” lethal force was not used proportionately and named four officials who will be held accountable.
This is a start. The inquiry must also include an effective investigation into each of the 14 deaths and 64 wounded persons and into new evidence, gathered by Human Rights Watch, especially regarding ill-treatment and even torture of detainees.
In one case, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, 50, died on December 22 from a ruptured small intestine and other injuries he apparently sustained in custody. Detained on December 16 as he was on his way to visit his newly born grandchild, he told relatives before his death that at the police station he and others were forced to undress and lie face down in the basement. Police officers walked over the men with their boots on, he said, including stepping on his head so his face hit the floor. He was also forced to walk through two lines of police officers who beat him. Last month the authorities finally said they would hold a local police official responsible for Kenzhenbaev’s illegal detention and would continue to investigate who is responsible for the beatings. Now other cases of ill-treatment need to be investigated too.
Whether Kazakhstan can fulfil its global ambitions should be judged on how it handles such issues – not on its negotiating power towards resource-hungry Western countries. Germany undoubtedly has an important relationship with Kazakhstan. Because of this - and not despite it - Merkel should use this opportunity to press her visitor to raise his country’s game on human rights.