Shuttering media outlets. Allowing attacks on journalists. Severely limiting peaceful assembly. When it comes to ensuring an “enabling environment” for civil society, Kazakhstan is far from the ideal.

A worker walks past oil tanks in southern Kazakhstan. 

© 2016 Reuters

So it’s unfortunate the board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a coalition of governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups meant to foster open public debate about the use of resource revenues, chose to gloss over the chilling effects of Kazakhstan’s heavy restrictions over civil society, and in doing so, ignore calls by its own board members to include tougher language on Kazakhstan.

When it met last week in Oslo, the EITI finalized an assessment of Kazakhstan’s compliance with its standards, which requires member governments to “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI.”

EITI’s board recognized serious problems in Kazakhstan, noting that: “the space for civil society in Kazakhstan is clearly narrowing.”

The board had good reasons. The Kazakh government has increased controls over civil society organizations and trade unions in recent years, impeding their capacity to participate in public debates, including in the extractive industries. Laws in Kazakhstan unduly restrict freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, negatively affecting civil society organizations’ ability to engage critically in the monitoring of natural resource governance.

In the last two years, two trade union leaders working in the extractives sector and two activists protesting land reforms were imprisoned after peacefully expressing critical views.

But despite these worrisome developments, as well as dissenting civil society views on the board, the EITI board found “limited evidence” that the government’s crackdown is having an impact on civil society participation in the EITI. The board concluded the country has made “meaningful progress” overall in implementing the EITI standard.

But glossing over the forbidding environment for civil society in Kazakhstan is short-sighted. The EITI board could have sent a clear and explicit message about the obstacles civil society in Kazakhstan currently face and included specific points on what the Kazakh government should do to address the “clearly narrowing” space before the next assessment to uphold core EITI requirements.   

But it didn’t, missing an important opportunity to help enable greater participation of Kazakhstan’s independent voices in EITI’s debates and push the government to make concrete improvements.