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Human rights in Kazakhstan

Colin Stevens



The ongoing fight to improve human rights in Kazakhstan, a long time concern for the West and rights groups, is showing real signs of progress. Even some of the harshest critics of the country’s human rights record have acknowledged the “positive” steps being taken. This is a far cry from the not-too-distant past which saw the country’s record on human rights under constant attack, writes Colin Stevens.

Indeed, the European Parliament went so far as to adopt a resolution on February 11th 2021 calling on Kazakhstan to “end its broad violations of human rights”.

Today, though the EU has acknowledged Kazakhstan's improvements regarding laws and policies vis-à-vis civil society.

Former UK Tory MEP Nirj Deva has said that “meaningful progress” has been made in Kazakhstan” while ex-European council president Donald Tusk has praised Kazakhstan's “ambitious” reforms programme, including improvement of the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Improvements in the sphere of human rights come with the first anniversary of the signing of the landmark EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced cooperation agreement which covers areas such as human rights along with political dialogue and reforms, rule of law, justice, freedom and security, migration, trade, as well as economic and sustainable development.

President Tokayev has pledged to forge ahead with more reforms, including in the field of human rights, and has already overseen a whole raft of changes, including abolishing the death penalty.

But Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, cautions that there is still room for improvement, saying that in the field of human rights: "A lot of progress needs to be quickly achieved. Freedom of religion is one of those areas where some controversial laws should be revised and aligned to international standards. The US is putting in place a constructive policy in this regard with the establishment of the US-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group.

“Washington is also developing an Enhanced Strategic Partnership Dialogue (ESPD) and has engaged Kazakhstan on a range of issues, such as human rights, labour and religious freedom."

He added: "President Tokayev should not miss this opportunity to restore the image of his country."

Alberto Turkstra, of the European Institute for Asian Studies, says the president has shown the need for structural reforms, including the 44-member National Council on Public Trust (NCPT), comprising representatives from all walks of society, including human advocacy groups, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the ombudsman for the protection of entrepreneurs, political scientists, civil society representatives, journalists and other public figures.

Progress in this area is being made in various areas. For instance, Kazakhstan, the UN, and the EU are working together on a programme to educate Afghan women through which a select number of students can study in Kazakhstan..The initiative is expected to help create new opportunities for the women and their communities back in Afghanistan.

Elsewhere, Kazakhstan last year adopted a new law on peaceful assemblies, continuing its path of “controlled democratisation” with more liberal legislation that analysts said is helping to develop strong multi-party democracy.

Capital punishment in Kazakhstan has been abolished for ordinary crimes though it is still permitted for crimes occurring in special circumstances (such as war crimes or terrorism) while the Kazak Parliament has toughened penalties for those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Jail sentences for people traffickers have also been increased to underline Kazakhstan’s determination to rid itself of such crimes.

Growing public worries over the accidents and injuries caused by drunk-driving sparked stronger prison terms and, in another move, children from poor families now receive a guaranteed social package, including free school meals and transportation to and from school.

Back in 2015, Kazakhstan was ranked a lowly 65th in the rule of law index but the country has since climbed six positions up the rankings.

Kazakhstan's president has also delegated some of his powers to the Parliament, an initiative which is expected to create a stronger system of checks and balances and has won plaudits for supporting the co-existence of different cultures with the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, for instance, supporting nearly 200 centres where children and adults can study 30 different languages.

In an effort to improve its image specifically on human rights, the Commissioner for human rights (Kazakhstan's equivalent of the EU ombudsman) has been established. Along with the National Centre for Human Rights, the commissioner is empowered to investigate human rights issues.

There is also now also a law that guarantees to NGOs free access to public, international and private financing allowing them to actively participate in the social and political development of the country.

Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, who chairs the EU-Kazakhstan Friendship group in the European parliament, has welcomed the fact that Tokayev, is paying “special attention” to reducing these and other inequalities.

The authors of Kazakhstan at a Crossroads, a major analysis of Kazakhstan, pay tribute to the “significant effort” they say has been invested in “building an international reputation as a meeting point for the world’s major religions.”

The flagship project to this end is the Congress of World and Traditional Religions that meets every three years, bringing together senior figures from many of the world’s largest faith communities.

In their conclusions, the authors state: “Kazakhstan wants and expects not to be lumped in with its less successful Central Asian neighbours. With greater power (and prestige) must come greater responsibility, so it is entirely appropriate to hold Kazakhstan to a higher standard.”

Further comment comes from Simon Hewitt, a Junior Researcher at the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies, and its CEO Axel Goethals, who told this website, “As a former Soviet state, Kazakhstan is slowly moving towards a more open democratic system.”

But they caution: “This is a process which cannot happen overnight.”

Greens MEP Viola von Cramon partly agrees, saying: “With decreasing Russian influence and a progressively aggressive China, central Asian republics, including Kazakhstan are signalling some openness. It is a positive sign but we should not overestimate its implication.”

Commenting further on the post-Soviet country, Peter Stano, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said that the EU “encourages Kazakhstan to avail of the advice and expertise” of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) “and to fully implement the recommendations made previously and any that may be forthcoming”.

Efforts to improve human rights come with the ever evolving progress also in EU-Kazakhstan co-operation.

The Enhanced Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (EPCA), which came into force almost one year ago, has opened the way to both a deepening and expansion of many ties between the EU and Kazakhstan.

Europe is the country’s main economic partner. Over 50% of its foreign trade is with the EU which, in turn, accounts for 48% of Kazak inward investment. There are about 4,000 companies with European participation and 2,000 joint ventures operating in Kazakhstan. Relaxing visa requirements has made travel easier and there has also been collaboration across a whole range of social and political issues.

A Kazakhstan government source said the EPCA has provided a positive framework to strengthen such links with the EU with increased co-operation now foreseen in a number of other areas, including innovation and green technologies, transport, logistics, education, energy and environmental protection.

Kazak foreign affairs minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said the EU’s advice and guidance had been important and was needed more than ever in the future, adding that he is “confident that we will see even more effective and diverse co-operation to the benefits of our citizens and the wider world”.


Kazakhstan’s government determined to enhance engagement with civil society

Guest contributor



This year, Kazakhstan is marking its 30th anniversary as an independent state. We have come a long way over the last three decades. Our economy has greatly expanded and our political processes are unrecognisable compared to when we just gained our independence from the Soviet Union, writes Usen Suleimen.

A critical element of Kazakhstan’s development has been the growth of our civil society, especially the increase in the number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is hard to believe that in the early 1990s there were only approximately 400 NGOs in Kazakhstan. The story is much different today. By now, the number of active registered NGOs in Kazakhstan has increased 40-fold to around 16,000. Many operate in the sphere of support for socially vulnerable segments of the population or issues related to the protection of the rights and legal interests of citizens and organisations.

This dynamic is of course most welcome. A developed civil society is the foundation of any modern and thriving state. It provides an effective dialogue platform, as well as a communication bridge between representatives of the government and the public.

Therefore, the government of Kazakhstan has continued to support actively NGOs, including financially. In 2020, grants were provided worth 1.8 billion tenge (over 4.3 million US dollars). Most of the funding went towards supporting the projects related to the welfare and development of children and young people. Approximately 305.4 million tenge ($740,000) was allocated to promote directly the development of civil society, including increasing the efficiency of the activities of non-governmental organisations.

While substantial progress has been made, we are of course aware of the need to continue to develop the space for NGOs to thrive.

For this reason, the government takes active interest in this endeavour. Since 2003, a Civil Forum, which serves as a platform for ensuring a dialogue between the state and NGOs, is regularly organised in our capital. The ninth Civil Forum held last November offered 12 virtual meetings between heads of ministries and representatives of NGOs. The participants discussed the main directions of the new concept for the development of civil society, citizen participation in decision-making, and mechanisms and opportunities for public scrutiny of government work, as well as other topics.

Another important tool for effective engagement between government and civil society is the Consultative and Advisory Body “Dialogue Platform for the Human Dimension”, which was set up at the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan in 2013 to further consolidate opportunities for the NGOs to engage in direct dialogue with representatives of the Government and Parliament on the issues of human rights and democratic reforms.

Meetings are held once a quarter under my chairmanship, with the participation of representatives of NGOs, members of parliament, representatives of the Human Rights Commission under the President of Kazakhstan, the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council and relevant ministries, as well as representatives of our international partners, including the UN Development Programme, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OSCE, the European Union, foreign diplomatic missions, USAID, Penal Reform International, etc.

The relevance of this platform increased considerably with the announcement by Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of the concept of a “listening state”, implying stronger focus on the government’s engagement with the civil society, and implementation since 2019 of three packages of reforms in the field of human rights and further democratisation of political processes in the country.

Through open and transparent discussion, the activities of the platform have been vital to identifying systemic problems, as well as working together with Kazakh and international NGOs to find joint solutions. Our meetings provide a useful arrangement to discuss recommendations of the UN convention committees on Kazakhstan's implementation of international obligations to protect human rights.

Let me also give you two examples of issues, which had been closely reviewed by the Dialogue Platform and resulted in adoption of new legislative acts. One is the updated law on peaceful assemblies in Kazakhstan. The key change is that since last year NGOs or other groups that want to hold such a meeting need only to notify the local authorities about it five days before the actual event instead of applying for a permit. Another example is that last year the Article 130 of the country’s Criminal Code, namely on libel, was, at last, decriminalised. Both these topics had been regularly and vigorously discussed at the Dialogue Platform’s meetings.

The necessity for such a platform became especially clear earlier this year, when members of the Kazakh civil society raised the issue of the suspension of a few NGOs following inspections by the tax authorities. It was recommended at the meeting held on 26th January 2021 that the suspended organisations should apply to the higher tax authorities and appeal the decision. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, assured that he would take this issue under his control.

Following a thorough review with the tax authorities, only a week later, on 3 February, all charges against the affected NGOs were dropped and the decision to suspend their activities was annulled. This situation has demonstrated why it is so important for the government and the civil society to have clear lines of communication. Without the Dialogue Platform for the Human Dimension and the open conversations between civil society and Kazakh government, the issue of the suspension of NGOs may not have been resolved so efficiently. Undoubtedly, lessons need to be learned following this case, but I believe I can say with some confidence that the engagement between civil society and our government is currently tangible and practical.

Of course, we will not stop here.

Last year, the President approved the Concept for the Development of Civil Society in Kazakhstan until 2025 last year. Its aim is to strengthen the system of partnership between the state, business, and civil society, as well as to facilitate further political transformation and modernisation in Kazakhstan. I believe we have a solid foundation to move steadily in this direction.

Usen Suleimen is the Ambassador at Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.

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Kazakhstan will continue to increase oil production under OPEC+ agreement

Astana Times



Kazakhstan will continue to increase oil production in May, June and July of 2021 following the 15th meeting of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and non-OPEC ministers meeting that took place virtually, the Kazakh Ministry of Energy press service reported, writes Abira Kuandyk in Business.   

“On 1 April, a ministerial meeting of the countries participating in the OPEC+ agreement took place. Collectively countries decided to increase the current production level of OPEC+ countries by 350,000 barrels per day in May and June and by 450,000 barrels per day in July,” said the Kazakh Ministry of Energy in a press statement. 

Kazakhstan’s obligation under the OPEC+ agreement states that oil production will amount to 1.46 million barrels per day for May and June and 1.47 million barrels per day for July. 

The data on the trading platform illustrates that the cost of Brent crude oil has risen in price by almost 3.6 percent and rose to US$65 per barrel. 

The Meeting welcomed the positive performance of participating countries. “Overall conformity reached 115 per cent in February 2021, reinforcing the trend of aggregate high conformity by participating countries,” said OPEC in a press statement.  

On 4 March, Kazakh Energy Minister Nurlan Nogayev participated in the 14th meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC ministers after which Kazakhstan and Russia were allowed to increase oil production to 20,000 barrels per day and 130,000 barrels per day, respectively, in April. 

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More airlines resume international air travel to Kazakhstan

Astana Times



As the global airline industry steadily recovers from months on hold, several international airlines announced that they will resume their flights to Kazakhstan, writes Assel Satubaldina in International.  

Regular domestic air travel has been resumed in Kazakhstan, while international air travel is steadily rebounding.

LOT Polish Airlines will have their flights resumed to Kazakhstan from 27 April, according to the schedule available on the company’s website. The flights will be operated on the Nur-Sultan-Warsaw route on Tuesday and Friday on a Boeing 737-800. 

Air Arabia from the United Arab Emirates will restart flights from Sharjah to Almaty from 2 May and will operate them on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. 

Hungarian Wizz Air also plans to launch flights to Turkistan, Almaty and other regions that are of interest to businesses and tourists, said the company representatives at their meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin this week. 

The company’s low-cost airline, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, established by Wizz Air Holding and Abu Dhabi Developmental Holding Company, will also launch flights on the Abu Dhabi – Almaty and Abu Dhabi – Nur-Sultan routes May 14 as was agreed during Mamin’s visit to the United Arab Emirates in March. 

The flights to Almaty will be operated twice per week on Mondays and Fridays, while flights to Nur-Sultan will be operated on Thursdays and Sundays.

Starting 12 May, Latvian capital Riga and Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty will have a direct flight operated by airBaltic on Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Airbus A220-300.

Kazakhstan’s SCAT airlines will also resume Shymkent to Istanbul flights on April 5. It will operate the flights twice per week. 

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