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Kazakhstan’s Snap Elections Called Amidst Dissent and Economic Troubles

Samantha Brletich

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Kazakhstan will be holding Parliamentary snap elections in March 2016 ultimately providing a mandate for autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The elections will not produce significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989.

Arguably, the elections in Kazakhstan are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of Nazarbayev’s managed government or “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, low oil revenue prices and the oil crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan.

The snap elections stirred up secessionist fervor and possible chances for political change among Kazakhstan observers as the country has no secessionist policy and is essentially under one-party rule. On 20 January 2016, the lower-house of the Senate, the Majlis, voted to dissolve itself; the Majlis is dominated by the Nur-Otan Party, Nazarbayev’s party. The elections, originally scheduled for late 2016 or early 2017, are scheduled for 20 March 2016.

The focus of the snap elections is economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) says the elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear more competitive. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.

Similar to April 2015 Presidential elections, the elections were held against the backdrop of increasing political dissension in the country. The government fears another 2011 Zhana Ozen protest over labor conditions, and protests similar to the protest in May 2015 in the monocity (or company town) of Temirtau.

Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response to economic fears, the Kazakh government now offers powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments.

Nazarbayev’s snap elections fall into a pattern of managed governance or managed democracy. The international community repeatedly chastises Kazakhstan for failure to execute and commit to democratic reforms, failure to improve human rights abuses (without little diplomatic and international consequence), and for lack of political freedoms and party pluralism. Nazarbayev in April 2015 won the election by a landslide and Nazarbayev said it would have “looked undemocratic” for him to question election results.

Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is welcome.

Besides during election cycles, Nazarbayev effectively manages the press, limiting dissent and alternative political voices. Media freedoms in Kazakhstan declined after the Zhana Ozen protests. In-depth legal analysis by France-based group, Article 19, provided that Law No. 545-IV on Television and Radio Broadcasting (the Law) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, is “open to abuse by government” and “poses a genuine threat to freedom of expression, as well as freedom of information.” The newspaper, Pravdivaya Gazeta, critical of Kazakhstani authorities was shut down February 2014. The Respublika newspaper was shut down in 2013 and the Assandi Times faced closure in April 2014 after being affiliated with Respublika. The Assandi Times maintains an empty Facebook page. On 18 December 2015, Kazakh authorities raided the offices of investigative news outlet Nakanune.kz; as of late January 2016, the website still operates.

The snap elections in Kazakhstan are not a way to encourage civic participation in political affairs, but a way for President Nazarbayev to consolidate his autocratic power via other means besides the Presidency and to provide the image he is supported by the people. The snap elections will not produce different results but will reinforce Kazakhstan’s current policies and ways to undertake reforms. As the Kazakh economy continues to tumble and public dissatisfaction increases, it is likely activists and news outlets will face persistent censorship and scrutiny from the Kazakh government. Nazarbayev’s ability to control the media and creative interpretations of the nation’s criminal code generates further criticism from international organizations and violate Kazakhstan’s obligations to international commitments.

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Central Asia

ILO Reports Important Progress on Child Labour and Forced Labour in Uzbek Cotton Fields

MD Staff

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A new International Labour Organization report to the World Bank finds that the systematic use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has come to an end, and that concrete measures to stop the use of forced labour have been taken.

The report Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2017 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is based on more than 3,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.6 million cotton pickers. It shows that the country is making significant reforms on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields.

“The 2017 cotton harvest took place in the context of increased transparency and dialogue. This has encompassed all groups of civil society, including critical voices of individual activists. This is an encouraging sign for the future. However, there is still a lag between the sheer amount of new decrees and reforms being issued by the central government and the capacity to absorb and implement these changes at provincial and district levels,” says Beate Andrees, Chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013. In 2015, it began monitoring the harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank.

Interviews carried out by the monitors took place in all provinces of the country and included cotton pickers and other groups which are directly or indirectly involved in the harvest such as local authorities, education and medical personnel. In addition, a telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected persons was conducted. Before the harvest, the ILO experts organized training for some 6,300 people directly involved with the recruitment of cotton pickers.

The results confirm that the large majority of the 2.6 million cotton pickers engaged voluntarily in the annual harvest in 2017 and that there is a high level of awareness in the country about the unacceptability of both child and forced labour. The report confirms earlier findings that the systematic use of child labour in the cotton harvest has ended though continued vigilance is required to ensure that children are in school.

Instructions have been given by the Uzbek national authorities to local administrations to ensure that all recruitment of cotton pickers is on a voluntary basis. In September 2017, an order was given withdrawing certain risk groups (students, education and medical personnel) from the harvest at its early stage.

Moreover, cotton pickers’ wages have been increased in line with recommendations by the ILO and the World Bank. The ILO recommends that the government continues to increase wages and also addresses working conditions more broadly to further attract voluntary pickers.

Last September, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he pledged to end forced labour in his country and underscored his government’s engagement with the ILO. In November 2017, at the Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Argentina, Uzbekistan also pledged to engage with independent civil society groups on the issue.

The ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) project in Uzbekistan will now focus on the remaining challenges, particularly the need for further awareness raising and capacity building, which varies between provinces and districts. It will ensure that all those involved in recruitment will have the information and tools needed to ensure that cotton pickers are engaged in conformity with international labour standards.

The monitoring and results from a pilot project in the area of South Karkalpakstan also show that cotton picking economically empowers women in rural areas. The cotton harvest provides many women with a unique opportunity to earn an extra cash income which they control and can use to improve the situation of their families.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund with major contributions by the European Union, United States and Switzerland.

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Kazakhstan Launches Online Platform for Monitoring and Reporting Greenhouse Gases

MD Staff

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An online platform for monitoring, reporting and verifying emission sources and greenhouse gases (GHG) was officially launched today by the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the World Bank.

The platform is an essential element of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan, which was launched in 2013 as the country’s main instrument to regulate domestic CO2 emissions and to drive the development of low-carbon technologies. Today, the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan covers all major companies in the energy, oil and gas sectors, mining, metallurgical, chemical and processing industries.

Since 2014, the World Bank Trust Fund Partnership for Market Readiness has provided technical assistance to Kazakhstan in supporting the implementation of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan and related climate change mitigation policies.

“Kazakhstan’s emissions trading system is the first of its kind in the Central Asia region,” said Ato Brown, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “With support from the Partnership for Market Readiness, the country has made a great effort to develop policy options for mid- and long-term emissions pathways and to develop an action plan on GHG emissions reductions by 2030. The World Bank will continue to support the Government during the crucial stages of policy implementation.”

The platform enables Kazakhstan’s major emitters to transmit and record data on GHGs emissions, as well as trade online. The National Allocation Plan, adopted in January 2018, sets an emission cap for 129 companies for the period 2018-2020. Per the national allocation plan, quotas have been allocated until 2020.

“The electronic platform undoubtedly proves the evolution of the Kazakhstan emission control system, which will allow the monitoring, reporting and verification system to be upgraded to a much higher level,” said Sergei Tsoy, Deputy General Director of JSC Zhasyl Damu.

GHG data is confirmed by accredited bodies for verification and validation and transferred to the Cadastre using an electronic digital signature. To date, there are seven verification companies accredited in Kazakhstan, with five more in the process of accreditation.

The platform was developed by JSC Zhasyl Damu with the support of France’s Technical Center on Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. The system is administered by JSC Zhasyl-Damu, while the beneficiaries are the Climate Change Department and the Committee for Environmental Regulation and Control of the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Background

Kazakhstan is one of the largest emitters of GHG in Europe and Central Asia with total annual national emissions of 300.9 MtCO2e in 2015. The energy sector accounts for 82% of total GHG emissions, followed by agriculture (9.6%) and industrial processes (6.4%). More than 80% of produced electricity in Kazakhstan is coal-fired, followed by natural gas (7%) and hydro power (8%).

Kazakhstan proposed as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) an economy-wide reduction of GHG emissions of 15% from 1990 emissions levels by 2030. Kazakhstan ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016 and committed itself to the fulfilment of the proposed target as its first INDC. The objective will contribute to sustainable economic development as well as to the achievement of the long-term global goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. 

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Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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