By Hugh Williamson and Mihra RittmannreThe
While disappointing, it was hardly a surprise that the White House talks on Tuesday between U.S. President Donald Trump and his counterpart from Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, barely featured human rights.
Trump is better known for hosting and praising authoritarian leaders than pressing them on human rights, and both his foreign policy and domestic agendas are so rife with damaging policies on refugees, women’s health, and the protection of civilians in conflict that it would have been surprising if Kazakhstan’s deeply worrying domestic human rights record had been addressed.
In reality, Nazarbayev’s post-independence approach of “economy first, politics later” has left Kazakhstan a country without free elections, with politically motivated prosecutions of civil society activists, a low tolerance for free speech, and a place where the authorities prosecute, even jail, those who organize even the smallest, peaceful protests.
Trump’s focus on regional and global issues with Nazarbayev no doubt has lent support to Kazakhstan’s campaign to be seen as an important international player. Kazakhstan is persistent in presenting itself as a partner in promoting peace and stability, with some success — this month it holds the rotating presidency as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It aspires to become one of the top 30 most developed economies by 2050.
Kazakhstan has been a partner for the United States, for example, on regional security and nuclear non-proliferation. Yet, despite the importance of this relationship, any attempt to build closer ties with Kazakhstan based solely on security and economic arguments is short-sighted. A solid partnership with Astana for the long term would be founded on Kazakhstan ensuring human rights and social stability at home and upholding its commitments in the international sphere — neither of which it is doing in earnest. Astana has ignored many human rights obligations it has accepted under international treaties.
The United States turning a blind eye to this behavior is not in the interests of the many U.S. companies operating in Kazakhstan that need legal certainty, not the status quo, where rule of law is weak. The lack of strong independent institutions in Kazakhstan should be a U.S. concern, as such bodies will be key to maintaining stability and continuity when Nazarbayev, 77, leaves the presidency.
The U.S. State Department’s most recent, 2016 human rights report on Kazakhstan talks of “significant human rights problems,” increasingly “limited freedoms of speech, assembly and religion,” and vague provisions of the criminal code being “particularly open to abuse” in targeting government opponents.
These abuses are bad in themselves and should stop. Political repression, a lack of free elections, and severe limits on demonstrations and free media are, in many countries, a source of instability. In Kazakhstan, in recent years there have been periodic outbursts of protests over economic and other issues. There were also violent clashes in December 2011 between striking oil workers, others and law enforcement in Zhanaozen, an oil town in western Kazakhstan, following an extended and unresolved labor strike in the oil sector. There are no signs the government is taking steps to meaningfully address these underlying concerns.
Beyond the United States, other governments and leaders have seen the importance of building ties with the strongest economy in Central Asia, but have included human rights in the equation. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2012 noted that “German foreign policy is always value-based, and so when discussing economic interests we also talk about human rights… .” She supported calls for an independent investigation into the Zhanaozen violence. Germany and Kazakhstan signed a partnership deal with 3 billion Euros ($3.68 billion U.S. at the current exchange rate) on that occasion, and Germany remains one of Kazakhstan’s leading trade partners.
Other international bodies have been careful to weigh the various aspects of Kazakhstan’s record. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) every year since 2015 has noted progress on some issues in Kazakhstan, but strongly criticized Kazakhstan’s laws limiting both trade union activity and the rights of employers’ associations to organize freely. The U.S. government, and U.S. unions and employers’ bodies are all active participants in the ILO.
Likewise, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the Paris-based club of rich nations, of which the United States is a member — has been cautious in allowing Kazakhstan access, even though Astana is very keen to join. The OECD has clear governance standards and expects new members to meet them before being admitted.
The Trump administration appears to be excluding itself from such an approach. But it is in Washington’s own long-term interest to form a fuller view of Kazakhstan’s record and the problems it poses, to create a genuinely stable basis for partnership in the future.
Hugh Williamson is Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @HughAWilliamson. Mihra Rittmann is a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, working primarily on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Follow her on Twitter @MihraRittmann.