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Kazakhstan assumed the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2010. This was the first time a country of the former Soviet bloc had occupied the post and it was it seen as something of a test. However, it was not accompanied by hoped-for progress towards democracy.
This year, there were more reasons for the authorities to be twitchy, with the emergence of a previously unknown social movement, a series of unusual attacks and the head of state’s health problems.
News organizations covering these stories have faced a violent crackdown while control of the Internet has been extended further.
Nazarbayev, “re-elected” with 95 per of the vote in April, remains the uncontested leader. Persistent rumours about his health have kindled a bitter but covert battle for succession.
The election campaign took place in a climate of palpable tension. An unusually high number of websites were temporarily blocked, including those of Radio Free Europe, the BBC and the independent central Asian television station K+.
Once the election was over, the Internet remained under the microscope of the authorities. The stakes are high in a country where Web access is spreading rapidly, mainly thanks to mobile telephony.
In May, the government asked Google to use only servers based inside Kazakhstan to allow it to exercise greater control over information passing through them. However, it was forced to back down when the company refused, and instead withdrew from the country and closed its local site google.kz.
This iron fist approach illustrates the efforts by the authorities to “nationalize” the Web, forcing sites using the .kz domain to manage their traffic exclusively via local servers. Access to some 20 sites considered to be “extremist” was blocked on the orders of a court in the capital Astana, among them the highly popular blog platforms LiveJournal and LiveInternet.
Three independent news organizations, Stan TV (www.stan.tv), the K+ satellite station and the Namystan news agency, have been particular targets of harassment. Stan TV provides video content to K+ while the Namystan agency takes content from them and distributes it more widely.
Together with the newspaper Respublika, they are among the few news organizations, to break the silence on the strike by oil workers in the western province of Mangystau. Despite a series of crackdowns and the murder of union leaders, the strike is still in progress after several months, a precedent that is a cause of concern for the authorities.
Based on increased “technical inspections”, the courts have resorted to the most absurd pretexts to order the closure of the premises of Namystan and Stan TV. On the other hand, it has proved to be powerless to find the perpetrators of several violent attacks on people working for the two organizations.
Censorship of the print media has been just as prevalent – in one compliant court decision after another, news outlets have been fined astronomical sums. The main opposition weekly Respublika was forced to close. The licence of its successor Moya Respublika was “mislaid” by the minister responsible for the press. It is finally being published under the name Golos Respubliki, printed by digital photocopier. Even then, copies are regularly seized by the security forces.
If Ramazan Esergepov, editor of Alma-Ata Info, is released from prison as planned in January next year, he will have served his sentence in full, with no regard to his fragile state of health.
He was arrested and imprisoned in January 2009, while he was in hospital, for having published an article revealing complicity between staff of the National Security Service and the business sector.
Vigilance is required in Kazakhstan now more than ever. Seen up till now as a haven of stability amid the turmoil of Central Asia, it appears to be entering a period of turbulence. For the moment, the response of the authorities is to step up their crackdown.
(Updated November 2011)
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