for Radio Free Europe on Dec. 6, 2008
ALMATY (Reuters) -- Kazakhstan has made only small progress toward democracy to justify its chairmanship of Europe's main security and human rights body in 2010 and should speed up its efforts, a leading rights group has said.
The West agreed to allow Kazakhstan to become the first ex-Soviet nation to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after Kazakhstan promised to introduce a package of liberal reforms.
In a report titled "An Atmosphere of Quiet Repression," New York-based Human Rights Watch said Kazakhstan has made only "superficial" steps in that direction.
"When it comes to exercising fundamental rights such as worship, speech, press freedom, and assembly, Kazakhstan's people live in an atmosphere that is far more circumscribed and fearful than in a country that meets its human rights obligations," it said.
Last month, Kazakhstan unveiled a package of amendments to laws on elections, political parties, and media, saying they would bring the legislation in line with its OSCE commitments.
"However, these measures are unlikely to result in meaningful and needed reform in media and electoral freedoms," Human Rights Watch said, adding the planned changes were "more superficial and pro forma than substantial."
The group said human rights shortcomings included pressure on media and small religious groups such as Hare Krishna and Jehovah's Witnesses and restrictions on public protests.
"In Kazakhstan, journalists operate in an environment of anxiety, faced with constant intimidating lawsuits and, not infrequently, direct threats to their person," it said.
Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by the OSCE. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in power since 1989, won a 2005 presidential vote with 91 percent of the vote. His party holds all seats in the lower house of parliament.
International groups have been open in their criticism of Kazakhstan's human rights record but Western governments, who see oil-rich Kazakhstan as a new source of alternative energy, have used softer language.
Human Rights Watch said it was time for the West to toughen its stance.
"We call on the OSCE participating states to hold Kazakhstan accountable for its public pledges to implement reforms," Human Rights Watch said.