ALMATY, Kazakhstan — With less than six months until it takes over the chairmanship of one of Europe’s flagship human rights organizations, Kazakhstan has thumbed its nose to Western governments and introduced a draconian internet law.
The new legislation follows similar crackdowns on online political communication in other former Soviet republics and signals a growing fear among officials in authoritarian states after public uprisings in Iran and Moldova were fuelled by internet social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook.
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a law on July 10 that classifies all online public discussions as forms of publication. As a result, any comment that appears on a blog, forum, chatroom or social networking site, such as Facebook and Live Journal, is subject to the country’s already punitive mass media and libel laws.
The law also restricts foreign news outlets, which can be blocked if they are likewise found to disseminate information that violates the Central Asian state’s laws on expression.
Human rights groups immediately sounded alarm bells. “The wording of these bans seems to target political discussion, and it is so broad that it could easily give rise to arbitrary interpretations,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release.
The Kazakhstan law seems to have been primarily in reaction to web pages that published information about Rakhat Aliyev, President Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law who now lives in Austria. After a falling out with the first family last year, Aliyev — a former ambassador and security chief — is now waging an information war against his former relatives from afar, publishing allegedly compromising telephone conversations.
Kazakh authorities for their part have convicted the former first son twice in absentia, sentencing him to what amounts to decades in prison, first for what they say was his masterminding the abduction of three bank managers, and then accusing him of planning a coup d’etat.
But the internet’s power, recently in evidence, to mobilize large groups of people and spread information not sanctioned by the powers that be was also foremost in Kazakh officials’ minds.
“The internet should be subject to regulation,” Kazakhstan’s Agency for Information and Communications Chairman, Kuanyshbek Yesekeev, was quoted as saying in the local press. “If it is allowed to drift, then we will repeat the historical experience of Moldova, where because of the internet people went out onto the streets to strike.”
Officials in the oil-rich Caspian state of Azerbaijan, which is tightly held in the iron grasp of President Ilham Aliyev (no relation to Rakhat), seem to be taking the same approach.
Last week, opposition youth activists Adnan Haji-zadeh and Emin Milli were sitting with friends in a restaurant in the capital Baku, when, according to papers filed by their defense lawyer, they were attacked by two men. When they arrived at the local police station to file a complaint, they were arrested on charges of “hooliganism” and face two to five years in prison.
Their supporters claim instead however that their true crime was to have posted a satirical video poking fun at the government on the internet, featuring a man in a donkey suit holding a mock press conference.
The film was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the Azerbaijani government’s recent purchase of donkeys from abroad for what was considered an unusually large sum, and on a law that restricts the work of NGOs. In it the man in the capacious donkey suit complains of having his luggage stolen and plays the violin (to justify his high price), in addition to directing barbed criticism at the NGO legislation.
“In Azerbaijan, the possibilities for donkeys are enormous,” the donkey tells stoned-faced reporters, according to the translation provided with the video.
“If you are donkey enough, you can succeed in probably everything,” he adds. “I would be so much happier in Azerbaijan. I would try to be more [of] a donkey than before.”
Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are considered strategic countries for the West. Both are swimming in oil and gas, and they pursue foreign policies that at times run counter to Moscow’s interests. Both also are secular Muslim countries that have lent key support in the battle with Islamic extremism.
In recognition of Kazakhstan’s importance, and in an effort to keep it from aligning more closely with Russia — and possibly China — European countries awarded the Central Asian state for 2010 the one-year rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 56-member human rights and democracy organization.
Supporters of the move said the chairmanship would encourage Kazakhstan further on the road to participatory government. Critics laughed at the idea that a country with a president-for-life and one-party parliament could oversee key OSCE functions such as monitoring elections.
For many, the fact that Nazarbayev signed the legislation just days after a visit by U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns sent a pointed message to the West that Kazakhstan would not undertake any major political reforms.
“Up until now, it has been a ‘wait and see’ attitude,” said one expert working with a Western organization in Kazakhstan, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The internet law shows that the Kazakhs are not good partners that can be trusted in the chairmanship position,” he added. “They can really damage the organization.”
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Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify the photo caption.