Tax authorities in Kazakhstan last week walked back charges against several non-governmental organizations. The authorities reversed decisions meted out in January, following warnings issued in the fall of 2020, to fine and temporarily suspend the operations of six groups.
The turn of events underpins the value of a quick and loud domestic and international outcry, even if the decision-making process (and the ultimate deciders) remains opaque.
On February 4, per RFE/RL’s reporting, six groups — the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Erkindik Kanaty (Wings of Liberty) Foundation, the MediaNet International Journalism Center, the International Legal Initiative, the Legal Media Center, and the Echo civil rights group — said that the charges against them had been dropped and the penalties levied, fines and three-month operational suspensions, rescinded.
The taxman is a convenient lever for a state to exert pressure on organizations and the theme of those targeted — human rights, election monitoring, and legal aid — suggests a motive.
The tax authorities informed 13 NGOs last fall of various violations in their tax forms. Seven of the organizations issued a statement on November 30 that they had been “attacked” by the tax authorities at the behest of the country’s national security authorities. The statement highlighted increasingly restrictive Kazakh laws mandating severe penalties for what are essentially clerical errors and the huge imbalance in reporting requirements between NGOs and commercial entities.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told RFE/RL last week, “The new developments are linked to political expediency. The authorities started something that began causing political damage to their image, because of the protests. Now they have walked back as much as they could.”
Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest state (geographically) and on the back of its large oil and gas trade, the region’s largest economy. Gaining access to, and building a reputation in, the international community has formed a core facet of Kazakh foreign policy. Whether pursuing leadership roles — for example, of the OSCE in 2010 — or other high-profile positions, such as a non-permanent seat on the U.N. security council in 2017-2018 and as a host for Syria talks, Kazakhstan has continued to maneuver itself onto the international stage. But while a clean human rights record is clearly not necessary for a state to be a big player — see: China — only the biggest of players can completely ignore condemnation. Kazakhstan isn’t China.
The Kazakh tax authorities rulings against the various NGOs in January prompted outcry within Kazakhstan, from the affected groups and other NGOs, but also drew international attention.
On February 1, the European Union issued a statement in support of the targeted NGOs and specifically highlighted the potential damage to Kazakhstan’s international reputation:
The European Union strongly believes that the work of these organisations provides crucial, direct support for the President’s and government’s reform agenda. Such actions from the Kazakh authorities not only hinder these reform efforts and limit the essential work of NGOs, but are also detrimental to the international reputation of Kazakhstan.
As a firm supporter of Kazakhstan’s inclusive reform process, which aims at furthering the country’s modernisation, democracy and stability, the European Union calls on the Government of Kazakhstan to urgently address this issue.
Three days later, the affected NGOs were informed that the count decisions against them had been annulled, though RFE/RL reported at the time that they had not received official documentation to that effect.
While this may indicate the value of international pressure, particularly on a state concerned with growing its global image, there’s little stability in such institutional capriciousness. The intended effect — in this case pressuring NGOs working in the human rights, elections, and legal aid spheres — may still be accomplished and even if the above-mentioned NGOs soldier on, the climate is not conducive for others to engage in such work.