Last winner of the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights was the independent trade unions in Kazakhstan that was shuttered down by the government and whose leaders have been persecuted. Now, the president during the last 30 years surprisingly has announced his resignation. This opens up a hope for change, but IndustriALL Global Union reports about new persecutions.
Expert on Central Asia in Human Rights Watch, Mihra Rittman's, has the following comment on this: For the last 30 years, Kazakhstan’s leader has been Nursultan Nazarbaev. The fact that he announced his resignation today was for many a shock, although perhaps not a complete surprise. After all, President Nazarbaev is 78 years old and Central Asia’s only remaining Soviet-era leader.
When it comes to human rights, Nazarbaev leaves behind a rather poor record.
In Kazakhstan, free speech is suppressed, and independent, critical journalists are harassed or prosecuted for their work. Authorities routinely break up or prevent even tiny peaceful protests criticizing government policies. The government has shuttered the country’s main independent trade union confederation. Kazakh authorities have resorted repeatedly to politically motivated prosecutions and imprisonment to try and silence government critics. Maks Bokaev, a respected human rights activist who was critical of the government’s proposed amendments around leasing of agricultural land in 2016, is serving a five-year prison sentence for nothing more than peacefully expressing his views.
As Nazarbaev steps down as president, a key question is whether and to what degree Kazakhstan will leave behind its authoritarian past and move towards democratic rule (Nazarbaev said the speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will serve as interim president until elections are held). For that to happen, Kazakhstan’s new leadership should commit to meaningful and tangible political and human rights reforms. Most urgently, authorities should allow political opposition to participate in the upcoming elections and lift restrictions on media and speech freedoms, freedom of peaceful assembly, and association.
For too many years, Kazakhstan’s citizens have not been able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights. In light of today’s announcement, there is truly no time like the present to turn a new page and guarantee the rights and freedoms to which Kazakh citizens are entitled.
IndustriALL Global Union reports that independent trade unions in Kazakhstan continue to be destroyed and their members are persecuted. Workers in Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, have been holding rallies since 22 February, demanding increased wages for low-paid categories of workers to 150 thousand tenge (US$395), jobs for the unemployed, and full freedom to exercise trade union activities. Kazakh authorities have responded by arresting 19 people.
The latest in a long line of harassed union leaders is Erlan Baltabai, chair of the Fuel and Energy Workers' Union (FEWU), suspected of embezzling trade union funds. His relatives have been interrogated, police have conducted searches at home and in the office of the FEWU, and seized trade union documents.
IndustriALL general secretary Valter Sanches says:
“There needs to be an immediate stop to the repression of unions and union activists. IndustriALL is calling on Kazakh authorities to release 19 activists arrested for participating in peaceful rallies, and to start a social dialogue with workers and the unemployed.”