My international travel portfolio is odd, to say the least. It consists of two countries: Canada — and Kazakhstan. I visited the former Soviet republic in the spring of 2009 after being invited to take part in the Eurasian Media Forum, which brought together several hundred journalists, academics and political figures.
At the time, Kazakhstan was a semi-authoritarian country that, we all hoped, was starting to open itself up to the West. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, tightened his control over the years. And now Nazarbaev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has cracked down on protests and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
The country has slid from 125th on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2009 to 155th today. The organization’s report for 2021 says that
the state is modernizing its methods of repression and, in particular, exercising more control over the Internet, where surveillance is now widespread, news sites, social media and messaging services are now subjected to more “effective” periodic cuts, and bloggers have been jailed or confined to psychiatric clinics.
The Eurasian Media Forum was organized by Nazarbaev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who fancied herself as something of an intellectual. The event was aimed at providing the regime with some respectability. The most memorable part of the conference, though, was a protest by a group of young activists over Nazarbaev’s censorship of the internet, a protest that led to several arrests.
One of the activists, a young woman named Yevgeniya Plakhina, disrupted the proceedings and demanded that her friends be released. My friend the late Danny Schechter and I interviewed Plakhina, and I wrote about it for The Guardian. It was not exactly the sort of publicity the regime was hoping for. I also interviewed Adil Nurmakov, a political activist who at that time was an editor for Global Voices Online, a project then based at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center that tracks citizen media around the world.
The conference ended with a party sponsored by the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times Co.) and CNN International — a conflict of interest they would have been better off avoiding. We were treated to a troupe of scantily clad go-go dancers (“This is a nominally Muslim country!” Schechter yelled at me over the noise, laughing) and a chorus of singers anchored by none other than Dariga Nazarbayeva. Below is a video I recorded of their performance.
Needless to say, Kazakhstan is hardly alone in backsliding on the way to democracy. We’re not doing that well in the United States, either. Neverthess, it’s sad to see that the hopes people had a dozen years ago have ended in violence and the arrival of Russian troops.
One of my proudest moments as a journalist took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in the spring of 2009, when Danny Schechter and I both spoke out on behalf of Yevgeniya Plakhina, a young reporter who was fighting for freedom of speech on the Internet.
Danny and I were in Almaty to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum, an annual gathering of journalists and academics that is essentially sponsored by the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
When Plakhina disrupted a panel to protest the arrest of several of her fellow activists, Danny started demanding answers. Sadly, what he wrote at the time is no longer online. But I interviewed Plakhina and wrote an article about it for The Guardian. (And in case you’re wondering what happened to Plakhina, she is alive and well, according to her Facebook page.)
Danny died of pancreatic cancer in New York on Thursday at the age of 72. The news that Danny was gone hit me hard, as it did a lot of people I know. He was someone I had admired since I was a teenager and he was the “News Dissector” on WBCN Radio in Boston. Listening to Danny and reading alternative weeklies like The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper were what led me to pursue a career in journalism.
We weren’t especially close, but I considered him a friend. I interviewed him on occasion and reviewed a few of his books. (Here is an index of the posts I wrote about him for this blog.) In reading some of the tributes to him on Facebook last night, he seemed David Carr-like in how many lives he touched. He was certainly Carr-like in his energy, fearlessness and kindness toward others.
You can read all about his career in this obituary by Don Hazen at AlterNet.
Schechter was, among many other things, perhaps the leading Western journalist in reporting on South Africa and Nelson Mandela. Which leads to another story about Danny.
A few years ago Danny and I were talking about “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid music video produced by Artists United Against Apartheid, founded by Steve Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker. Schechter was deeply involved in the making of “Sun City.” Everyone wanted Miles Davis to be included, but no one wanted to contact the notoriously difficult musician. Schechter agreed to do it, though not, he told me, without a considerable amount of trepidation. As it turned out, Miles agreed immediately — and Danny was hugely relieved. (That and other stories about “Sun City” are told in this Wikipedia article. And if you’ve never seen “Sun City,” stop what you’re doing and click here. Link now fixed.)
Back to Kazakhstan. It was because of Danny that I was invited to speak at the Eurasian Media Forum — he’d attended previous forums, and he recommended me to moderate one panel and participate in another. It was what you might call a semi-legitimate event, held, it seemed, to bolster the image of the president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who is in charge of the forum every year.
Some of the journalists who attended struck me as nauseatingly obsequious to their hosts, but not Danny. Taking his cheerful defiance as my inspiration, I left the hotel (something that was not encouraged by the organizers) to interview Adil Nurmakov, an editor for Global Voices Online and a member of the political opposition.
Danny was especially delighted at the outdoor party that ended the forum. As scantily clad young women danced to loud, vaguely Kazakh-sounding music, Danny yelled in my ear, “This is a nominally Muslim country!” He kept repeating something one of the Kazakh attendees told him about the display of female flesh: “Ach! This is nothing!”
Danny’s father, Jerry, died just six years ago at the age of 90. Unlike Jerry Schechter, Danny was not granted the gift of longevity. But he packed a lot of living into his 72 years and touched many lives. Today my heart goes out to his family and friends, including his longtime business partner, Rory O’Connor.
Danny Schechter was a giant of journalism and of progressive politics, demonstrating that the two could be combined with passion and integrity. It’s hard to believe that he’s gone.
Unrest in western Kazakhstan has taken an ominous turn, as a video has emerged showing police shooting unarmed protesters. “The video was apparently taken by a witness from her apartment window and was posted on YouTube on December 20,” reports Radio Free Europe.
I’ve taken an interest in Kazakhstan, an important U.S. ally, since April 2009, when I attended the Eurasian Media Forum in the Central Asia nation’s largest city, Almaty.
The country, a former Soviet satellite, mixes authoritarianism with some elements of democracy. I interviewed critics of the government who seemed to have no fear of speaking (or writing) freely. Yet the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, though thought to be popular, rules with an iron hand, and was in the midst of a campaign to censor the Internet during my brief time in Almaty. You can find my blog posts about Kazakhstan here.
In November, the Peace Corps withdrew its 117 volunteers from Kazakhstan for reasons that were unclear. Though one of the reasons given was that the country had become too economically advanced to need the Peace Corps, there was also speculation — according to the Christian Science Monitor — that the move was related to attacks by Islamist terrorists. That’s an ominous development in a country with a reputation for being secular and Western in its aspirations.
The recent unrest is related to a strike by oil workers, which has been going on for some time but which has escalated recently, according to the BBC. Adil Nurmakov, Central Asia editor for the Harvard-affiliated blogging network Global Voices Online, wrote about the unrest on Dec. 19, offering what strikes me as a balanced approach between the government’s version of events and that of the protesters. (My video interview with Nurmakov is here.)
So I was struck by a post Nurmakov wrote on his Facebook page today. Nurmakov wrote in Russian, but according to Google Translator, he said:
This video has changed a great deal in my attitude to the events. Yes, by the time the meeting has ceased to be a rally, much has already been burned and looted the city, the situation became uncontrollable. However, in this video is not visible outside of police self-defense can not be seen as protecting the civilian population or any property. It is clear that the police used force disproportionately and arbitrarily and cruelly. And here it must be said directly — the state must recognize that the security forces crossed the line, then to not having sufficient grounds. The state should investigate all the facts of injury and homicide, identifying and publicizing their circumstances. The state must find the perpetrators of the facts of unjustified violence, and punish their police.
Kazakhstan is largely off the Western media’s agenda, but this is important. On the one hand, an Arab Spring-like awakening would be welcome. On the other, a descent into violence and radicalism would be a tragedy for the Kazakh people — and incredibly dangerous, given that Kazakhstan is a rare oasis of stability and prosperity in that region.
My old Boston Phoenix colleague Ellen Barry, now the stellar Russia correspondent for the New York Times, weighs in with a surprisingly by-the-numbers report on the weekend election in Kazakhstan. The country’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was re-elected with 95.5 percent of the vote, according to the government.
For some perspective, I read Adil Nurmakov’s recent analysis at Global Voices Online. Nurmakov, who is Global Voices’ Central Asia editor, wrote on March 4 that the election campaign was something of a farce, explaining that the opposition was boycotting the proceedings (which Barry also acknowledges) and adding:
The process of candidates nomination was perceived by many as a circus — and it really resembled a carousel of comic characters, including pensioners, some small businessmen and the person, notoriously known for his startling behavior. Interestingly, an overwhelming majority of those 18 nominees were publicly voicing their “utter support” of the current head of the state.
Above is a video interview I conducted with Nurmakov in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April 2009, when I was taking part in the Nazarbayev-sponsored Eurasian Media Forum.
Meanwhile, on Friday the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued an alert regarding the disappearance of Daniyar Moldashev, who is essentially the publisher of the Almaty-based opposition newspaper Respublika. Prior to his disappearance he was assaulted, according to CPJ.
“We are gravely concerned about the health and well-being of Daniyar Moldashev and call on Kazakh authorities to positively determine his whereabouts and ensure his safety,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement on the organization’s website.
Here is a Q&A I conducted with Respublika journalist Yevgeniya Plakhina last June. I met Plakhina at the Eurasian Media Forum, where she protested proposed restrictions on the Internet (those restrictions were later adopted). Several of her friends were arrested and released a short time later.
Because of its oil and gas reserves, Kazakhstan is an important country on the world scene. In reading Barry’s story, you can almost sense that she wrote parts of it with an arched eyebrow. I hope the Times will give her the time and space she needs to take a closer look at what’s really going on in Kazakhstan.
Monday night update: Barry already has a good follow-up. This story will bear watching.
The campaign for freedom of speech in Kazakhstan continues.
In April 2009 I met a remarkable young journalist, Yevgeniya Plakhina, during the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Using techniques generally associated with the West, such as flash-mobbing, she and her fellow free-speech activists protested restrictions on the Internet then being considered by the Kazakh parliament. Several were arrested, though they were quickly released. (I wrote about the activists for the Guardian and for Media Nation.)
In early April, Plakhina, now 25, came to Washington to participate in a forum organized by the Open Society Institute in order to talk about freedom of the press in Kazakhstan. She traveled with two colleagues: Vyacheslav Abramov, executive director of the MediaNet International Center for Journalism, and Anastassiya Knauss, who’s with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.
Plakhina works for the newspaper Golos Respubliki, which is Russian for “Voice of the Republic.” The paper is the successor to Respublika, where she was working when we met in Almaty. Respublika, she says, was closed following a court order to pay a $400,000 libel judgment to BTA Bank. According to Plakhina, the court found that the offending article caused a deposit outflow of more than $40 billion. “The trial was held with many violations of Kazakh law,” Plakhina says.
She adds that no one in Kazakhstan is willing to print Golos Respubliki because of its opposition to the government. The paper is printed using risograph technology, and is also published on the Web. It has a Facebook and Twitter presence as well. The paper also offers a free e-mail service.
What follows is a transcript of a recent interview I conducted with Plakhina by e-mail. She answered my questions in English; I have have edited her answers slightly for syntax.
Q: You recently visited Washington as part of your campaign against Kazakhstan’s increasingly restrictive laws on Internet use. Could you please explain the current situation in Kazakhstan and what you hoped to accomplish by coming to the United States?
The restrictive Internet law which our campaign, For Free Internet, fought against was signed in July of last year. This law equates all Internet resources, including chats and blogs, with mass media, and allows Kazakh authorities to block certain Web sources upon a court ruling. However, even having legal mechanisms to block the websites, Kazakh authorities do not bother to use them. They just block certain resources containing criticism of the government and President Nazarbayev without filing any lawsuits.
For about a year and a half, the popular blog platform LiveJournal has been blocked within the territory of Kazakhstan. For about half a year, Google’s Blogger.com was also unavailable (today, surprisingly, I opened it). These blogging platforms contain personal pages of opponents of President Nazarbayev. For example, on LiveJournal there is a page maintained by President Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who publishes mudslinging information about Kazakh officials and exposes corruption cases. Since the end of April the Respublika Web portal (a joint project of the Kazakh newspaper Golos Respubliki and Russian journalists) and the Golos Respubliki newspaper website are also unavailable. Kazakh authorities are blocking websites to filter important political information.
The law was promised to eliminate pornography and interethnic hatred in the virtual space. But none of this was done. Kazakh authorities created the Center for Computer Incidents, which is supposed to undertake the responsibility of implementing the restrictive law on the Internet. But still there are no visible results of the work of the center. I suppose the law on the Internet can be used in case of presidential or parliamentary elections or during mass demonstrations in Kazakhstan if they take place.
As for my visit to the United States, of course, we are trying to attract the attention of the international community to the violation of human-rights issues in Kazakhstan, especially in the light of Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE. Of course, we would like the United States to raise human-rights issues, including problems with freedom of speech, during meetings at all levels with Kazakh authorities. But at the same time we understand that the international community will not solve our problems. Only civil activity, the civil initiative of Kazakhstani citizens, can make a difference. That’s why our campaign, For Free Internet, continues our work. To fight with website blocking, our activists have filed more than 120 lawsuits against the Ministry of Information and Communication for its criminal failure to act while the right of Kazakhstani citizens to obtain and disseminate information is being violated.
Q: How has the Nazarbayev government reacted to your campaign? Have you or your colleagues been arrested? Are you afraid of being arrested?
A: Basically, there is no reaction from the president himself. The biggest attention we get is from the police and the prosecutor’s office, who regularly come to our flash mobs. Our activists were arrested, as you remember, for intending to organize a flash mob. At the end of April 2010,we organized a flash mob in front of the national Internet provider Kazakhtelecom. None of the seven activists was arrested, but two of our activists, Zhanna Baytelova and Irina Mednikova (co-founder of the campaign), were brought to court and accused of participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. Zhanna Baytelova has to pay a $200 fine. Irina Mednikova received only a warning. This is a method which authorities use to prevent people from participating in any civil activity.
We are not afraid of being arrested. We are not doing anything illegal.
Q: Has the political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan led to greater repression in Kazakhstan?
A: Of course. Law-enforcement bodies are trying to prevent any massive gathering of the regime opponents (for example, as happened on May 1). The lower and upper houses of the Kazakh parliament passed a bill that grants Nazarbayev the status of “Leader of the Nation” and exempts him from any liability in accordance with Kazakh law, including criminal liability. After the Kyrgyz events, Kazakh authorities first blocked the forum of Respublika, where Kazakh citizens shared their support with their neighbors. Then they blocked Respublika itself.
Q: Is the military relationship between Kazakhstan and the United States, recently solidified by Presidents Obama and Nazarbayev, popular or unpopular among the Kazakh people? Should the United States change its approach toward Kazakhstan? If so, how?
A: There are rumors that President Obama agreed to carry out the OSCE summit in Astana [the capital of Kazakhstan] in exchange for constructing the U.S. military base in Kazakhstan. But these are only rumors. Kazakh civil society wrote President Obama a letter asking him not to support the idea of holding the summit in Astana because human rights are violated in Kazakhstan.
Of course, the U.S. often criticizes the Kazakh government for violating human rights. After the Kyrgyz events there was lots of criticism of the United States for keeping its military base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and of the White House for ignoring human-rights violations in Kyrgyzstan. In future, this may be the case with Kazakhstan.
Q: What are your hopes for Kazakhstan? How would you like to see your country change over the next five to 10 years?
A: Fair elections, a fair judicial system, respect for freedom of speech. These are the principles we want our country to follow not only in five to 10 years but NOW. Unfortunately, we have little hope for that – especially taking into consideration the bill “On Leader of the Nation,” which president is about to sign. Kazakhstan is slowly turning into a monarchy. Our authorities should look at neighboring Kyrgyzstan and avoid their mistakes.