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Ghosts of transition

Evgeniy ZhovtisOn 14th January, the first meeting of a Working group on human dimension was held – one created on the initiative of Ministry of Foreign Affairs referring to “pressing human rights concerns” and the necessity to create a “ground for dialog for authority organs and the civil sector”. Invitations to participate in the meeting – having neither official legal status, nor even a Statute – were extended to representatives of government authorities, the Parliament, Kazakh and foreign human rights NGOs, the OSCE and the UN.

Foreign affairs minister Idrisov called upon the participants to have a constructive discussion and appealed for them to “listen and hear one another” as well as promising a taboo-free agenda. The non-governmental sector took significant interest in the initiative, and the words by E. Zhovtis on the importance of a transition from a clash of personalities to a competition of ideas were quoted by official government news agencies. We decided to take a first-hand opinion – what the idea of the ground for dialogue creation is actually backed by, and how serious the intentions of the authorities are – opinions relayed to us by Evgeniy Zhovtis.

Evgeniy Aleksandrovich, do tell us of this – what is it to be called? Organ? Institute?

Evgeniy Zhovtis: A strange structure.

–  Well, yes, a structure most strange indeed. What is it, what is the purpose of it and why is it no-one has heard of it?

– First of all, I wouldn’t say it is unheard of. A given section of NGOs dealing with public activities related to the execution of political rights and civil freedoms – they are well aware of its existence.

Let us start with the history. The structure was initially called a “working group for human dimension”, then it was given a new name – Consultation and advisory body at the Kazakhstan MFA “Ground for dialog for human dimension”. It was preceded by a similar structure in 2010, when Kazakhstan held its presidency in the OSCE – a consultation council, where attempts were made to discuss certain specific (along with less specific) issues.

Our authorities have at numerous times – at different levels and through various structures – tried to create mechanisms for any type of dialogue. Of course, it had no actual relation to a dialogue between two equal parties. Its main goal was either to “let off steam”, or to control civil initiatives, parties and NGOs, or it was their manifestation of civil policy understanding. Both the former Soviet and the present-day Kazakhstan authorities are fond of creating a “controlled state society”, as I have come to call it – one opposed to “civil”.

As our authorities hail in their majority from the former USSR, and the regime is quite obviously authoritarian, it becomes clear why they are so anxious not to let anything slip out of their control and where lies the origin of the drive to control the mindsets of the society, especially when these start manifesting themselves in the form of NGOs. Moreover, even in the early 1990s, the authorities came to the conclusion that freedom of citizen association is the process that ought to be controlled and regulated – which is a contradiction of international standards in and of itself.

– Licencing system, is it?

– Precisely so. This conceptual aspect is very rarely discussed in the press and by society, though it is one of the key factors. It is important to take resolve at the principal level: do we agree that human beings have, from the very first moment of their birth, the right to associate with others? To meet, to create formal or informal groups, split, divide, re-unite?

It is a fundamental set of rights and freedoms, which need not be regulated in order not to contradict the human nature itself. Here, regulation would be equal to limitation.

A simple example of the limitations of freedom of association is the mandatory registration of public organizations and treating all those existing without registration as illegal. It is a principal approach, which does not fit into the heads of our authorities. I need not ask governmental permission to assemble together with my friends, people of like mind, colleagues, and my decision to do so should be of no concern to the government. Registration in countries, well, of a civilized nature – is a purely technical procedure of being granted the status of a legal entity, nothing more. It has a purely financial aspect to it – should you have, say, plans to work with money and/or receive tax, you would then register as a non-commercial structure of social benefit. Benefit that would be, strictly speaking, defined not by the state, but the initiators themselves.

The very word used in the Russian language – “organization” – has quite different connotations than in English; it is a remnant of the Soviet past, denoting something formal, requiring a defined set of rules and regulations, i.e. registration , in order to be able to follow to what extent these rules are followed .

In this respect, I really (quote) enjoy it (unquote) when I hear the words: “we have to check how the NGOs are doing”. In such cases, I always ask myself: who is “we”, and why would people think they have the right to check on NGOs? These were citizens who founded a group of citizens – and why would the state need to check whatever it is that we are doing? As long as we do not take anything from them, we are none of their concern.

In our case it has all taken a very peculiar form. The state became used to viewing any civil initiative (even more so a structured one) as something that should be if not regarded as a direct threat, than subject to mandatory control; at the very least.

It is a typical Soviet approach – the state understands that control cannot be exerted over each and every single person, as no law enforcement organs would be capable of doing that; so, they come to the conclusion– to hell with them, these individuals, but three of them together, or even ten – well, that’s interesting. So they tell you that you cannot found a public association if there’s fewer than ten of you. And when asked “but why?” they remain silent. These are not yet walls, but legal fences that are raised – and you are not allowed to go beyond them.

But, apart from these limitations, even as early as the Soviet times various structures were created – “community councils”, “consultation” or “working groups”, wherein representatives of public organisations participated. These solve a number of issues for the authorities: first of all, they allow society to let off some steam, secondly, they gain the possibility to influence public opinion, and lastly, they show to the West that we have elements of democracy and that we are developing our civil society.

But developing civil society whilst having control over it, as the ultimate goal, is simply impossible. These two ideas are two polar opposites, being mutually exclusive. Civil society means horizontal ties and grassroots initiative. And our authorities are trying to create a state society – and all these attempts at civil alliances and state-civil tenders only come to show that everything here is resolved only and exclusively through authorities.

Or so it used to be until the early 2000s, when the “coloured revolutions” started do spread. These only convinced the authorities that control over the society needed to be tightened further; coupled with the xenophobic background and conspiracy theory thinking, these turned the NGOs into “foreign secret services”.

A few words on conspiracy theories and the civil rights activists. Yes; there are those organizations which are financed by sources independent of the state. From the authorities’ point of view, they do nothing but cry stinking fish, are unpatriotic, unfair and biased in their criticism of the government. The case is, however, that the first thing for the government to actually do is to read through their international human rights commitments they have vowed to uphold of their own free will.  All that the NGOs are doing is calling for observance of these commitments within the country and informing foreign partners of Kazakhstan of the extent to which these commitments are executed.

– But let us come back to the present initiative – what is the point of it?

– The unwillingness of the state to comply with the international standards in the area of human rights not only takes its toll on its political image, but also on its investment attractiveness – it is on the basis of the legal situation in the country, basing on the presence or absence of transparent and predictable rules of the game, that evaluations of economic risks are made. Obviously, the authorities are concerned about this; as this area of the MFA, then I think that the MFA, having consulted with the Presidential Administration, decided to try and transfer the discussion to Kazakh soil.

After the NKVD (National commission for democratic issues), PDS (Constantly active counsel) and others, it is the first ground for dialog of its kind, where sharp issues of domestic character are discussed, yet through a prism of international commitments.

I suppose there are a number of goals the authorities are trying to reach by creating such a structure. On the one hand, the organisation of discussions; as it is by all means right – one needs to discuss, show their arguments and listen to the other side. Usually we have had nothing of the sort, and during international conferences this dialog took on an acerbated form of monologues of entirely opposed directions, accompanied by pro-governmental NGOs.

Second of all, it is a certain reaction to international criticism and an attempt to “bleach” the image – it is not by accident that the present-day Ground for dialogue has seen the invitations extended to virtually all the critical potential of the NGOs, representatives of foreign human rights organisations and the diplomatic corps.

On the other hand, there may also be other, deeper motives. I do not suppose that even in the government, many would be happy with the present legal system and blindness to social issues. The opposition potential is growing both in the social “lows”, the middle class, and even  the bureaucracy, whereas the impending  change of ruling cabinet is looming  on the horizon. Hence, possibly, the desire for at least a tiny bridge to be seen closing the gap – being the result of anxiety.

There are two perspectives for the future of this transition. One of them is the preservation of the status quo and the system of personal guarantees, simply “replacing one with another”. The other, more pragmatic approach, provides for a modernisation from the point of view of civilisation development. And in order to understand what reforms are necessary, one needs to talk to those who share this approach on the level of values and are capable of giving specific recommendations. Basically, it is a search for those who share certain ideas for future political development.

The ground for dialog at the MFA might become part of the process. I am not deluding myself with too high expectations, but – let us wait and see its implementation in practice.

– And still, as you said previously, one of the goals of this type of structures is to maintain control over critical attitudes of the people. In this case, the idea came from the MFA – does that mean that the present structure’s level is lower than that of PDS or NKVD?

– No, I would rather say that the level is definitely higher from the point of view of representation of state organs – representatives of general prosecutor’s office and the MIA, ministries, both the chambers of Parliament (including their chairpersons). In the very beginning the format of the dialog ground was rather empty, but the MFA did not object either to my proposals to fill it with conceptual content, or to the proposed meeting agenda.

– What do you mean by “conceptual approach”?

– If we speak of the human dimension, then we need also speak of all its components – these including democracy, the rule of law and human rights as well. The problem of Kazakhstan is we have a deficit of principal understanding of the idea of human rights, which is relatively simple:

Human rights and freedoms are not subject to any regulation whatsoever. They are only secured, protected, developed and compensated for, should they be infringed. They are limited exclusively in exceptional cases, when a necessity arises to protect rights and freedoms of others.

We should come to a conclusion: should we accept the necessity to observe human rights, we ought to define what exactly it is that we understand them to be. We have to give a conceptual definition of which direction the country is headed.

Should we agree on the political level that we are building a free society with a free civil initiative, in which case the legislation which is binding in Kazakhstan – pertaining to NGOs, for example – should simply cease to exist?

Before we start amending the law, however, we need to understand why is it we want to do so, and what position to adopt in approaching it. It is pointless to discuss, say, a new act on the status of judges – as if we are to make the judiciary truly independent and impartial, the elite must shed its desire to make the judiciary part of the executive.

– What might the results of the Ground for dialog be – both for you personally and for society?

– My position is, any dialog is useful and it should be to a maximum extent made open and public. If they do not agree with our opinions, then God preserve us, but we will say what our fears are and we’ll listen to the authorities. Basically it is a small herald of some civil debates yet to come. And my personal role – the way I see it is to advocate a certain system of principles and values.

Pertaining to the results… I think right now certain intra-elite processes are underway in relation to the expected – sooner or later, but still – transition of power, that the present personal authority system will have to face. Is there is a chance that the shift in power will turn us in the direction of creation of competitive society with a more open political system? Most certainly so. The first thing the new authorities will have to tackle is the provision of normal political conditions for sustainable development. What should these reforms be based on?

If we opt for democratic development, then we shall require respective concepts, approaches, a number of fundamental points. Certain outlines of these can be heard in the frameworks of the present dialogue ground. There is no guarantee, but there is a chance.

– So you do believe that this working group is different from the others in the respect that somebody is sitting there and writing your recommendations down, analysing them and preparing for some transition?

– I would not go so far as to use such epoch-making expressions, but it is a possibility I cannot exclude. It is possible that it is part of the open process, and that the closed process within the elites is something constant. An important point is that a predictable opponent is always better than an unpredictable one. Open policy is good and right in the respect that people know one another, they know what to expect of one another, and the society knows what is to be expected of them all. And if you force critics into reservation, cutting off any channels of information exchange, then paranoid ideas of the other party start forming.

And again – we must never underestimate those found inside the system. Yes, it is since 1995 – for almost 20 years now – that they have established and defined preservation tactics and strategies for the current political system. But it is understandable that the system is reaching its logical  conclusion – again in the force of the fact that its Main Axis is reaching the end of its political career. And – what next?

I doubt they are not giving it a thought. Just look at their advisers – Blair, Kwaśniewski, Prodi. The authorities have not enrolled the Chinese or the Russians, but these folk. And it wasn’t only to polish their own political image, by no means. Some foundations are being opened, staff recruited for research, meetings held.

This is the issue of debate and choosing the route options. Apparently, answers are being looked for to the question: what route is the country going to take after “Hour Zero” strikes. This is what the more sober-minded parts of the elite have been preoccupied with. And within the frameworks of this route they will try and gain support. NGOs have no political weight on their own, but the elites cannot do without those who might become their objective ally. We are voicing a certain system of coordinates and the way we perceive it.

– And yet, are there any formal, tangible indicators of Ground for dialog effectiveness contemplated?

– Yes – it has been proposed that after each meeting recommendations will be developed to be directed to state authorities for evaluation and possible implementation. I do not believe that – our positions are far too different and it is clear that the initiative will be held by the government party exclusively. And it is by no accident that amongst the participants they included the pro-governmental NGOs and others, the task of whom would be to disavow whatever we say. Therefore, our main task is to hold our fundamental positions and not allow them to sidetrack the discussion into a chit-chat on particularities and the interpretation of these particularities. It has to be discussed – perspectives and goals of development, priorities and principles of reforms.

– What is the atmosphere of the meetings?

– My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, it is one of reverence – no personal insults, no contributions of the “and look who’s talking” style, no remarks of “but you don’t understand” or “we’re the ones who are right”. It looks like armed recon – fighting capacity assessment. On the other hand, the system is so vertical that none of the participants dare say anything on their own, not to mention any proposals. If “the other party” does not send the one who is allowed to speak, the best you get is some department heads. Understandably, the best they can do is simply submit their report, citing the official and ready-made official point of view, or at best enter some vague theoretical discussions.

– That is, participants not of the highest level…

– The level itself is not at all bad, and this is not the problem. Have you not noticed that virtually nobody now, regardless of their level, speaks for themselves? Only the top strata. The system of civil servants in Kazakhstan is virtually a military one, mercilessly vertical. This puts any dialog into question, but I understand that our messages are not aimed at the given discussion or the ones assembled at the Ground for dialog. They are there for the prospective use in the future, as tiny bricks with which to start building the new political reality.

– So you think the actual construction will only start once His political career comes to an end?

– It’s a complex question. There are some options: for example, the Leader of the Nation, having stepped aside, only takes a post one level higher. No, not a monarch’s one, but, on the one hand, as the leading savant visionary, on the other one, as the political backbone for the subsequent ruler, who will, quite possibly, define the modernisation-oriented agenda. The first president may support him, being the main political centre of gravity, whilst at the same time, ensuring his own interests are not being hurt in the process.

– In the very beginning I said nobody knows of the Ground for dialog. What I meant was not the NGOs being its members, but rather the general public. The mass-media do not take part in the meetings, there is no coverage even after the fact.

– They were not invited to the first meeting, as it had a strictly technical character. On 27th May the media were absent again, and some of the participants proposed that journalists should be invited to participate in the meetings, as the dialogue is supposed to be an open one.

– What is your opinion on the absence of the media coverage – as opposed to the widely advertised previous grounds for dialog; is it purposeful?

– I think they will start inviting the media anyway. Moreover, I didn’t sign any confidentiality clauses. I will write whatever I think, comment and give interviews, publish my presentations and keep principally explaining the system of value coordinates.

At the very basis there should be a respect for human dignity, upon which we build the idea of the priority of rights and freedoms. On the top of it, in its turn, the principles of individual freedoms and collective mutual respect are based. Upon that rules are made, within the frameworks of which the state acts – one formed by free people.