The conflicting policy of the European Parliament in Kazakhstan

Of all the countries in Central Asia, the European Parliament and the European Union have their deepest and most established relations with Kazakhstan. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan and the EU came closer through framework agreements that culminated in the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA).

Kazakhstan is one of only two countries in the region to have concluded such an agreement. The relationship deepened in 2019 when the EU formally adopted an updated strategy for Central Asia which recognized Kazakhstan’s leading role within the Union. The European Parliament endorsed this strategy.

Yet a curious separation between Jekyll and Hyde seems to characterize the European Parliament’s approach to Kazakhstan. On the one hand, the leadership of the European Parliament is generally supportive of the country and has been encouraged by the new reforms carried out by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the country’s president. For example, a few months ago MP Andris Ameriks met with Tokayev in Kazakhstan and called his political reforms a “serious step towards democracy”. Another example of this supportive action occurred at the end of August when Christian Sagartz, Vice-Chair of the EP Human Rights Sub-Committee, visited the country with a delegation and called Kazakhstan a key partner.

On the other hand, a number of parliamentarians continuously sponsor and vote in favor of resolutions directed against Kazakhstan and its leaders, ignoring the fact that Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s problematic former president, has been absent for more than two years. This list of cynics includes Róża Thun and Petras Auštrevičius of the Renew Party, Green Party members Viola von Cramon and Heidi Hautala, Anna Fotyga of the ECR Party and Fabio Castaldo of the M5S Party.

Róża Thun’s case is particularly notable in that she does not sit on any committee that implicates her in Kazakh affairs, but has nevertheless been the most active voice against the country, presenting motions for resolutions to condemn the situation of human rights in Kazakhstan. The problem is that some of these resolutions seem to lack both perspective and objectivity. A recent resolution was rushed through before the usual practice of calling a parliamentary debate.

While Kazakhstan’s importance is recognized by both the European Parliament and the European Union and receives praise from many parliamentarians, it has also been subject to censure by negative European Parliament resolutions every two years for the past twelve year. Indeed, it has received more rebuke than any other country in Central Asia, including those that still openly maintain authoritarian regimes.

This paradox raises the question of why a group of parliamentarians are breaking away from their leadership when it comes to Kazakhstan, especially at a time when Europe’s energy woes should encourage more positive overtures to Central Asia. And why they disproportionately amplify grievances about a particular Central Asian republic and largely ignore other countries.

These parliamentarians rightly complained about the way some of the protesters were treated during the January unrest. They should, however, balance this with their recognition of Tokayev’s good faith gestures and Kazakhstan’s attempts to uphold justice and fairness, such as commuting the sentence for protesters who have committed no serious crimes.

Just a few weeks ago, Tokayev announced a one-time amnesty for participants in the January events, except for “the main people involved in organizing the riots, as well as those accused of state treason and attempt at a violent change of power”. None of the parliamentarians who have criticized Kazakhstan’s human rights record have commented on this. Nor did any of them point out that the Commissioner for Human Rights of Kazakhstan has requested the opinion of the Venice Commission on a draft constitutional law aimed at strengthening the role of the Commissioner. The draft Constitutional Law aims to clarify the competences of the office and to establish a mechanism for interaction with Parliament (and local representative bodies), all in accordance with international standards and best practices.

In the current global context, Kazakhstan has suffered economically from the maintenance of international sanctions and is at the same time looking for alternative ways to export its energy to the world market. In such realities, it becomes even more evident that a group of parliamentarians, whatever their motives, are methodically degrading EU relations with Kazakhstan.

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