The Republic of Kazakhstan, with a population of approximately 15.3 million, has a parliamentary system dominated by President Nazarbayev's Nur Otan Party. Nur Otan received 88 percent of the vote in the August 2007 national elections for the lower house of parliament, winning every seat in the chamber. Local and international observers noted improvements in some areas but concluded that the elections fell short of a number of international standards, particularly with respect to the legislative framework and the integrity of the vote counting and tabulation process. The constitution concentrates power in the presidency, permitting the president to control regional and local governments and to exercise significant influence over the legislature and judiciary. Democratic political institutions, civil society, and independent media remained underdeveloped. Severe limits on citizens' right to change their government; lack of an independent judiciary; restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association; and pervasive corruption were the most severe political and human rights problems facing the country.
The fundamental strategic aim of the U.S. government is a stable, secure, democratic, and prosperous Kazakhstan that maintains freedom of action on the international stage, embraces free market competition and the rule of law, and is a respected regional leader. In the context of these strategic interests, the U.S. government's first priority is supporting the development of democratic systems and practices in the country. The U.S. government regularly encourages the government to take concrete steps toward reform and actively promotes these goals through public and private advocacy, targeted assistance and programming efforts, and coordination with NGOs and civil society actors.
Specific priorities include supporting legislative changes to bring the country's laws into compliance with international standards. The U.S. government will continue to advocate for and assist the implementation of the public commitments the government made to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in November 2007 as part of its campaign for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010. These include reforming the election law and media law by the end of 2008 to reflect OSCE recommendations, liberalizing political party registration requirements, reducing criminal liability for defamation in the media, and preserving the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and its existing mandate. The U.S. government will also continue its focus on supporting civil society and political pluralism; developing a professional and independent media; encouraging judicial reform; enhancing accountability, transparency, and rule of law; protecting freedom of religion; and supporting the government's fight against trafficking in persons.
The U.S. government is devoting considerable attention to encouraging and monitoring the country's progress in fulfilling its OSCE commitments, including both public and private bilateral engagement at the highest levels. U.S. implementing partners are providing expertise and working-level assistance to various ministries in order to advance the legislative reform process. The U.S. government supported a domestic election monitoring coalition to train and field 1,900 short-term observers for the August 2007 parliamentary elections, which then issued a series of recommendations and continues to advocate for improvements in the electoral process. In 2007 the U.S. government sponsored a number of events on the various draft media laws under consideration by the government and facilitated engagement between the government and media organizations to develop legislation in line with OSCE standards. These efforts will continue in 2008. U.S. partners also submitted draft laws to improve access to information and freedom of assembly to the parliament for discussion and will continue to advocate for these laws as parliament considers them in 2008.
In addition, U.S. implementing partners are consulting with the Ministry of Justice and other government entities as they prepare laws on access to justice, combating torture, and improvements to the criminal code. In January 2008, following a long advocacy campaign by the U.S. government and implementing partners, the government ratified Articles 21 and 22 of the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. government and implementing partners will continue to provide technical assistance and encourage the government to take additional steps to bring its laws and procedures into compliance with other international conventions, such as the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and will monitor the government's compliance.
The U.S. government is also heavily engaged in developing civil society and promoting political pluralism. A U.S. partner, with government support and involvement, is pioneering a nation-wide civil society dialogue initiative designed to bring government, civil society, business, and media leaders together to address key policy issues such as decentralization of power and promoting the rule of law. The dialogue initiative also includes grants to local NGOs to support grassroots advocacy campaigns related to the policy issues under discussion. A variety of U.S. government programs are also focused on second-generation civil society development issues, such as providing effective financial incentives for private sector contributions to NGOs and developing advanced skills among NGOs as they become more active partners with the government on policy reform, service delivery, and technical analyses. The U.S. government continues to support two political/civil society discussion clubs in Astana and Almaty, and a U.S. government partner is maintaining democracy information centers in four cities in the country. U.S. partners are attempting to resume engagement with political parties in 2008, including assistance with internal party democracy, rules and procedures, party outreach, communication strategies, policy development, ethics, and coalition building.
The U.S. government is directly supporting independent media through the launch of a regional satellite television broadcasting program to increase access to objective, regionally-oriented information. Broadcasts are in the country's five major languages, as well as in Russian. Eight local television stations are rebroadcasting programming from the satellite, reaching a potential audience of 2.8 million viewers; an additional 1.1 million households have satellite dishes oriented toward the signal. In 2008 the U.S. government will focus on documenting the reach and impact of the satellite program and will continue to support the country's television stations in producing local information programs. The U.S. government will also provide substantial organizational and financial support for the launch of an independent journalism school in Almaty in the fall of 2008, in partnership with a local university. Modeled on professional journalism programs in the United States, the school will provide intensive, year-long journalism instruction from leading worldwide practitioners. In addition, U.S. government partners continue to provide professional, legal, and technical support for media outlets, journalists, and media-related organizations on a variety of issues, including libel, advertising, language requirement, and licensing.
The U.S. government continues to encourage judicial transparency and accountability by working with the national judges association to prepare a plan for revision of the judicial code of ethics and by expanding the association's judicial mentoring program to support newly appointed judges. In addition, the U.S. government is partnering with the country's Supreme Court to expand a successful court-recording project that utilizes a video and audio recording system for court proceedings. The system received significant support from all users, including judges and citizens, and surveys revealed increased confidence in judicial outcomes among judges and defendants. U.S. government partners continue to provide training and materials to judicial personnel, and in 2008 the U.S. government will sponsor an exchange program for judicial officials on rule of law and judicial ethics issues.
The U.S. government promotes fundamental human rights and democratic governance through a variety of bilateral efforts and targeted exchange and grant programs. The U.S. government brought local political activists and human rights advocates to the United States in 2008 for extensive programs on elections, religious diversity, and human rights advocacy and will continue to conduct similar programs. Members of parliament also participated in a legislative exchange program in the United States, focusing primarily on issues of accountable governance and decentralization of power. The U.S. government and its implementing partners were instrumental in developing new legislation to combat trafficking in persons, and the U.S. government is providing ongoing support for an antitrafficking training center, training programs for law enforcement and judicial officials, and victim assistance programs. Through an ongoing small grants program, the U.S. government continues to fund a variety of local civil society projects throughout the country, including projects to protect children's rights, prevent violence and discrimination against women, train and develop NGOs, monitor human rights observance by local police, and conduct seminars on religious extremism and tolerance.