As protests set Kazakhstan ablaze, U.S. should be careful of getting burned

Ken Blackwell is Senior Fellow for Human Rights and Constitutional Governance at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Times on January 10, 2022.

President Biden’s administration and Congress should be wary of warming up to Kazakhstan, a country ablaze right now with mass protests and unprecedented chaos. We just might get burned.

Since Mr. Biden took office, the U.S. has taken an accommodating approach to Kazakhstan despite its obvious governance problems, including the excessive wealth of some members of its elite that has fueled popular anger.

In the same week, the administration released the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption and hosted the Summit for Democracy. Biden officials met with members of Kazakhstan’s government in downtown D.C. Congress even introduced a bill to grant permanent normal trade relations status to Kazakhstan.

Does awarding a special relationship to a country facing continuous allegations of corruption, suppression of free speech and denial of religious freedom align with the American values we hold here at home?

Despite Kazakhstan’s PR efforts, it’s undeniable that these troubling themes are still prevalent. In fact, we are watching them unfold in real-time. A nationwide internet blackout was induced by the increasingly unstable government’s response to protestors enraged by sky-rocketing fuel prices in a country where oil is one of the primary exports.

But free speech hasn’t ever really been safe in this country. On Dec. 16, Kazakhstan’s 30th anniversary of independence, peaceful protests were shut down, and activists were subject to administrative arrest.

According to the latest Human Rights Watch report, “Government critics faced harassment and prosecution, and free speech was suppressed, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Organizations like Amnesty International and Freedom House have also reported that Kazakhstan has used COVID-19 as justification to crackdown on opposition and as grounds for other extreme restrictions, such as “enforced quarantines.” In one instance, an activist was arrested for criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. In another case, criminal charges were brought against a doctor for reporting confirmed cases through social media. Unfortunately, these are just a few examples of the routine restrictions on free speech Kazakhstan continues to employ.

Moreover, religious groups are still unfairly persecuted in Kazakhstan. According to an analysis done by the University of Notre Dame, “Leaders of Kazakhstan consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government.”

Jehovah’s Witness communities in Kazakhstan have been ordered to pay compensation of over three years’ average wages to complainants alleging that their mental health suffered after reading Jehovah’s Witness texts. Open Doors USA has added Kazakhstan to its report of the top 50 countries where it was most difficult to follow Jesus in 2021.

Further, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report in 2020, “The government keeps a database of ‘founding members’ of religious organizations in the country; some on the list complain of persecution with late-night visits, mandatory trips to the Religious Affairs Department, and pressure to remove their signatures from registration applications.”

It’s no wonder the USCIRF recommended that the U.S. State Department add Kazakhstan to its “special watch list” in 2021.

And if that’s not troublesome enough, the U.S. State Department has previously reported significant corruption issues in Kazakhstan affecting American businesses, stating that “Kazakhstan has made some progress in creating a favorable investment climate, although serious problems remain, including corruption and arbitrary enforcement of laws and contracts.”

The concerns are clear as day, so why don’t our leaders in the administration and Congress seem to share them? The United States should seek allies in Central Asia — but not at any price. Our country is already entangled with enough bad actors abroad; playing nice with Kazakhstan is like playing with fire.