The man behind the global Magnitsky sanctions campaign is calling on Canada and other Western governments to impose asset freezes and travel bans on Kazakhstan’s leaders over alleged human-rights abuses against protesters opposing the authoritarian government.
U.S.-born financier Bill Browder says it’s “high time” Western governments impose sanctions on top Kazakh officials, including President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his 81-year-old predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Demonstrations over rising fuel prices erupted on Jan. 2 and grew into wider protests against Kazakhstan’s leadership last week, prompting Mr. Tokayev to call on thousands of Russian-led troops to help quash the uprising. Mr. Tokayev authorized a shoot-to-kill order and 164 people were killed in the clashes; another 8,000 were detained by police.
Mr. Browder said the recent uprisings have shone a much-needed light on the human-rights situation in Kazakhstan and it’s time for Western governments to hold those responsible to account. He said no governments have yet issued Magnitsky-style sanctions against human-rights abusers in Kazakhstan.
“The top members of the regime should be put on the Magnitsky sanctions list for their gross violation of human rights and grand kleptocracy. This is what the Magnitsky Act was designed to punish,” said Mr. Browder, who resides in London.
“They’ve had a free ride up until now.”
Oil-rich Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia, bordering Russia, China and three other ex-Soviet republics. Although it is seen as less repressive than some of its neighbours, rights groups have long criticized Kazakhstan’s authoritarian political system, the government’s persecution of dissidents, attacks on media freedom, and the lack of fair and free elections.
Mr. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for most of the time since the country gained independence in 1991, with Mr. Tokayev replacing him as leader in 2019. However, Mr. Nazarbayev, who was given the official title “father of the nation,” has maintained a strong political influence as chairman of the country’s security council – a role he resigned from last week amid the protests. Mr. Nazarbayev has been a focus of the demonstrations, with protesters toppling a statue of the former leader and chanting “old man, go away!”
Russian troops were deployed to the country last Thursday after Mr. Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a made-in-Moscow group consisting of six former Soviet republics, to intervene and save his country from what he called a foreign-funded “terrorist threat.”
In a statement last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly called for “restraint and de-escalation” in Kazakhstan and urged that the situation be resolved through peaceful dialogue.
Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jason Kung said on Wednesday that Ottawa is deeply concerned about reports of human-rights abuses and urges the government of Kazakhstan to respect the right to a fair trial to all citizens. However, he did not say if Canada would impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on Kazakh leaders.
“Sanctions are one tool in the diplomatic tool kit, and are considered within a context of complementarity with other foreign-policy tools, such as multilateral action and diplomatic engagement. Canada is judicious in its approach about when it chooses to deploy sanctions and is committed to their effective and co-ordinated use when appropriate,” Mr. Kung said in a statement.
Parliament passed the Magnitsky Act in 2017 and swiftly proceeded to impose sanctions on 70 human-rights violators in the law’s first year of existence, including officials in Russia, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and South Sudan. It has not issued any new Magnitsky-style sanctions since November, 2018 – something to which Mr. Browder has actively called attention.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong echoed Mr. Browder’s sentiment.
“We believe the government should hold the perpetrators of these human-rights violations to account and it should use all of the tools available, including Magnitsky sanctions and the freezing of assets in Canada,” Mr. Chong said.
Thirty-four countries now have Magnitsky-style laws, inspired by the late Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death by Moscow prison staff in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft.
It’s unclear if any governments intend to target Kazakh officials with Magnitsky-style sanctions though. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State declined to say if the government would issue such sanctions against Kazakh officials, saying it does not “preview or prejudge sanctions decisions.”
Jeff Sahadeo, a Carleton University political-science professor and expert in Eastern European, Russian and Central Asian politics, said Magnitsky-style sanctions may appear as “grandstanding” to the Kazakh people because Western governments haven’t done much, aside from call for restraint, until now.
“If the sanctions did really strike at the heart of the inner circle and they [targeted officials] couldn’t travel … that might shake up a little bit of the picture in terms of the different interests groups within the Kazakhstan government,” he said.
Prof. Sahadeo said Western governments are probably not willing to spend “political capital” on Kazakhstan as tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the West grow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants NATO to withdraw troops and equipment from countries that border Russia, including Ukraine, and has amassed more than 100,000 troops as well as tanks and military equipment near Ukraine’s eastern border, raising concern about an invasion.
Kazakhstan’s geopolitical position is “tricky,” Prof. Sahadeo said. Kazakhstan is critical to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a state-sponsored foreign-investment strategy by Beijing, while Russia is likely monitoring the uprisings closely, concerned about a potential “spillover effect” that could spark similar protests challenging the Putin regime.
Although Mr. Tokayev said Tuesday that CSTO troops will leave the country within 10 days, Prof. Sahadeo said the Russian influence will linger and weaken the Kazakh President politically.
With reports from Reuters and The Associated Press
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.