On the Predictability of the Result

On May 21, 2020, well-known human rights advocate and Director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR) Evgeny Zhovtis launched yet another Facebook post about the infamous new Kazakh law on peaceful assemblies.

Let us give you several quotes from this post. 

«The „saga“ in the form of the law on peaceful assemblies is coming to an end.

The only thing left is the President’s signature — and that would be it!

I am already sick and tired of commenting on all of this using my professional expert knowledge. Citing the international law, the international standards, the international obligations of our state. Citing the foreign practices, popularising the conclusions of the leading international experts — the UN special reporter, a professor of constitutional rights, a former member of the UN Human Rights Committee and Venetian Committee, the commissar of the International Commission of Jurists that spoke on behalf of the world’s leading legal associations — the International Commission of Jurists and the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association that have been commenting on all of this in practically the same way as myself. Not to mention citing the pleas of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the letter of the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Nothing helped and the press is even stating (and at the high level, at that) that Kazakhstan has, virtually for the first time in history, legally allowed freedom of assembly and now we have a cardinally new law on peaceful assemblies that is in sync with the international standards and that we are basically leapfrogging towards the new democratic forms of declaration of the citizens’ will.

Let me ask those making these statements an academic question: are you being serious? Do you really think that or are you pretending because of certain political reasons? If you are, then at least it makes it clear why this is the only way our authoritarian political system can operate. But if you actually believe it, then the things look really blue since this means that this is the way the „upstairs“ understands the law, be it the old or the new one». 

Upon reading these passages, the people who know Mr. Zhovtis personally immediately see how Evgeny Alexandrovich lifts his hands in dismay in sincere (!) amazement that, despite the detailed and meticulous commentaries and explanations, the authorities are doing something dumb yet again. All that is left to do is express our admiration of the determination and perseverance on the part of the KIBHR Director in his numerous attempts to influence the officials.

Not lessening the services of those who are trying to change the situation inside the country, let us present a pessimistic commentary on the issue. Not our own but the one de-facto borrowed from Russia’s Lenta.ru recent publication titled «The Result Was Predictable».

In the article devoted to Russian «tsar-liberator» Alexander the Second, historian Igor Khristoforov, Ph.D., a professor of Higher School of Economics, a senior research associate at Princeton University, when answering the questions of journalist Andrew Mozzhukhin, gave his own assessment of the reforms conducted by the authorities during that period.

We will quote these assessments omitting the sentences or parts of the sentences containing the information on who is being assessed.

«However, one must understand that the division between reforms and reaction was rather nominal at the time. That same (…), during the first years of his reign, sincerely wished to conduct (…) massive-scale reforms. Of course, we are only talking about the bureaucratic means of reforming society — from the above, without the participation of the society itself. Obviously, (…) used to categorically object to the theory of social contract that was the norm in Europe back then and thought it to be an absolute nonsense. Even though, generally speaking, (…) had shared this opinion, he belonged to a different generation and was more open to a dialogue with society — the concept that, back then, included a rather narrow part of the educated elite».

«A sober and pragmatic understanding of the fact that (…) cannot retain the status of a great power without profound changes in the economy and the system of governance had made (…) switch to the reformatory mode. The (…) system had exhausted its potential completely and, by the time (…) accented to power, was hated and unequivocally disfavoured by everyone.»

«The ruling elite got seriously concerned about (…) turning into a „sick man of Europe“ (the way Nicolas the First used to call the once powerful Ottoman Empire) — a country that is backwards and peripheral in its development. Thus, from the keeper of his father’s legacy, (…) had inadvertently turned into a reformer. Having said that, in many respects, he had rather continued the policy of the „never to be forgotten parent“, so the changes were more profound on the level of the rhetoric and the means of representing the power than they were in reality».

«Yuri Lotman, had once described the Russian reforms as a force of renaming when every subsequent ruler would declaratively destroy the legacy of their predecessor. Of course, changing names is much easier than changing institutions and practices and any profound changes are followed by a reaction. Nonetheless, we are unlikely to find this kind of monotone swing motion from reforms to counter-reforms and back, with the preservation of all the basic social structures, in the other European countries during the modern age».

«And this, too, is correct. The ruling bureaucracy was the conductor and the instrument of the Great Reforms while being their object as well. The power was reforming itself at the time when the country simply did not have the forces on par with the bureaucracy. So the bureaucracy had, just like Baron Munchausen, to pull itself out of a swamp by the hair. The result was predictable.

The liberal bureaucracy that conducted the Great Reforms of (…), had appeared and been formed during the time of (…). It consisted of relatively young people of 35-45 years of age united by a single action plan but without a clear understanding of how and with what result these reforms should end. The reforms were conducted by the method of trial and error. The scope of the reforms was eventually determined by one person, his weaknesses, fears and follies which, too, did not help the meaningfulness of the process and made the chaotic construction of the Great Reforms very unsteady».

«Of course, when (…) was creating the institutes for educating the competent and educated personnel, he had no intention of growing liberals, he wouldn’t even dream of such a thing. (…) needed the obedient agents that would put his will in practice. Today we would call them efficient technocrats. These were the people grown within (…) the power machine but thinking within another axes of coordinates». 

«First, they had received the European education that, in its essence, was a progressivist one and based on the philosophy of the Enlightenment. No other kind existed at the time. The type of the Enlightenment that was practiced in Europe in the middle of the (…) century put a special stress on the idea of free market and a fast economic growth as the basis of political legitimacy. However, they soon learned that the freeing of the economy was impossible without political liberalisation. This realisation was the common knowledge during the last years of (…) reign although no one spoke about it out loud of course. Nonetheless, officials were deeply embedded in the European intellectual developments, were perfectly aware of the ideas of the European liberals and even socialists. This can clearly be seen from the notorious case of (…) — the young people paid a heavy price for, essentially, reading European books.»                                                                                                                

In our opinion, the quoted passages can, with no alterations, be applied to modern Kazakhstan and the attempts of Akorda (with the silent approval or nonresistance of the Library) to make some changes in the country.                                            

Therefore, the belief that the Kazakh authoritarian political system and the «super-presidential» vertical can be modernised and reformed from the above are, at the very least, naïve and, practically speaking, present a principal political error.

Of course, in the case of Evgeny Zhovtis and his fight (together with other human rights advocates and civil activists) for a good law on freedom of assembly, it will not result in human losses and unnecessary wastage but only convince the Kazakhs that the current reforms will not help and the system itself should be changed.

We would like to end the citing of the Lenta.ru publication with the following prediction.

«At the beginning of (…) years, the (…) society started to become disappointed in the reforms. What is now called „resentiment“ was evident. The relative economic freedom, the individual elements of social independence such as the zemstvo and the trial jury together with the other transitional results of the Great Reforms had created a principally new reality that many perceived as something to be taken for granted. One gets used to freedom fast. Under these circumstances, it became popular to criticise the „chaotic“ (…)».

«The conservative nationalists in power had consolidated around the sympathetic (…). In the beginning, however, their position in the government was rather marginal; after the assassination attempt on (…), it was other people that were calling the shots — the cosmopolitan aristocrats such as the gendarmes of (…). Only after having received a powerful support of the nationalists from the social environment, the court nationalists had managed to form a kind of intra-governmental party by the start of the (…)».

«One does not surrender absolute power voluntarily. Apart from that, (…) knew of the numerous examples of how such concessions ended with a loss of control or with a collapse of an entire old regime. That’s the way it happened with Louis the Eighteenth during the French Revolution. Once he gave the country a constitution, it was extremely difficult to take it back».


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