Grassroots environmental and health-care movements in the regions are still a source of irritation for authorities. On the other hand, more and more NGOs are attracting overseas funds to finance various educational and environmental projects. The state can no longer overlook the increasing outside sway. In the months prior to the Civic Forum, local departments responsible for state ideology held round-table meeting with NGO activists urging them to cooperate with state bodies in their activities for the benefit of society. Authorities went out of their way offering NGOs office rooms complete with computers.
In addition, the state announced a contest among the NGOs to promote the best projects for economic development, education, grassroots initiatives in rural areas, fostering interethnic tolerance and patriotism among young people, and human rights activities. The selection committee included NGO leaders. Within a few days, 120 applications came in from various organizations, but only 20 participants appeared as winners. The state allotted from 400,000 to 1.5 million tenge to finance their social welfare projects.
The idea of partnership between the state and non-government organizations was accentuated at the Civic Forum. The somewhat belated attempt of state bodies to woo non-government organizations produced overwhelmingly positive responses at the forum. Given the insufficient funding which drives NGOs into a corner on the one hand, and the constant anxiety of state officials not to fall foul of western democratic institutions for neglecting civic movements, this tandem is hardly a surprise. With parliamentary and presidential elections in the offing, the ruling elite cannot afford to scoff at non-government organizations, more frequently referred to, in official parlance, as “the third sector’. The slogan of civic accord and the common goal of social welfare comes in very handy in affecting this policy of rapprochement. From now on, it was said at the forum, NGOs will get state orders to develop projects needed to promote the public welfare. Accordingly, NGOs will be granted state subsidies.
The price of this partnership is likely to be the alienation of NGOs from political processes to a considerable degree. But according to some observers, the alliance of the executive power and the “third sector” is precisely what is needed to bring back social cohesion and a sense of civic responsibility to the country. A short while ago, the daughter of the president, Dariga Nazarbayeva, set up a public organization called “Asar”. The name comes from a Kazakh tradition of mutual assistance in building homes, digging dikes, deeply rooted and preserved to this day in village communities. Inspired by the sense of solidarity, “Asar” activists have mobilized people for the implementation of important social welfare projects.
Addressing the Civic Forum, president Nursultan Nazarbayev said that state institutions will need the support of the civic society in reforming the political system, which includes granting more power to local governing bodies, adopting a liberal election law, introduction of a more humane legal system. “The possibility of step-by-step abolishment of capital punishment is being discussed in the country, but the public is not unanimous on this point. We cannot ignore the opinion of our people. At the same time, I am sure, we will abolish death penalty in future” he said.
Most speakers at the forum stressed the need to develop NGO networks in the countryside. Rural residents make up 40% of the population of Kazakhstan. This is an area where social welfare programs can be effectively put to the test. The same day, as the Civic Forum started, the UNDP in Almaty organized field trips for journalists to show how some non-government organizations, involved in UN-sponsored Habitat International program, successfully put housing projects into practice. The public associations “Baspana” (Shelter) and “Umit” (Hope) provide migrants from rural areas with cheap housing, supply residents with water and power, and open special schools for disabled children. If the NGOs in Kazakhstan seriously choose to switch to social projects, there are plenty of opportunities for them to gain public sympathy.