MEP tells NGOs in Astana to be careful who they receive money from

Iveta Grigule-Pēterse on 16 May 2018 [Georgi Gotev]

Back from the Kazakhstan-EU Parliamentary Cooperation Committee held in Astana on 14 May, Latvian MEP Iveta Grigule-Pēterse debriefed of the event, with some telling messages about the work of certain NGOs.

Iveta Grigule-Pēterse (ALDE, Latvia) is the chair of the delegation to the EU-Kazakhstan, EU-Kyrgyzstan, EU-Uzbekistan and EU-Tajikistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committees and for relations with Turkmenistan and Mongolia.

She spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

We are meeting at a very tense international time, when we have the US President Donald Trump basically changing the EU agenda. How do you see the global picture?

Maybe I will not be diplomatic. I think the EU has been looking at America like a god for too long, and we tried for too long to be America’s nice, youngest brothers and to do whatever they asked and agree with them whatever they proposed. We supported them during big conflicts in the Middle East but I think it was a wrong decision. But now, with this new president who isn’t always diplomatic and correct in relations between EU and America or the world, we are a little bit confused.

We’ve always helped them so why are they acting like that? It is a good lesson for the EU and politicians to think for themselves now, not to look up to “big brother”. In America, they are only human beings like us and they can be wrong. They are protecting their own interests first and then thinking of others. I’m not surprised in the way Trump is acting: that is his nature, he is quite tough, and he built a business and an empire. Now he is doing the same in America as a political leader. It is a cold shower for our politicians but we deserve it.

How about the EU: does the heavy international agenda imposed by Trump prevent us from concentrating on other issues, such as the relations with our neighbours, not only the EU enlargement but also relations with countries in the neighbourhood and in Central Asia?

Of course, it takes more time to resolve our relations with America at this moment. It takes more time for EU leaders to resolve all those disputes and misunderstandings following  those new steps the American government has taken. In a way, it takes some part of attention always from Ukraine, Caucasus, Central Asia, the Eastern partnership countries, but life is life and nothing will stop our relations with those countries. They are still good. Those last couple of years, the relation with Central Asia has been improving. Federica Mogherini shows great interest in it. She visited three times: in 2015 in Astana, she signed the new agreement between the EU and Kazakhstan [the “Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement” between Kazakhstan and the EU (EPCA)]. She was also there for the Tashkent summit last autumn and recently she was in Azerbaijan again.

She stressed the fact that it is important to maintain good relations with Central Asia because they are the neighbours of our neighbours. Geographically, it is located in a very complicated area. There is a lot at stake from how they will succeed in the fight against radicalization, terrorism and drug trafficking.

Maybe the EU is becoming more active because there is another global player extremely active in this part of the world: China is building the ‘Belt and road’ initiative.

In that region, there’s not only one big player, not just China, there is also Russia. America is also more or less visible in this region, but it’s a solid and visible partner. But I don’t think so. We should be involved in good relations with Central Asia not because other countries are trying to be big players but in our own interest. And we will benefit from this ‘One belt one road’ project: it will be a great possibility to connect China and Europe by road. Despite that, we are developing many other projects between the EU and Central Asia countries, with accents on social and agriculture questions, rule of law and human rights. China will not do that kind of projects, we can forget about that. They are interested in money and investment and getting money back.

And also in having more influence.

Sure, but these countries are trying to realise balanced foreign policies, they are working with China, Russia, the EU, Turkey and other great powers in the region and a little bit further.

You’ve recently returned from Astana where you attended the Kazakhstan-European Union Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. What’s the news from there?

We discussed many topics: economy, corporations, human rights, ecology. I found that in one year time, our counterparts in Kazakhstan made many efforts to improve legislation concerning the economy, with business environment, investments, but also the rule of law. It is a bit more complicated concerning human rights: on one side, human rights organisations complain that freedom of speech and media freedom is shrinking, and on the other side, there are new initiatives to organise different consulting bodies involving society representatives.

But it is always like that in those countries. The truth is somewhere in the middle. As human beings, we always complain, like in the EU, like in my country, where we can find NGOs who complain about attitudes from the government. That’s what I saw in Kazakhstan during my last visit: human rights organisations are really doing some hard work in helping people and trying to knock at government’s and parliament’s door, discuss and try to improve legislation, and attitudes from administrations and rulers.

But one might think that there are some, let’s say, NGOs with flag of human rights and society defenders, but in reality they are protecting the financial and political interests of oligarchs, like one who had to run away from Kazakhstan, who lives in European countries and has those countries’ citizenship, and who manipulates small parts of society in the country because of his political and financial interests.

So this gentleman, I think he is former chairman of BTA bank, basically pays people to act like NGOs, so that he isn’t seen as a criminal but as a person whose human rights have been denied?

It’s very popular and very trendy to take this flag of human rights because it’s one of the EU’s values, but in reality, it could be completely the opposite. And such NGOs – we had very tough discussions about it – such NGOs are causing harm to the others and they reduce the level of trust for all NGOs. To NGOs in Astana, I said: we support you, but please be careful with those persons from whom you receive money, offers, contracts, because reputation is very important; the reputation of certain people who stole money or whatever, and are outside the country, this can reflect on you. Actually, they have disputes among themselves: NGOs have different opinions and they try to push out the not-human-rights organisations, and they try to clean their environment, which is good.

Let’s return to the reforms in Kazakhstan, they call them modernisation. Do you think this is something the EU should support?

Definitely. Countries realise that only with money and investment and economic growth it is possible to build a strong and reliable country in the future, so they really start to push on modernisation and new technologies. They are trying to find new technologies and new ideas to turn this political leadership, to be more interesting for Western investors and companies and here they are looking for new technologies.

Also, they will avoid the influence of China so the EU influence will increase. They look at the EU as a very reliable and pleasant partner, because with us it’s easy to work together. We have a very open agenda without any hidden questions under the table. If you accept that, it’s not a problem, they can work together. If you don’t accept, okay. They look at us really with big respect and they want to work with us. One small technical problem: Kazakhstan is so far away.

What language do you speak with them?

Russian.

And this helps of course? You have been part of the same country [the USSR]. Do they trust you more?

Sure. I can confirm that when we were together in the Soviet empire, we understood Kazakh people and the Soviet republic and we always look at them with big understanding. I have known Kazakhstan’s culture for a long time and the language, of course, it helps. The new generation of Kazakhs is very skilled: they speak English, French, Russian, though less than my generation. And during the Soviet Union times, the Baltics was like the West for the Central Asia region.

We have a relation of respect and understanding between Baltic and Central Asia regions. I think the EU institutions understand that very well, because the EU ambassador in Uzbekistan is a Latvian diplomat, and there are many Latvian diplomats who work in European missions as political consultants. And concerning our delegation these four years, we really did big steps to improve relations and build trust between the parliaments of the region and the European Parliament.

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