A newly established group of NGOs to promote civic control over Kazakhstan's burgeoning oil industry aimed at more transparency of the revenues the Kazakh government receives and how they are spent -- information closed even to members of parliament.
"Many NGOs that joined the Coalition [of NGOs] have long been talking about the need to ensure greater transparency about the revenues which the state receives from oil extraction. But we understood that it is simply impossible to be heard individually," Anton Artemyev, the Soros Foundation's coordinator for the Kazakhstan Revenue Watch programme, told from the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty.
"Those NGOs that we cooperate with have long been raising the issue of the transparency of the work of oil companies operating in [the western] Atyrau province, centre of the Kazakh oil industry," Malik Isabekov from Demos, an Atyrau-based rights NGO, told.
Their comments followed a recent announcement of the establishment of a new civic union -- theCoalition of NGOs "Oil Revenues -- Under the Control of Society" in Almaty. More than 10 civic groups, including the Soros Foundation Kazakhstan and Demos, joined the Coalition.
The Coalition said that Kazakh society should have a chance to participate in the revenue distribution process -- vital to the country's further development -- via its elected representatives. However, contract terms that the government signed with extractive companies are even closed to members of the Kazakh parliament.
According to NGOs on the ground, international oil companies operating in western Kazakhstan denied access to environmental protection and human rights related information.
"They always cite an agreement with the government, saying that this information is not open. We don't talk about economic, financial or tax aspects, we request information that the whole population is interested in. But we can't get any answers from them," Isabekov maintained.
Sergey Zlotnikov, executive director of Transparency Kazakhstan (TK), a local anti-corruption group, told from Almaty earlier that contracts between the government and oil companies lacked transparency, noting that corruption in the country's lucrative oil and gas industry was rampant.
"There is high corruption in the oil industry. For example, the former Finance Minister Zeynulla Kakimzhanov said a year ago that 80 % of oil companies operating in Kazakhstan are [registered as] working in offshore zones," he said.
The main goal of the new coalition is the country's adoption of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI).
"We have one goal: that Kazakhstan signs on to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative; and on the other hand, implementation of those obligations that the country will take upon itself," Artemyev said.
EITI was announced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002, and is aimed at increasing transparency over payments by companies to governments and government-linked entities, as well as transparency over revenues received by host country governments.
According to the British Department for International Development (DFID), revenues from oil, gas and mining companies should be an important engine for economic growth and social development in transition countries. However, the lack of accountability and transparency in these revenues can exacerbate poor governance and lead to corruption, conflict and poverty.
But the Coalition won't be satisfied merely by official recognition of the EITI.
"We want some real steps taken and this initiative envisages a concrete plan of actions after signing [EITI]," Artemyev stressed.
The main way of ensuring that, according to the Coalition, is an information campaign focused on raising Kazakh society's awareness and its involvement in activities related to adopting this initiative.
"Now we have an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the Coalition and refer to prominent international bodies. We have here some British companies that we will approach saying: Your government is promoting such initiatives and apparently you will support them. If they indeed do, we will go to other multinational companies and tell them to join this initiative as well. So, the idea is to create a precedent," Isabekov maintained.
"This is a pretty significant step, which shows that civil society here in Kazakhstan has achieved a level when we can influence some decisions and decision making processes. NGOs in Kazakhstan are now a powerful enough force, which they [the authorities] should take into account. This Coalition once more demonstrates that we actually have achieved that level when we can act as equals, as partners," Artemyev stressed.
But working with the government won't be easy.
"Unfortunately, members of the government are taking part in our activities very reluctantly," he added.
Meanwhile, Isabekov said that although in the beginning government bodies were preventing them from workingand didn't reply to their appeals and requests, there was now a trend by the government to turn towards civil society.
"We started to feel some support from the authorities recently. Furthermore, the authorities often use us to approach these oil companies... They use us as an non-affiliated, independent go-getting force. We have some kind of an alliance," he explained. "If we are proactive then we can build it [relations with the government] step by step. It won't be easy, but I am very optimistic," Artemyev said.