Kazakhstan

Not Free
23
100
PR Political Rights 5 40
CL Civil Liberties 18 60
Last Year's Score & Status
23 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

President Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019, when he stepped down, and still maintains significant influence over governance of the country. Parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair, and major parties exhibit continued political loyalty to the government. The authorities have consistently marginalized or imprisoned genuine opposition figures. The dominant media outlets are either in state hands or owned by government-friendly businessmen. Freedoms of speech and assembly remain restricted, and corruption is endemic.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • The government exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to further monitor the social media of critics of the regime. In January, Duman Aitzhanov, a doctor, had a criminal case initiated against him after sharing a video on WhatsApp that stated the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kazakhstan and the necessary measures needed to halt the spread of the disease. There were over 202,000 people who tested positive for the virus and over 2,700 people who died during the year, according to government statistics provided to the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • In February, violent clashes in villages near the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border occurred between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans. Eleven people were killed, close to 200 injured, and 20,000 people were reportedly displaced, having fled over the border to Kyrgyzstan.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

According to the constitution, the president, who holds most executive power, is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. However, former president Nazarbayev’s special status as Kazakhstan’s “first president” exempted him from term limits. In July 2018, Nazarbayev signed a decree making him chairman of the Security Council for life. The decree gave the Security Council significant constitutional powers, which could allow Nazarbayev to maintain power despite his resignation from the presidency in March 2019, after nearly 30 years in office. Senate chairman Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev was appointed acting president, and then won a five-year term in the June 2019 election with 71 percent of the vote. Amirzhan Kosanov of the Ult Tagdyry party won 16.2 percent and Daniya Yespayeva of Ak Zhol won 5.1 percent. Other candidates earned 7.7 percent of the vote.

The 2019 presidential election was not credible. President Tokayev benefited from the support of the ruling Nur Otan party, state media, and his predecessor, while none of his opponents were considered genuine competitors. Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted incidents of ballot box stuffing, the falsification of ballots, and the use of identical voter signatures on election day.

Despite his resignation, former president Nazarbayev still wields significant power in Kazakhstan. He remains leader of Nur Otan, and as the Security Council’s lifelong chair he is responsible for the appointment of ministers and key officials, with the exception of the foreign, interior, and defense portfolios.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The upper house of the bicameral Parliament is the 49-member Senate, with 34 members chosen by directly elected regional councils and 15 appointed by the president. The senators, who are officially nonpartisan, serve six-year terms, with half of the elected members up for reelection every three years. The lower house, the Mazhilis, has 107 deputies, with 98 elected by proportional representation on party slates and 9 appointed by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which ostensibly represents the country’s various ethnic groups. Members serve five-year terms.

Legislative elections do not meet democratic standards. Irregularities including ballot box stuffing, group and proxy voting, and manipulation of voter lists have been reported, and the ruling party benefits from a blurred distinction between it and the state. In the 2016 Mazhilis elections, Nur Otan took 84 of the 98 elected seats, winning 82.2 percent of the popular vote. Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party, which are both considered loyal to the government, each secured 7 seats, with 7.2 percent and 7.1 percent of the vote respectively. No genuine opposition party was able to win representation. New parliamentary elections were scheduled for January 2021.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

Kazakhstan’s legal framework is not sufficient to ensure free and fair elections, and safeguards that do exist are not properly enforced. Electoral laws make it difficult for opposition parties to obtain parliamentary representation. Parties must clear a 7 percent vote threshold to enter the Mazhilis, and are barred from forming electoral blocs, preventing them from pooling votes and campaign resources. Presidential candidates must also pass a Kazakh language test with unclear evaluation criteria. Moreover, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan is appointed by the president at his discretion, giving the executive branch influence over the nine Mazhilis members chosen by the assembly.

Election laws introduced in 2017 imposed further restrictions on who can become a presidential candidate, requiring at least five years of experience in public service or elected positions and the submission of medical records. The latter rule raised the possibility that candidates could be arbitrarily disqualified for health reasons. These legal changes also banned self-nomination of presidential candidates, effectively excluding independents and requiring a nomination from a registered party or public association. Changes to the electoral code in May 2020 established a quota system of 30 percent for women and young people under the age of 29 to be included in all parliamentary party lists and local representative bodies (maslikhats). Critics claim the quota system only pays lip-service to gender equality, as there is no requirement that parties should allocate their seats according to the quota.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

The 2002 Law on Political Parties was revised in 2020, reducing the number of members required to register a party with the Ministry of Justice from 40,000 to 20,000. Critics argue that the measure does not ease the onerous registration process, and officials have broad discretion to delay or deny party registration in practice. The law still prohibits parties based on ethnic origin, religion, or gender.

Opposition parties have been banned or marginalized through laws against extremism; their leaders have faced criminal charges, and their followers in Kazakhstan have had their activities restricted.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

Kazakhstan experienced its first peaceful transfer of power through an election in 2019, though it was neither free nor fair. Nazarbayev stood down as president that March, and acting president Tokayev won the election to replace him in June. Only one opposition candidate, Amirzhan Kosanov, earned over 10 percent of the vote.

Opposition parties are similarly locked out of gaining power or influence through legislative elections. The ruling Nur Otan party holds a preponderance of seats in the Mazhilis, and the second- and third-largest parties in the body are considered loyal to Nur Otan.

In May 2020, Parliament approved a bill formalizing parliamentary opposition in the Mazhilis. The new law provides non–Nur Otan deputies the right to initiate hearings, set the agenda for government questioning, propose legislation, and chair one of the seven standing parliamentary committees. The lack of real opposition parties in Parliament throws the import of the law into question.

The opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan remains banned and considered a terrorist organization by the authorities. Activists associated with the party often receive prison sentences on politically motivated charges. No opposition parties are set to participate in the January 2021 parliamentary elections.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 1.001 4.004

While voters and candidates are not subject to undue influence by the military or foreign powers, the political system is dominated by a small group of elites surrounding Nazarbayev and his family. The country’s politics are shaped largely by competition among these elites for resources and positions. In May 2020, this competition took place at the highest levels when President Tokayev removed the former president’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, as speaker of the Senate, the constitutionally designated position for presidential succession should the sitting president step down or die in office.

B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4

The legal ban on parties with an ethnic, religious, or gender focus—combined with the dominance of Nur Otan—limits the ability of women and minority groups to organize independently and advocate for their interests through the political system. Women currently hold 27 percent of the seats in the Mazhilis and less than 11 percent of the seats in the Senate. The language test for presidential candidates also presents an obstacle for non-Kazakh ethnic minorities, as well as many Kazakhs.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

Government policies are determined by the executive branch, which is not freely elected, irrespective of the constitutionally defined roles of the executive, judiciary, and legislature. Parliament does not serve as an effective check on the executive, and instead largely provides formal approval for the government’s legislative initiatives.

However, changes to the constitution adopted by Parliament and the president in 2017 shifted some powers from the president to the Mazhilis. The amendments gave Parliament greater influence over the choice of prime minster and cabinet members and the authority to dismiss them. They also limited the president’s ability to rule by decree.

President Tokayev has also been forced to share power with former president Nazarbayev, who retains significant influence by leading the ruling Nur Otan party and by holding powerful official positions.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption is widespread at all levels of government. Corruption cases are often prosecuted at the local and regional levels, but charges against high-ranking political and business elites are rare, typically emerging only after an individual has fallen out of favor with the leadership. Journalists, activists, and opposition figures are often prosecuted for supposed financial crimes. In November 2020, former Health Minister Elzhan Birtanov was arrested and detained in custody on charges of embezzling 526 million tenges ($1.2 million).

In December 2020, a British court froze assets connected to alleged fraud against BTA Bank, owned by the Kazakhstan government. The bank accused its former chair of embezzlement with the assistance of Bolat Otemuratov, a Kazakh business tycoon and longtime associate of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

President Tokayev, like his predecessor, has highlighted the importance of tackling corruption. In September 2020, the government prohibited officials and their families from having bank accounts abroad. A new October law seeks to fight corruption by banning civil servants and their families from receiving gifts, material rewards, or services for their work.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

The government and legislature offer little transparency on their decision-making processes, budgetary matters, and other operations. The media and civil society do not have a meaningful opportunity to provide independent commentary and input on pending laws and policies. A law on public access to government information was adopted in 2015, but it is poorly implemented in practice. Officials’ asset and income declarations are not publicly available.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

Media independence is severely limited in Kazakhstan. While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, most of the media sector is controlled by the state or government-friendly owners, and the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down independent outlets. Self-censorship is common. The authorities also use internet blackouts to restrict access to media outlets.

Legislation introduced in 2018 requires journalists to verify the accuracy of information prior to publication by consulting with relevant government bodies or officials, obtaining consent for the publication of personal or otherwise confidential information, and acquiring accreditation as foreign journalists if they work for foreign outlets.

Defamation was decriminalized in June 2020, but libel remains a criminal offense, and the criminal code prohibits insulting the president and other officials. Journalists critical of the regime often face harassment. Throughout 2020, several journalists found themselves subject to prospective criminal cases, including three who were charged for disseminating false information about the COVID-19 pandemic; the charges against them were eventually dropped.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and some religious communities practice without state interference. However, activities by unregistered religious groups are banned, and registered groups are subject to close government supervision. The government has broad authority to outlaw organizations it designates as “extremist.”

The 2011 Law on Religious Activities and Religious Associations prohibited the distribution of religious literature outside places of worship, required the state approval of all religious literature, and prohibited unregistered missionary activity, among other provisions. In 2018, Parliament considered amendments that would have further restricted religious education, proselytizing, and the publication of materials, but these amendments were recalled in January 2019.

Local officials continue to harass groups defined as “nontraditional,” including Protestant Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims who do not adhere to the government-approved version of Islam. According to Forum 18, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that tracks religious freedom in Eurasia, authorities launched 168 prosecutions against individuals and groups for unsanctioned religious activity in 2019. Restrictions on gathering for worship were placed on religious groups under the COVID-19 state of emergency legislation and were used as a pretext to charge a Baptist congregation in Pavlodar not just for breaking coronavirus health measures, but also for being an unregistered religious community.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2.002 4.004

Academic freedom remains constrained by political sensitivities surrounding certain topics, including the former president, his inner circle, and relations with Russia. Self-censorship on such topics is reportedly common among scholars and educators. In 2018, a new law was passed giving universities greater freedom to choose the content of their academic programs.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

Authorities are known to monitor social media, and users are regularly prosecuted on charges such as inciting social and ethnic hatred, insulting government officials, and promoting separatism or terrorism. The media law that came into force in 2018 also made it impossible for internet users to leave anonymous comments online, further limiting free expression.

Since 2019, the authorities have stepped up their efforts to surveil and block access to material it deemed inappropriate. Mobile service providers have instructed their customers to install encryption software on mobile phones that would allow security services to intercept data traffic and circumvent email and messaging applications’ encryption. The government claimed the encryption software was required in order protect citizens from online fraud and hacker attacks. Those who did not install the software faced difficulties in accessing the Internet, particularly social networking sites.

Government monitoring of social media was especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, which authorities exploited to clamp down on critics of the regime. An Almaty court in June 2020 convicted political and human rights activist Alnur Ilyashev for spreading false information and sentenced him to a three-year noncustodial sentence of “restricted freedom.” Ilyashev had called the government’s and Nur Otan’s response to the pandemic incompetent. In January, Duman Aitzhanov, a doctor, had a criminal case initiated against him after sharing a video on WhatsApp that stated the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kazakhstan and the necessary measures needed to halt the spread of the disease.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

Despite constitutional guarantees, the government imposes tight restrictions on freedom of assembly. President Tokayev revised the public assembly law in May 2020 to no longer require groups to obtain permission from state authorities to gather in public. Instead, groups are required to give notification three to seven days in advance and then wait for approval by the local administration. Critics argue that the state continues to restrict who can protest and where, as only officially registered groups are allowed to give notification, and gatherings are only allowed in state-approved sites, which are often located far from the center of cities.

Organizers and participants who fall outside of the new law continue to be subject to fines and jail terms. More than 100 people were detained by police in February outside of a rally organized by the unregistered Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. Authorities have continued to block protests by the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a party headed by its exiled leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov.

The government used social distancing measures, introduced as part of the state of emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a pretext to break up the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan’s and DVK’s unsanctioned rallies in June 2020. However, in November the Democratic Party was allowed to hold a rally protesting the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2021.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1.001 4.004

NGOs continue to operate but face government harassment when they attempt to address politically sensitive issues. There are extensive legal restrictions on the formation and operation of NGOs, including onerous financial rules and harsh penalties for noncompliance. Organizations can incur fines and other punishments for vaguely defined offenses like interfering with government activities or engaging in work outside the scope of their charters.

Civil and human rights activists accused the government of using the COVID-19 state-of-emergency measures as an excuse to crack down on activists and critics, charging them with violating coronavirus restrictions and spreading false information about the pandemic.

In October and November 2020, a series of tax violations were levied against at least 13 NGOs for allegedly breaking the law on the reporting of foreign financial donations. The NGOs claimed the investigations sought to halt their activities in the run-up to the January 2021 parliamentary elections.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0.000 4.004

Workers have limited rights to form and join trade unions or participate in collective bargaining. The government is closely affiliated with the largest union federation and major employers, while genuinely independent unions face repressive actions by the authorities. The country’s major independent trade union body, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (KNPRK), was dissolved in 2017, and key leaders were later sentenced to prison for protesting the group’s termination. Subsequent efforts to register the group have been denied. Kazakhstan’s restrictions on union activity gained the attention of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which criticized the country’s stance in a June 2019 statement.

May 2020 revisions to the Law on Trade allowed smaller local trade unions the opportunity to join with larger oblast level organizations, as well as international trade union federations. Though authorities claimed this enhanced the freedom of trade unions, critics claimed the changes were minimal, as independent unions critical of government policy had already been banned.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

The judiciary is effectively subservient to the executive branch, with the president nominating or directly appointing judges based on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council, which is itself appointed by the president. Judges are subject to political influence, and corruption is a problem throughout the judicial system.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Police reportedly engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions and violate detained suspects’ right to assistance from a defense lawyer. Prosecutors, as opposed to judges, are empowered to authorize searches and seizures. Defendants are often held in pretrial detention for long periods. Politically motivated prosecutions and prison sentences against activists, journalists, and opposition figures are common.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Conditions in pretrial detention facilities and prisons are harsh. According to family and advocates of multiple inmates interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, prison conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners were only allowed out of their cells for a very limited time, conditions were cramped and unsanitary, no face masks or protective equipment were proved, and no medical treatment was given to inmates who contracted the virus.

Police at times use excessive force during arrests, and torture is widely employed to obtain confessions, with numerous allegations of physical abuse and other mistreatment documented each year. In February 2020, civil rights activist Dulat Agadil died suspiciously while in custody for just a few hours at a pretrial holding center in Nur-Sultan. An official investigation claimed the cause of death was a heart attack, although friends and civil rights activists have contested that the police were responsible.

Violent clashes occurred in villages near the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border in February 2020 between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Dungans. Eleven people were killed, close to 200 were injured, and 20,000 people were reportedly displaced, having fled over the border to Kyrgyzstan.

Terrorist violence within the country is rare, though some Kazakhstanis have traveled abroad to support the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

While the constitution guarantees equality before the law and prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, and other categories, it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Major segments of society face discrimination in practice. Traditional cultural biases limit economic and professional opportunities for women, and the law offers no protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. Members of the sizable Russian-speaking minority have complained of discrimination in employment and education.

LGBT+ people continue to face societal discrimination, harassment, and violence, despite the decriminalization of same-sex relations in 1998. In June 2020, the government appeared to take advantage of diminished public oversight during the COVID-19 lockdown to introduce a draft “anti-gender” bill, which would eliminate the idea of gender and gender equality. The social stigma experienced by LGBT+ people has also disproportionally affected their access to health care during the pandemic. Transgender individuals in particular have been subjected to unethical treatment and abuse.

Under pressure from Beijing, the Kazakhstan government at times detains ethnic Kazakhs fleeing neighboring China and threatens them with the prospect of deportation, even though they are subject to discrimination and torture upon return.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

Kazakhstani citizens can travel freely but must register their permanent residence with local authorities. New rules that went into effect in 2017 under the pretext of fighting terrorism require citizens to register even temporary residences lasting more than a month with local authorities or face fines. The change increases the ability of the authorities to monitor internal movement and migration, but critics also suggested that it would lead to corruption and create a black market for false registration documents. The government locked down and restricted people’s movement in many Kazakh cities, towns, and villages in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

While the rights of entrepreneurship and private property are formally protected, they are limited in practice by bureaucratic hurdles and the undue influence of politically connected elites, who control large segments of the economy.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

NGOs continue to report instances of early and forced marriage, particularly in rural areas. Women are also encouraged to support large families; those who raise at least six children receive a medal from the government, along with tax breaks and modest monthly benefits.

Domestic violence is a serious problem that often goes unpunished, as police are reluctant to intervene in what are regarded as internal family matters. The Union of Crisis Centers of Kazakhstan, a network of 16 local NGOs, reported that these crimes occurred in one out of every eight families in the country as recently as 2018. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a UN body, warned in a 2019 report that domestic violence had been effectively decriminalized. Incidents of domestic violence reportedly increased and intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2020, Symbat Kulzhagharova died after falling from her 11th floor apartment. Despite claims her passing was suicide, many speculated her death was related to domestic violence. In the aftermath of her passing a petition to increase punishment for domestic violence in Kazakhstan was signed by over 70,000 people.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2.002 4.004

Migrant workers from neighboring countries often face poor working conditions and a lack of effective legal safeguards against exploitation. Both migrants and Kazakhstani workers from rural areas are vulnerable to trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and prostitution in large cities. The authorities reportedly make little effort to assist foreign victims of trafficking.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    23 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    33 100 not free