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 2021

  • Legislative elections held in January saw the ruling Nur Otan party take 76 of the 98 elected seats. The elections were not considered free and fair by international election monitors.
  • Changes were made to the Law on Elections in May, reducing the threshold for parties to enter parliament from 7 to 5 percent and introducing direct elections for district mayors.
  • New legislation, signed by the president in June, increased state control over Kazakhstani legal professionals. Local and international legal associations have criticized the law, saying it jeopardizes lawyers’ independence.

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 Nursultan Nazarbayev’s special status as Kazakhstan’s “first president” exempted him from term limits. In July 2018, Nazarbayev signed a decree making himself 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.

Since his resignation in 2019, Nazarbayev has gradually transitioned power to Tokayev. Nazarbayev stepped down as chairman of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan in April 2021, handing the role to Tokayev, and in November, announced that he would resign his position as leader of Nur Otan. However, the former president still wields significant power in Kazakhstan: at year’s end, Nazarbayev remained the head of the Security Council, and continued to be 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 the party and the state. Parliamentary elections were held in January 2021; the results largely replicated those of the previous election in 2016, with Nur Otan taking 76 of the 98 elected seats. Though official data shows Nur Otan winning 71.09 percent of the popular vote, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported that its data showed that the party had actually only won 48.30 percent of the vote. Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s Party, which are both considered loyal to the government, secured 12 and 10 seats, respectively. The only genuine opposition party, the National Social Democratic Party (OSDP), boycotted the elections. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observers reported that the election “lacked genuine competition” and “highlighted the need” for political reform.

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 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.

Amendments to the Law on Elections, passed by the legislature and approved by Tokayev in May 2021, sought to introduce political reform. The amendments include provisions lowering the vote threshold for parties to enter the Mazhilis from 7 to 5 percent, adding an “against all” option to election ballots, and introducing direct elections for local akims (mayors) at the district level.

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.

The opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) remains banned and is considered a terrorist organization by the authorities. Activists associated with the party often receive prison sentences on politically motivated charges. This trend intensified in 2021: throughout the year, many activists were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced for their ties with the DVK.

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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

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 19 percent of the seats in the Senate. The Kazakh 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 retained significant influence in the ruling Nur Otan party and continued to hold powerful official positions throughout 2021.

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 August 2021, Kazakhstan’s Anti-Corruption Agency reported 921 judicial investigations for corruption had been launched since the beginning of the year, of which 725 were sent to court.

President Tokayev, like his predecessor, has highlighted the importance of tackling corruption. Since the introduction of a new anticorruption law in 2020, civil servants and their families have been banned 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.

Journalists are required to confirm the accuracy of information prior to publication by consulting with relevant government bodies or officials, obtain consent for the publication of personal or otherwise confidential information, and acquire accreditation as foreign journalists if they work for foreign outlets. In March 2021, amendments made to the Rules of Accreditation of Journalists introduced a requirement for journalists to work with a “host” when reporting on government events, which critics argue serves to promote censorship in the country.

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. Journalists experienced targeted intimidation, including physical attacks, throughout 2021, especially during the runup to the January parliamentary elections. Several journalists also found themselves subject to criminal prosecution for their work. International media freedom NGOs have condemned the Kazakhstani authorities for pursuing such charges, which activists say is intended to curb dissent.

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 December 2021, President Tokayev approved amendments to the religion law, placing further bureaucratic restrictions on holding religious meetings in non-state registered places of worship.

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, an NGO that tracks religious freedom in Eurasia, authorities launched 134 prosecutions against individuals and groups for unsanctioned religious activity in 2020, down from 168 in 2019.

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.

In May 2021, independent media outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) published an investigation alleging that many of Kazakhstan’s approximately 130 higher education institutions are owned by high-level elites or their family members.

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. In May 2021, parody news blogger Temirlan Ensebek was charged with spreading false information for making satirical posts on social media; Ensebek could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

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 to 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. In July 2021, journalists working on the Pegasus Project, an investigation by Amnesty International and several international media rights organizations, reported that spyware had been used to monitor the activity of numerous journalists and activists in Kazakhstan.

In September, the Mazhilis approved a bill that, if passed, would require all foreign social media networks and messaging services to open a local office in Kazakhstan before operating in the country. Critics argue that the law would effectively ban any foreign media company unable to set up an office in Kazakhstan; the bill remained in parliament at year’s end.

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 say 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. Throughout 2021, the authorities routinely dispersed public meetings and demonstrations organized by members of opposition parties and their supporters, arresting dozens of protesters. In January, opposition protesters in Almaty were surrounded by police and held for nine hours in subzero temperatures. Police refused to allow food and warm clothing to be given to those being detained; several demonstrators were hospitalized with severe frostbite following the incident.

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, at least 13 NGOs were charged with 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. The charges against the NGOs were dropped in February 2021.

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 has repeatedly criticized the country’s stance in recent years.

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. In February 2021, a court in Shymkent suspended the Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers for six months for being in breach of the new regulations. However, despite existing restrictions, a new independent union for construction workers in Nur-Sultan was officially registered by the Ministry of Justice in May.

The number of recorded labor strikes in Kazakhstan rose in 2021; an estimated 50 strikes took place in the first half of the year, involving 1,700 workers. Most of the strikes were held in the oil producing region of Mangystau.

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.

In June 2021, Tokayev approved legislation imposing new regulations on lawyers, requiring attorneys to become members of a state chamber and to register with a government-controlled digital information system. Local and international lawyers’ associations have criticized the law, saying it imposes undue state control over legal professionals and threatens their independence.

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. Throughout 2021, dozens of people from across the country held demonstrations in front of government buildings to protest court decisions that they considered to be unjust; however, protest organizers said that the demonstrations “failed to bring any results.”

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 reports by RFE/RL, the number of suicides among prisoners has increased in recent years; at least one inmate died by suicide in 2021, and several others deliberately injured themselves in protest of prison conditions.

Police regularly 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 August, the General Prosecutor’s Office allegedly reopened the case of Anatoly Reibant, who died in 2017 after being released from police custody; a police representative later announced that no link could be found between Reibant’s death, which was ruled a suicide, and the injuries he sustained while in custody.

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. Throughout 2021, several events planned by the LGBT+ activist group Feminita were disrupted by “angry mobs” that issued threats against participants. During one such incident in May, Feminita’s cofounders were physically assaulted by a group of men at a private event in Shymkent; when police arrived, they detained the activists for eight hours before forcibly transporting them back to Almaty, where the group is based.

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 movement in many of Kazakhstan’s 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 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.

Kazakhstan consistently reports one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Though suicide rates had declined prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of suicides and attempted suicides in the country rose in 2021: police reported 248 suicide attempts among young people in the first quarter of the year, compared to about 300 attempts recorded in all of 2020.

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. According to official government data, more than twice as many trafficking-related offenses were recorded in the first half of 2021 than in the same period in 2020. Some experts claim that official statistics do not fully depict the extent of trafficking in Kazakhstan, which serves as a source, destination, and transit country for human trafficking. The authorities reportedly make little effort to assist foreign victims of trafficking.

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