President Nursultan Nazarbaev ruled Kazakhstan from 1990 to 2019, when he stepped down while maintaining significant powers. His hand-picked successor, Qasym-Jomart Toqaev, began a program of ostensible reform after peaceful nationwide protests turned violent in January 2022; the violence was alleged to have been instigated by supporters of Nazarbaev, a number of whom were arrested and imprisoned. Parliamentary and presidential elections are neither free nor fair, and 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 punished, and corruption is endemic.
- In January, nationwide peaceful protests that started as a response to a substantial rise in gas prices became violent, with violence allegedly instigated by supporters of former president Nazarbaev. President Toqaev requested assistance from Russian troops in restoring order, which was granted, and approved a shoot-to-kill order for security forces. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds more were detained, many of whom had been protesting peacefully. Detainees were reportedly imprisoned and tortured.
- Following the violent protests in January, President Toqaev ordered the arrest and detention of Nazarbaev allies, security officials, and members of Nazarbaev’s family on charges including treason, corruption, and embezzlement. Toqaev also announced a special commission tasked with reclaiming some of the country’s wealth from Nazarbaev’s relatives. In July, the commission claimed it had already recovered $478 million.
- President Toqaev was reelected in a November snap election, with the election commission reporting that he won 81.3 percent of the vote. An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission found the poll neither free nor fair. Critics claimed Toqaev used the same election manipulation tactics as his predecessor to secure victory.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
According to the constitution, the president, who holds most executive power, is directly elected for up to two five-year terms. Former president Nazarbaev maintained special constitutional powers through his status as Kazakhstan’s “first president,” which exempted him from term limits and made him chairman of the Security Council for life. In January 2022, following widespread violence alleged to have been instigated by supporters of Nazarbaev, President Toqaev removed Nazarbaev’s constitutional privileges and position. In June, a successful nationwide referendum removed the law giving Nazarbaev special status.
President Toqaev was reelected in November 2022, in a snap vote before the end of his term, taking 81.3 percent of the vote according to the election commission. He faced five other candidates, none of whom were considered serious contenders. The OSCE election observation mission found that the election was neither free nor fair and was “not fully consistent with international standards and OSCE commitments for democratic elections.” Critics also claimed Toqaev was using the same election manipulation tactics as his predecessor.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The upper house of the bicameral Parliament is the Senate. Under new constitutional rules passed in the June 2022 referendum, which expanded the Senate to 54 seats, 44 senators are chosen by the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and 10 are 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 Majilis, under the new constitutional rules features 98 members, 30 percent of which are elected according to a majoritarian system and the rest elected by proportional representation on party lists. Members serve five-year terms.
Recent legislative elections have not met 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 held in January 2021 largely replicated the results of the previous election in 2016, with President Toqaev’s party, Amanat, taking 76 of the 98 elected seats. Though official data showed Amanat winning 71.09 percent of the popular vote, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported that they party had actually only won 48.30 percent of the vote. Aq Jol 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.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
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 5 percent vote threshold to enter the Majilis 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, have at least five years of experience of public service, and submit their medical records. Independent candidates are not allowed to run for president, and the eligibility requirements, including those concerning education and residency, are onerous and out of line with OSCE standards.
|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?
June 2022 changes to the constitution reduced the number of members required to register a party with the Ministry of Justice from 20,000 to 5,000. Despite this, the registration process remains onerous, and officials have broad discretion to delay or deny party registration in practice. Several new parties being considered for registration are led by figures close to the Nazarbaev regime. 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 have had their activities restricted. The leader of the unregistered opposition Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Janbolat Mamai, was arrested in the aftermath of the January 2022 violence on grounds of organizing mass riots. Mamai’s supporters and Human Rights Watch (HRW) claim the case against him is without merit and politically motivated.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Kazakhstan experienced its first peaceful transfer of power in 2019 when Nazarbaev stood down as president, though he gave no reasoning for his decision and his preferred successor was elected in a poll that lacked credible opposition. Opposition parties are locked out of gaining power or influence through legislative elections. The ruling party Amanat holds a supermajority of seats in the Majilis, and the second- and third-largest parties in the body are considered loyal to Amanat. However, in an ostensible attempt to disengage the party from the executive, Toqaev stood down as the leader of Amanat in April 2022.
The opposition Democratic Party remains unregistered and its leader Janbolat Mamai was released from prison but placed under house arrest in November 2022. Mamai’s wife, Inga Imanbai, was also fined and detained briefly for breaking the law on public gatherings.
|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?
While voters and candidates are not subject to undue influence by the military, the political system is dominated by a small group of elites. The extent of the Russian government’s influence over politics in Kazakhstan is unknown, which is shaped largely by competition among elites for resources and positions.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The legal ban on parties with an ethnic, religious, or gender focus—combined with the dominance of Amanat—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 Majilis 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 Russian-speaking Kazakhs.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
Government policies are determined by the executive branch 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.
Constitutional changes to 33 articles approved by referendum in June 2022 ostensibly sought to shift powers from the president to the Majilis. The changes extended the presidential term from five to seven years, but limited presidential tenure to one term of office. It also introduced a mixed electoral system, reduced the members of the Majilis to 98, and extended parliamentary powers. Critics argued the reforms were a way for Toqaev to legitimize his rule. The president retained the powers to appoint the prime minister, the prosecutor general, the security chief, local Akims (governors), and other senior officials in government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
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. Law enforcement agencies also reported a 33 percent rise in bribe-taking cases in 2022.
In restoring order following the January 2022 violence allegedly instigated by sections of Kazakhstan’s security services close to former president Nazarbaev, President Toqaev ordered the arrest and detention of former Nazarbaev allies, security officials, and members of Nazarbaev’s family, on various charges of treason, corruption, and embezzlement. Toqaev also created a special commission tasked with reclaiming some of the country’s wealth from Nazarbaev’s relatives. In July, the commission claimed it had already recovered $478 million.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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 is poorly implemented in practice. Officials’ asset and income declarations are not publicly available.
The government has failed to release information about the extent of its crackdown on individuals involved in the protests and violence that took place in January 2022.
|Are there free and independent media?
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. Independent outlets and journalists are routinely shut down or harassed, and self-censorship is common. Defamation was decriminalized in 2020, but libel remains a criminal offense, and the criminal code prohibits insulting the president and other officials.
The authorities also use internet blackouts to restrict access to media outlets. Following the January 2022 violence, the government shut down internet access across the country for five days.
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. They are also required to work with a “host” when reporting on government events.
In November 2022, just after the presidential election, the offices of independent media outlet Elmedia in Almaty were attacked twice in two weeks by unknown assailants. The offices had also been vandalized in October.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
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 January 2022, amendments to the law came into force, placing further bureaucratic restrictions on holding religious meetings in unregistered 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 have arrested and imprisoned 75 alleged members of Sunni Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat since 2015, destroying all their books and religious materials.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom remains constrained by political sensitivities surrounding certain topics, including former president Nazarbaev and his inner circle, as well as relations with Russia. Self-censorship on such topics is reportedly common among scholars and educators. Past reports claimed that approximately 130 higher education institutions are owned by high-level elites or their family members.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
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 makes it impossible for internet users to leave anonymous comments online, further limiting free expression.
The authorities surveil and block access to material deemed inappropriate. Mobile service providers instruct customers to install encryption software on mobile phones that allows security services to intercept data traffic and circumvent email and messaging applications’ encryption. Those who do not install the software face difficulties in accessing the internet, particularly social media platforms. Spyware has also been used to monitor the activity of journalists and activists in Kazakhstan, including Inga Imambai, activist and wife of the Democratic Party leader, who claimed she found Hermit spyware on her phone in June 2022.
In May 2022, President Toqaev approved amendments to the law on the protection of children’s rights, requiring social media companies with over 100,000 daily visitors to register and open offices in Kazakhstan within six months, ostensibly to prevent cyberbullying Critics claim the revisions to the law are a way for the regime to further silence dissidents by shutting down social media companies which fail to meet the new registration requirements.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Despite constitutional guarantees, the government imposes tight restrictions on freedom of assembly. President Toqaev revised the public assembly law in 2020, forcing groups to give notification three to seven days in advance of a protest 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 protest participants who do not follow the new law continue to be subject to fines and jail terms. For example, on the day of the presidential election in November 2022, members of the youth opposition movement Oyan Kazakhstan were temporarily detained by police.
In January 2022, unsanctioned protests broke out in western regions of the country in response to rising gas prices. The protests grew nationally until violence broke out in Almaty, in response to which a state of emergency was declared. Kazakh troops, supported by the Russian-backed forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), quelled the violence after President Toqaev approved a shoot-to-kill order. Thousands of people were detained, and many peaceful protestors were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and denied legal representation. Hundreds of people were killed. Relatives of protestors were also detained for publicly gathering and requesting that charges be dropped against their family members, some posthumously as their relatives had died in custody.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
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.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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.
While the government has ostensibly sought to reform and extend democratic and human rights, trade unions have not been included in a government-created working group on labor reform.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
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.
Attorneys are required 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.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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.
Security forces illegally detained, tortured, and denied legal representation to hundreds of peaceful protesters in January 2022.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Conditions in pretrial detention facilities and prisons are harsh. According to reports by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (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. Many reports claimed that activists detained during the January 2022 protests were beaten and tortured, including famous Kyrgyz jazz pianist, Vikram Ruzakhunov, who was detained, beaten and tortured by law enforcement agents and forced to falsely claim on television that he had been recruited and paid by a criminal group to participate in the violence. There were also reports of detainees having been tortured to death while in custody.
Terrorist violence within the country is rare, though some Kazakhstanis have traveled abroad to support the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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, particularly ethnic minority groups and migrant workers, who are often working without documentation and are frequently exploited. 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 2022, a petition appeared online appealing to the minister of information to ban materials depicting LGBT+ people. The Minister of Culture and Sport, Dauren Abayev, banned the Disney film Buzz Lightyear in July because it featured a kiss between two female characters.
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. Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan, Kazakh authorities detained relatives of Kazakhs held in internment camps in Xinjiang protesting for the release of their family members.
Russians migrating to Kazakhstan to escape the conscription laws in Russia have experienced some pushback. Activists were detained for protesting against Russians entering the country, while others were arrested for protesting against Russian war atrocities in Bucha.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Kazakhstani citizens can travel freely but must register their permanent residence with local authorities. Citizens are also required to register temporary residences lasting more than a month with local authorities or face fines.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
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.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
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.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
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, 57 criminal cases of human trafficking were initiated in the first half of 2022, which was more than the first six months of the previous year. 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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Global Freedom Score23 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score34 100 not free