Kazakhstan

Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
5
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 5.36 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 1.32 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
5 100 Consolidated Authoritarian Regime
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Executive Summary

By Malika Toqmadi

The first full year of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s presidency was characterized by a series of calamitous events, starting with continuous public protests, interethnic violence in Korday,1 a dam failure and massive flooding on the border with Uzbekistan,2 and finally, the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this dramatic backdrop, Tokayev, who positions himself as a reformer,3 initiated a range of long-awaited political changes that were largely superficial in nature. Moreover, in 2020, the authorities further narrowed the space for government critics by cracking down on opposition movements, independent media, civil society organizations, and activists, often under the pretense of responding to the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis shed light on long-standing governance inefficiencies and challenges, including pervasive corruption, chronic neglect of healthcare and education systems, and the inability of the authorities to conduct transparent decision-making and open communication with the country’s population.

Yet the president’s mandate remained limited by the political and legal architecture built by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. As “Leader of the Nation,” Nazarbayev retains ultimate control over the country’s decision-making through an extensive net of legal provisions, lifelong posts, and privileges. In July, at the peak of the pandemic, President Tokayev opened yet another monument depicting Nazarbayev, dedicated to his 80th birthday.4

The National Council of Public Trust, created in 2019 by the president under public pressure for more representation,5 met twice in 2020 and was used by Tokayev as a platform to announce reform initiatives toward a more “hearing state.”6 The council, however, was formed on an arbitrary basis without clear criteria for inclusion of members, and there is little evidence of its ability to influence actual decision-making.

A series of amendments addressing the promised political reforms were initiated by President Tokayev in 2020. These amendments tackled, among other things, articles in the Criminal Code on libel and incitement of hatred, election and party registration procedures, and introduced the notion of a “parliamentary opposition.” All of the reform legislation, however, was assessed by civil society as “declarative” in nature, lacking any substantive democratic changes.7 Likewise, in May, a new law on peaceful assemblies was approved despite numerous calls from civil society and the international community to postpone its consideration until the state of emergency was lifted. The law was criticized as “cosmetic” and “fundamentally contrary to Kazakhstan’s human rights obligations.”8 On a more positive note, in September, Kazakhstan joined the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, undertaking he protocol’s obligation to abolish the death penalty.9

For the first time since independence, a nationwide state of emergency was introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continued from March 1510 until May 11.11 Tokayev announced an extensive $13 billion crisis spending package, which included monthly allowance payments of KZT 42,500 ($100) to citizens who lost their income for the period of the state of emergency. As of August, 2.54 million people had received the financial support.12

Despite tight quarantine measures enforced early on, and after the gradual easing of restrictions in May, the coronavirus infection rate rapidly increased in June through August. This resulted in a collapse of the healthcare system, with overcrowded hospitals and a shortage of medicines; social media platforms were flooded by people trying to find medicine, equipment, and medical assistance.13

By mid-July, the Ministry of Healthcare admitted that the state’s single pharmaceutical distributor, SK-Pharmacy, had stored humanitarian aid in its warehouses for two months, creating an artificial shortage.14 A series of corruption cases were initiated against top officials, including the Minister15 and Vice-Minister16 of Healthcare, and the heads of the Medical Insurance Fund and SK-Pharmacy.17 The president blamed the public and the “former leadership” of the Ministry of Healthcare for the critical infection rate,18 noting that “all akims [regional administrators] and a number of ministers deserve reprimands.”19

The spread of conspiracy theories and pandemic denial among the population was fueled by a number of factors, including a systemic lack of trust in government, weakened independent media, and the failure of the state to explain or consult the public on its decisions or provide timely and reliable information on its coronavirus response,20 particularly by manipulating infection statistics. Efforts to tackle the virus were further impeded by official crackdowns on journalists,21 activists, social media users, and medical workers who challenged the government’s handling of the pandemic. Numerous cases were reported of authorities retaliating against healthcare professionals for speaking out about their working conditions.22

Emergency restrictions were often abused and instrumentalized to silence critics and penalize peaceful protesters.23 The government used surveillance technologies during the pandemic, including drones, video monitoring, and mobile apps24 to enforce sometimes excessive and arbitrary quarantine measures.

While Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan conducted its first-ever primaries in an attempt to invigorate public interest in the party before the January 2021 elections to the Mazhilis (the lower chamber of the parliament) and maslikhats (local representative bodies), new political movements continued to be suppressed. Prominent journalist Zhanbolat Mamay’s Democratic Party of Kazakhstan was prevented from holding its founding congress, and its members were intimidated and persecuted by law enforcement. A new opposition movement, Koshe Partiyasy, was banned as extremist after a “secret” court decision.25

Less than two months before the elections, Tokayev’s stated determination “to hold transparent and fair elections”26 was offset by the temporary introduction of restrictions on domestic election observation, targeted attacks on human rights and election monitoring organizations, and renewed attempts to intercept the online traffic of internet users in the capital Nur-Sultan. Domestic observers had proved to be a considerable force during the previous year’s presidential elections, with thousands of video and photo materials published on social media on election day, showing substantial differences between the officially reported results and those gathered by observers.27 Due to the legal limitations on independent exit polls introduced in 2018, the current polling measures effectively eliminate any practical civic checks on electoral processes.

Xenophobia remains a challenge for multiethnic Kazakhstan, as the government has an ambivalent stance on the issue and fails to genuinely address it, systematically suppressing public discussion around regularly occurring ethnic-based clashes. On February 7–8, a violent conflict erupted between ethnic Kazakhs and the Dungan minority in the Korday district in the south of the country. Nearly 200 people were injured, and several thousand Dungans fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan. During his visit to Korday following the tragedy, the president called on the Dungan community “to respect the Kazakh language and state symbols of Kazakhstan.”28 The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern regarding reports of “acts of intimidation and unlawful prosecutions against persons belonging to the Dungan minority” conducted by state authorities.29

The high number of political appointments that Tokayev made in his first year in power could signal his growing legitimacy among the country’s administrative structures. Yet the half-hearted nature of the president’s political reforms, the legal restrictions on election observation, and the continued repression of opposition and civil society actors signaled a lack of genuine intention to bring systemic democratic changes. Nevertheless, the overall invigoration of the civic and political space provided by Nazarbayev’s resignation, as well as the major economic challenges that the country faces, especially due to the pandemic and dropping oil prices, may force the regime to evolve and seek new grounds of legitimacy beyond Nazarbayev’s motto of “economy first.”

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 1.251 7.007
  • Kazakhstan remained a consolidated authoritarian state in 2020, with national governing institutions tightly controlled by authorities and limited citizen participation in political processes or decision-making. Despite stepping down in 2019, former president Nursultan Nazarbayev still towered over the system through an extensive net of governmental mechanisms: he retains control over the national security structures through his chairmanship of the Security Council, and over the legislature through the leadership of the ruling party and a lifetime seat in the Senate and the Constitutional Council. Nazarbayev is also chair of the Samruk-Kazyna National Welfare Fund,1 which gives him control over a considerable part of the country’s economy.
  • The country’s current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, while managing to strengthen his legitimacy since coming to power in 2019, did not live up to his self-description as a “reformer” but, rather, was cautious of the fragile “stability” produced by Nazarbayev. Informal inter-elite decision-making continued to substitute for formal political competition. Kazakhstan’s bicameral Parliament remained monopolized by the former president’s Nur Otan party, with two other progovernment parties creating the appearance of an opposition. Still, the country has seen the emergence of new political forces and civil society leaders following the transition of power, forcing the government to make some effort toward at least the pretense of dialogue.2
  • The government introduced a state of emergency and strict quarantine soon after the first cases of COVID-19 were registered in Kazakhstan. A $13 billion crisis spending package was announced to support the economy and population. However, despite considerable spending, the regime proved ill-prepared for the shock, with the pandemic exposing long-standing governance problems. In late June, for example, Askar Zhumagaliyev was dismissed from his post as Minister of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry3 after being rebuked “for failure in digitalization.”4
  • In response to the pandemic, in his annual address, President Tokayev announced a “new model of governance,” which began with the establishment of the Monetary Committee under the National Bank,5 as well as two agencies under the president: the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms6 and the Agency for the Protection and Development of Competition.7 Additionally, the Supreme Council for Reforms under the president was created to “review and approve the most important reform proposals.”8 Earlier in August, the Ministry of Emergency Situations was created in response to the COVID-19 crisis,9 led by Yuri Ilyin, formerly the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs.10
  • In line with his agenda of “gradual political transformation,”11 Tokayev initiated a wide range of legislative reforms that addressed some of the major demands of civil society, including a new law on peaceful assemblies12 and amendments to the Laws “On Political Parties,”13 “On Elections,”14 “On Parliament and the Status of its Deputies,”15 as well as to the Criminal Code regarding libel16 and incitement of hatred.17 Moreover, in September, Kazakhstan joined the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for the abolition of the death penalty.18 Most of those reforms, however, were criticized to varying degrees by civil society as “frustrating,”19 “cosmetic,”20 and “rushed.”21
  • Despite the government’s claims of simplifying political party registration,22 not one new political party has been allowed to register thus far during Tokayev’s presidency.23 In February, the founding congress of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan was disrupted as a result of arrests and harassment of its activists,24 including the detention of its leader, Zhanbolat Mamay.25 Sanavar Zakirova, leader of another unregistered party, Nashe Pravo, was sentenced to a year in prison for allegedly harming a daughter of a Nur Otan party member.26 A new movement, Koshe Partiyasy, was banned as “extremist” in May and is seen as the successor to the banned opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK).27 About 200 supporters of Koshe Partiyasy have been “detained and interrogated for adhering to the ‘Koshe Partiyasy’ manifesto.”28
  • In May, the president unexpectedly dismissed Dariga Nazarbayeva,29 daughter of the former president, and appointed his administration’s first deputy head, Maulen Ashimbayev,30 to the Senate speaker position. Nazarbayeva had been in charge of the country’s Senate since her father stepped down as president in March 2019, which would allow her to take over presidential responsibilities in case the current president resigns.31 The decision ignited speculations about Tokayev being successful in “shifting the loyalty [...] of the elite” and “consolidating his power.”32 However, Nazarbayeva reappeared in November, listed by Nur Otan among candidates to run for elections in January 2021 to the Mazhilis, the parliamentary lower house.33
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 1.251 7.007
  • No elections conducted in Kazakhstan have been considered free and fair by the Organization for Stability and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The political landscape is strictly controlled, and all seven registered political parties represent a progovernment agenda with little diversity in their ideologies.1 Genuine political opposition is suppressed and effectively prevents access to electoral processes.
  • In December, a month before the parliamentary elections, the Central Election Commission issued a resolution that severely narrowed space for domestic nonpartisan election observation, restricting accreditation to only a handful of organizations with election observation stated in their charters. The resolution also prohibited publication of photos and videos and banned live video streaming from polling stations.2 In light of similar measures regarding independent electoral surveys and exit polls introduced in 2018,3 electoral transparency in Kazakhstan is critically limited.
  • In May and early June, Tokayev signed a series of laws aimed at “political modernization,” which nonetheless were widely criticized for only nominally addressing the existing administrative and legal barriers4 to representation.5 Amendments to the Law on Parliament introduced the notion of “parliamentary opposition” and guaranteed the rights of the opposition to initiate parliamentary hearings and determine the agenda of the government.6 Furthermore, the threshold for registration of political parties was lowered from 40,000 to 20,000 members from all regions. In addition, 30-percent gender and youth quotas7 were introduced to voting lists of political parties.8
  • The new legislation, however, does not ensure de facto access of genuine opposition to Parliament. Political parties continue to face legal and extralegal obstacles to registration, and members of new political movements are systematically persecuted. Moreover, the newly introduced 30-percent quotas for party lists does not envisage mandatory compliance when distributing mandates.9
  • In July, Kazakhstan held elections to the Senate (the upper chamber of the parliament) in which 17 deputies, or a third of the body, were replaced.10 The election results were predictable—all seats were won by candidates loyal to the regime.11 The public paid little attention to the elections, mostly because Senate deputies are chosen through indirect suffrage by secret ballot of members of regional maslikhats (local representative bodies).12 In order to be registered, a candidate needs to secure support of at least 10 percent of all electors in the region, which prevents the nomination of opposition candidates.13
  • On October 1–4, the ruling party Nur Otan conducted its first-ever primaries in an attempt to “reset” the party before the elections.14 The process was criticized15 for widespread falsifications and abuse of administrative resources.16 President Tokayev, the chairmen of the Senate and Mazhilis, an overwhelming majority of government members, and almost all regional akims (administrators) are members of the Nur Otan party—which is led by the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
  • Elections to the Mazhilis and maslikhats are scheduled for January 10, 2021.17 Not one opposition party will participate in the elections. Ballots will contain the ruling Nur Otan party and four progovernment parties: Ak Zhol, the People’s Party of Kazakhstan, Auyl, and Adal. The only registered party that declares itself as oppositional, the National Social Democratic Party (OSDP), decided to boycott the elections.18
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 1.502 7.007
  • State policy toward the civic sector in recent years has been aimed at greater formalization and control through stricter registration and reporting procedures, narrowing the space for independent civic initiatives. The sector is predominantly financed from government sources, which entails dependency rather than dialogue between the state and civil society.1 The ability of civil society to engage in human rights and political issues is systematically constrained.
  • Emergency measures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a further shrinking of civic space. Related articles of the criminal and administrative codes—such as “violation of the state of emergency”2 and “actions provoking violation of the state of emergency”3—were instrumentalized to prosecute activists and peaceful protesters.
  • In May, the president ratified a new law on peaceful assemblies4 despite widespread criticism of the statute’s “undue haste” during the state of emergency.5 The law, among other things, prohibits spontaneous actions and allows excessive authority to ban assembly.6 It further widens sanctions against organizers and participants, restricts assemblies to “special venues,” and envisions that only Kazakh citizens and registered organizations may organize assemblies.7 The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association concluded that “parts of the new law do not seem to be in line with international human rights standards.”8
  • In late April, the main critic of the law, human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis, was subjected to a public smear campaign. Several dozen similar publications accused Zhovtis of destabilizing the national order and supporting foreign interests. The publications contained anti-Semitic and nationalistic comments and appeared in progovernment online media over the same short period of time.9
  • In November, less than two months before the parliamentary elections, at least 13 leading human rights, media, and election-monitoring organizations faced the threat of suspension and large fines for alleged minor violations of burdensome foreign-funding reporting procedures, which were controversially introduced in 2018.10 This organized effort to intimidate significantly hindered civil society’s ability to monitor the elections.
  • On February 25, activist Dulat Agadil died several hours after being detained, with officials announcing heart failure as the cause of death, though activists cited video evidence that Agadil was beaten in detention.11 His death sparked a series of protests demanding a transparent investigation. The rallies were met with additional arrests and harassment of activists.12 Members of the European Parliament noted “more than 200 cases of political persecution, including 39 criminal cases, [...] initiated against those activists who paid tribute to Dulat Agadil” from July 30 to September 27, 2020.13
  • In August, prominent activist Asya Tulesova was found guilty of “insulting a government official” and “using violence against a police officer” for merely knocking off the hat of an officer as police were forcefully detaining peaceful protestors on June 6. After more than two months of pretrial detention, the court convicted her and restricted her freedom of movement for a period of 1.5 years.14
  • The watchdog organization Tirek Alliance lists about 200 people persecuted without imprisonment and 16 people remaining imprisoned on politically motivated grounds; among them are the 2016 land reform protests organizer Maks Bokayev and a poet and dissident Aron Atabek, who has been imprisoned since 2007.15 In May, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, former head of the uranium giant Kazatomprom, was released on parole after almost 11 years in prison.16
  • Trade union leader Yerlan Baltabay was also released under the president’s pardon decree in March.17 Kazakhstan remains one of the 10 worst countries for violations of workers’ rights according to the 2020 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index.18
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 1.251 7.007
  • Most media in Kazakhstan are funded or owned by the state,1 while the few remaining independent outlets operate under heavy restrictions, such as extensive defamation legislation and barriers to information access,2 as well as general state hostility directed at media critical of the authorities. In the last few years, the state has steadily consolidated its control over the Internet and communication infrastructure by practically monopolizing the communication sector3 and providing vast control and surveillance powers to security services.4
  • The Foundation for International Investigations and Crime against Media reports that “on average, more than 50 cases are brought against media workers each year in Kazakhstan on charges of defamation, slander, and causing damage to reputation.”5 The media watchdog organization Adil Soz reported 58 cases of criminal charges and 35 administrative cases against media and journalists in 2020.6
  • In the context of the pandemic, the provision of “dissemination of knowingly false information in a state of emergency”7 was used alongside other measures to retaliate against numerous civic activists, journalists, and medical workers who reported on issues regarding the government’s coronavirus response.8 In July, longtime regime critic Alnur Ilyashev was sentenced to three years restricted freedom for “a negative assessment of the activities of the Nur Otan party” following social media posts in which he criticized the corruption and incompetence of authorities in handling the public health crisis.9
  • The government failed during the year to provide adequate information on its COVID-19 response. Censorship of criticism of the pandemic measures and apparent manipulation of official statistics10 left ample space for conspiracy theories to dominate the popular discourse through celebrities and influencers.11 In July, seven independent media outlets announced the launch of the website Umytpa.kz in an effort to collect and verify official death statistics.12
  • In late June, libel was transferred from the criminal to the administrative code.13 Although a positive development, the new law still envisages large fines and up to 30 days of detention.14 Moreover, the reform does not seriously improve the overall press freedom situation due to other active legal provisions such as laws on insult and “distribution of deliberately false information.”15
  • Another criminal law provision often used to suppress dissent, Article 174, was amended in June whereby the phrase “excitement of discord” was changed to “incitement of discord.”16 Perceived by some as a minor improvement, the change in wording was criticized by civil society as “easy to blame and hard to fight back with.”17
  • In February–March, the Kazakh language newspaper Zhas Alash, under the leadership of the newly appointed editor-in-chief Inga Imanbay, was pressured for its stance on antigovernment protests and other political issues. A criminal case for “incitement to social hatred” was initiated against the newspaper’s journalist Askhat Asan following publication of his article “Will the Day Come When the Ex-President is Wanted by Interpol?” Imanbay consequently resigned citing “threats,” with three other journalists resigning soon after.18
  • On December 6, the state made its third attempt since 2015 to intercept HTTPS traffic by imposing the installation of a “national security certificate” on the devices of Internet users in the capital Nur-Sultan.19 The initiative was suspended the following day, with the government calling it a “cybersecurity training exercise.”20
  • Kazakhstan was ranked 157 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, a one-point improvement from 2019, which reflects consideration of the overall invigoration of civil society and the media following the transition of power.21
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 1.502 7.007
  • Kazakhstan has a highly centralized form of governance. Local governors (akims) are part of the executive system as “representatives of the President and the Government,” according to the constitution.1 Regional and city akims are appointed by the president. Akims of cities of district significance, villages, townships, and rural districts are elected by a maslikhat; self-nomination is excluded, as candidates are nominated by regional akims who are appointed by the president.2
  • The 2018 amendments to the Law on Elections introduced a proportional representation system at the level of maslikhats, blocking access to elections for self-nominated candidates and embedding maslikhats into party structures. Considering the existing barriers for opposition parties to register, the reform practically eliminated political competition at the local level. Moreover, maslikhats may be dismissed by the president in consultation with Parliament and the prime minister.
  • Prominent journalist and expert Vyacheslav Abramov points out that maslikhat deputies do not work full-time and gather only for meetings. They often operate in the buildings of executive bodies, which results in a practical merger of the two branches of governance. Deputies are not required to hold regular meetings with their constituents, thus residents are often unacquainted with their representatives.3
  • The January 10, 2021, maslikhat elections will be the first to use the proportional representation system, and they will also be the first time that the runner-up party will be included in the distribution of deputy mandates.4 Thus, one-party maslikhats are no longer possible so long as elections feature two or more parties, which promises some activation of existing parties at the local level of governance.5
  • In September, in his annual address, Tokayev mentioned the possibility of conducting direct elections of akims in some rural districts in 2021,6 and a draft law was published in October.7
  • Local authorities were allowed considerable freedom to determine the COVID-19 response in their jurisdictions, which exposed the intrinsic problems of a local governance system designed to be dependent on the central authorities, such as unpreparedness to operate autonomously, lack of resources, and little accountability and motivation to communicate with the population.8 In July, Tokayev harshly criticized the handling of the crisis by local governors, saying that “all akims deserve reprimands” and “the new course envisions new performers—educated, strong-willed, proactive, pragmatic, and honest.”9
  • Governors of Shymkent,10 Karagandy,11 Aktobe,12 and the regions of Pavlodar13 and Zhambyl14 were replaced in 2020. It is noteworthy that Gulshara Abdykalikova, akim of Kyzylorda oblast, became the first female governor of a region since Kazakhstan’s independence.15
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 1.251 7.007
  • According to law, “justice in Kazakhstan is administered only by the court [...]. Judges are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law.”1 However, in practice, the judicial branch in Kazakhstan is highly dependent on the executive; the president appoints or nominates judges based on the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council,2 which in turn is also formed by the president.3 Courts continued to be instrumentalized to persecute and intimidate dissent in 2020.
  • In June, the president approved a new Administrative Procedure Code, introducing a new branch of justice for resolving disputes in the field of public relations.4 The code integrates administrative procedures as well as administrative court proceedings for interactions between the state administration and private persons. Although criticized by some lawyers for its ambiguous scope and language, the code has the potential to bring about positive changes by introducing a set of principles protecting individuals from abuse of power by state authorities.5 The code will come into effect on July 1, 2021.
  • In September, Kazakhstan signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing to abolish the death penalty. An indefinite moratorium on the use of the death penalty has been in force since 2003.6
  • No significant measures have been taken to stop torture in Kazakhstan’s prison system. In 2020, the National Center for Human Rights reported that the number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment of people in the penitentiary system and other special institutions had increased; the center registered 131 criminal cases and 16 persons convicted in the first 5 months of the year.7
  • Meanwhile, human rights defenders are targets of pressure for investigating torture. Yelena Semenova, a member of the civic organization Relatives Against Torture, faces seven lawsuits for exposing torture cases.8 In February, civic activist Dulat Agadil died in a pretrial detention center; President Tokayev stated his “conviction” that the activist died of heart failure even before the official forensic medical examination results were released.9
  • Human rights defenders complained about the inaccessibility of correctional institutions for monitoring and urgent visits during the COVID-19 quarantine period.10 Pandemic restrictions further undermined access to justice and legal support for defendants, including unequal rights of parties in online courts, noncompliance with the requirements of court proceedings,11 and compromised confidentiality of communications.12
  • On February 7–8, nearly 200 people belonging to the Dungan minority living in several villages of the Korday district were injured as a result of interethnic clashes and pogroms; 4,000–10,000 Dungans were forced to flee to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.13 The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern over reports of “acts of intimidation and unlawful prosecutions against persons belonging to the Dungan minority and their defendants” conducted by state authorities, “including by denying them legal assistance,” “unhealthy conditions of detention and a pervasive practice of torture,”14 as well as “the absence of a transparent investigation and the refusal to allow independent observers entering into the Korday district.”15
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 1.251 7.007
  • Corruption is rampant at all levels of government in Kazakhstan, where networks of patronage and clientelism pose a core barrier to democratization. The year 2020, meanwhile, was unusually eventful on the anticorruption front, with a number of top-level officials being charged. Yet, given the lack of transparency into decision-making processes and the judicial system, it is often difficult to pin down the actual reasons behind such cases, and Kazakhstan commentators often interpret high-level corruption charges as evidence of inter-elite struggles. Legal provisions protecting the “honor and dignity” of the first president (as well as his family, the current president, and deputies) and “insult to a government representative,”1 along with systemic administrative and extralegal attacks on journalists, have critically limited the ability of the media to investigate corruption cases.
  • In his September address, Tokayev paid the traditional special attention to corruption, announcing the creation of the Commission for the Reform of the Law Enforcement and Judicial System under the president. He further instructed the development of the Law on Public Control and a bill on access to information intended to create a single information resource on financial and economic activities of quasi-state structures and the use of budget funds. He also spoke about the desire to harshen the punishment for persons convicted of corruption, including by banning the granting of parole.2
  • In October, the anticorruption legislation was amended. Among other things, it introduced a ban on gifts of any value to government officials and a notion of “provocation of a crime.”3
  • The Anti-Corruption Agency has reported on more than 200 pretrial investigations initiated in 2020,4 including against Pavlodar regional akim Bulat Bakauov,5 Kyzylorda regional akim Kuanyshbek Iskakov,6 a deputy akim in the Atyrau region,7 Baikonyr district (Nur-Sultan) akim Askar Yesilov,8 and chair of the Bostandyk District Court of Almaty Altynbek Bayanov.9
  • The pandemic vividly illustrated the rampant nature of corruption in the country’s public administration. The head of the Anti-Corruption Agency named “corruption, bureaucracy, and irresponsibility” to be some of the main reasons for “the complication of the situation with coronavirus.”10 Criminal cases were initiated against a number of high-ranking healthcare officials, including the Minister of Healthcare Yelzhan Birtanov,11 Vice Minister Olzhas Abishev,12 and top managers of the Medical Insurance Fund and the state pharmaceutical distributor SK-Pharmacy.13
  • In January, two high-level officials in the Almaty region14 were detained for granting illegal authorization to build in the Almaty airport’s sanitary protection zone15 following a major air crash in December 2019, when a Bek Air plane with almost 100 people on-board smashed into an unfinished building.16
  • In June, the Supreme Court controversially decided to return “part” of the property confiscated from the family of the former akim of the Atyrau region, Bergey Ryskaliyev. Ryskaliyev and his brother Amanzhan fled the country in 2012 and have pending sentences for “embezzlement of budget funds and the creation of an organized criminal group.”17 Typical for political corruption charges in Kazakhstan, the case provoked speculations18 of an inter-elite struggle for resources.19
  • In April, the UK crime agency lost a case against Dariga Nazarbayeva and her eldest son Nurali Aliyev, failing to convince the judge that £80 million of property in London was linked to criminal activities of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s late son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev.20 In November, the London-based Times published materials demonstrating Nazarbayev’s links also to Sherlock Holmes’s fictional home at 221B Baker Street.21
  • Additionally, the Financial Times reported on leaked documents that testify to Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev’s receipt of more than $50 million under contracts related to the construction of a gas pipeline between Central Asia and China.22

Author: Malika Toqmadi is a political analyst and cofounder of PaperLab, a public policy research center based in Kazakhstan. She holds an MA in Politics and Security in Central Asia from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and an MA in Global and European Security from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    23 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    33 100 not free