Kazakhstan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1998

1998 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Kazakhstan receives a downward trend arrow due to an unfair presidential campaign and persecution of the opposition.


In October 1998, parliament unexpectedly approved holding  presidential elections in January 1999, a year before they were scheduled. This allowed President Nursultan Nazarbayev to get a jump on the opposition which had  little more than a month to register a candidate. On November 4, in another move to assure Nazarbayev’s re-election, the Central Election, which was stacked with government loyalists, banned the key challenger, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, because he participated in a meeting of the unsanctioned Movement for Fair Elections.

In all, parliament adopted 19 amendments to the constitution, 13 of which were proposed by President Nazarbayev. One prolonged the presidential term from 5 to 7 years,  allowing him to run for more than  two terms, and also removed the age restriction of 65.

This sparsely populated, multi-ethnic land, which is the size of India and stretches from the Caspian Sea east to the Chinese border, was controlled by Russia from 1730 to 1840. After a brief period of independence in 1917, it became an autonomous Soviet republic in 1929 and a union republic in 1936. Kazakhstan formally declared independence from a crumbling Soviet Union in December 1991. President Nazarbayev, former first-secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party and head of the Kazakhstan National Unity Party (PNEK), was directly elected in 1991. In March 1995, Nazarbayev dissolved parliament and ruled by decree. Nazarbayev ordered a referendum extending his rule to the year 2000 (his term expired in 1996), and on  April 29, a reported 95 percent supported the measure. Four months later, voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, which gave the president the right to dissolve parliament if it approves a no-confidence vote in the government or twice rejects his nominee for prime minister. It also codified periods of presidential rule by decree. The December Senate elections were largely uncontested, with Nazarbayev supporters taking all the seats. The PNEK dominated the vote for the Majilis, or lower house.

In 1998, despite some macroeconomic improvement, there were signs that the economy was in  trouble. In February, the government suspended privatization in the oil sector. In July, the prime minister reported that the oil sector faced a “very serious crisis” because of the international financial crisis and low prices. The prospect of economic crisis, according to analysts, was the basis for President Nazarbayev to call for early elections and extend his term. 

In July, the government implemented a package of austerity measures aimed at staving off an economic crisis. The plan pledged to cut 10,000 state employees, along with spending by state organizations. The government also pledged to review contracts with foreign companies which have not met government obligations.

Key parts of the economy and government positions continued to be dominated by clans loyal to President Nazarbayev and members of his family. His daughter, Dariga, controls the national television network, while her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, is head of the tax police. Another son-in-law, Timur Kulidayev, is the financial director and vice president of Kazakhoil. The company is believed to have provided funds for President Nazarbayev’s pet projects, such as the construction of the new capital of Astana (the name was changed from Akmola in May 1998).

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can participate in multiparty elections, but under the constitution, power is centered in the hands of President Nazarbayev, whose regime has cracked down on the opposition and the media. Parliament is largely powerless, and in 1997, President Nazarbayev restructured the government to broaden and safeguard his authority. In 1998, parliament passed amendments that lengthened the president’s term to seven years and extended the terms of both houses of parliament.

There are several independent newspapers, including those that reflect oppositionist views. The most popular, Karavan, reports on corruption and is critical of the government. Newspaper distribution system is controlled by the state. In December 1996, the government announced that it would hold a tender for broadcast frequencies. The cost of licenses and annual fees are extremely high. Several independent broadcasters were forced out of business, including the popular Radio Max and TV-M, which aired “Open Zone,” a popular political program that provided a platform for the opposition. As a result of the tender, there are now only four nominally non-state television channels and three independent radio stations in Almaty. In 1997, three popular channels in Akloma (Atana) were arbitrarily disconnected from state transmitters. Libel laws are used by authorities to discourage free speech. After he publicly criticized Nazarbayev during a rally in April 1998, Madel Isamailov, a leader of Almaty’s Workers Movement, was sentenced to one year in prison for “using the mass media for insulting the president.”

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but religious associations may not pursue political goals. Christians, Muslims, and Jews can worship freely. In Septemeber, six Wahhabi missionaries from Pakistan were expelled from the country.

Freedom of assembly is restricted. Several unsanctioned rallies by workers, pensioners, and the political opposition to protest deteriorating social and economic conditions were broken up by police who detained demonstrators. In April, police beat a group of demonstrators who rallied in front of the prosecutors office in Almaty to protest the trial of  a leading Workers Movement activist.

Opposition parties include the Azamat, Socialists (former Communists), the nationalist Azat (Freedom) Party, the ethnic-Russian Unity Party, and the rightist Respublika Party, as well as smaller groups. Opposition parties have complained of harassment, surveillance, denial of access to the state-run media, and arbitrary banning from registering candidates. In late October, Azamat leader Pyotr Svoik was detained in Almaty and charged with slander, inciting national conflict, and insulting an official.

The largest trade union remains the successor to the Soviet-era General Council of Trade Unions, a government organ in practice. The Independent Trade Union Center, with twelve unions, includes the important coal miners’ union in Karaganda. A new labor law places restrictions on the right to strike. Workers who join independent unions are subject to threats and harassment by enterprise management, and have no legal recourse.

The judiciary is not free of government interference and remains under the control of the president and the executive branch.  Judges are subject to bribery and political bias. Judges are appointed by the Ministry of Justice with little or no parliamentary oversight.  Supreme Court and lower court judges are now required to take exams attesting to their professional qualifications. The Constitutional Court was replaced in 1995 by a seven-member Constitutional Council; three of its members, including the chairman, are appointed by the president. Rights to an attorney and open trial have been denied political detainees. Corruption is evident at every level of the judicial system.

Russians, Germans, and other non-Kazakhs have charged discrimination in favor of ethnic Kazakhs in state-run businesses, government, housing and education. Ethnic Germans and Russians have left in droves, particularly from the northern industrial cities, such as Karaganda. Uighurs who have ethnic ties to their restive kin in China’s Xinjiang province, have been banned from demonstrating and holding political meetings.

Freedom of movement and the free right to chose a residence are guaranteed under the constitution, and the “propiska” system of residence permits has been abolished.  In practice, citizens are still required to register in order to prove legal residence and to obtain city services.

Under the 1995 constitution, private property is an inviolable right. Basic rights of entrepreneurship are codified, but bureaucratic hurdles and the control of large segments of the economy by clan elites and government officials who are loyal to President Nazarbayev impede equal opportunity and fair competition.