Kazakhstan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Kazakhstan joined most of its Central Asian neighbors in 2001 in offering its support for the U.S.-declared war on terrorism following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. However, in contrast to some of the other so-called frontline states, Kazakhstan was less directly affected by the military operation against the Taliban because of factors including its relative distance from Afghanistan and the absence of a significant militant Islamist presence on its territory. On the economic front, the Tengiz-Novorossisk oil pipeline, which extends from one of the world's largest oil fields in Kazakhstan to a Black Sea port in Russia, was finally operational by the middle of the year.

This sparsely populated, multiethnic land stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border was gradually conquered by Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After a brief attempt at independence in 1917 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Kazakhstan became an autonomous Soviet republic in 1920 and a union republic in 1936.

The former first secretary of the Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was elected president on December 1, 1991, just two weeks before Kazakhstan declared independence from the U.S.S.R. The country's first national legislative elections, in March 1994, were invalidated by the constitutional court a year later because of numerous irregularities. Nazarbayev subsequently dissolved parliament and called for a referendum on April 29, 1995, in which a reported 95 percent of voters supported the extension of his term until December 2000. An additional referendum in August of that year, which was boycotted by the main opposition parties, approved a new constitution strengthening the powers of the presidency. In December 1995 elections for a new bicameral parliament, Nazarbayev's People's Union of Kazakhstan Unity and its supporters captured most of the seats in the legislature.

In October 1998, parliament approved Nazarbayev's call for presidential elections to be held in January 1999, almost two years before their scheduled date, as well as an amendment to the constitution extending the presidential term of office from five to seven years. The key challenger, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, was banned from competing on a legal technicality, while two other candidates were known supporters of the incumbent. Nazarbayev was reelected with a reported 80 percent of the vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitored the elections, refused to recognize the results, which it said fell "far short" of being democratic.

In the September and October 1999 parliamentary vote, which was the first multiparty election in Kazakhstan's history, 33 candidates competed for the 16 seats becoming vacant in the 39-seat upper house (senate), while more than 500 candidates from ten parties vied for the 77 seats of the parliament's lower house (Majlis). As expected, Otan, the newly formed party loyal to Nazarbayev, won the single largest number of seats in the Majlis. Despite some improvement since the controversial presidential ballot in January, the parliamentary poll remained deeply flawed. The OSCE noted the obstruction and intimidation of opposition candidates, as well as the lack of independent election commissions.

Kazakhstan's parliament overwhelmingly approved a law in June 2000 giving Nazarbayev lifetime privileges after the end of his second term in office in 2006. Proposed by the pro-Nazarbayev Civilian Party, which includes some of the country's most influential industrialists, the law provides Nazarbayev with formal access to key government officials to advise them on domestic and foreign policy matters, as well as a permanent place on the Security Council. While some analysts have concluded that the law may lead to Nazarbayev's formally becoming president-for-life, others speculate that he would be content to continue running state affairs behind the scenes after he officially steps down from office.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Astana offered the use of its airspace for the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban. Kazakhstan's geographical distance from Afghanistan left it somewhat removed from the conflict and less worried than countries such as Uzbekistan or Tajikistan about possible spillover effects, including refugee concerns. In addition, unlike several of its Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan has not faced serious threats from regional militant Islamist groups during the last several years. Nevertheless, in the wake of the September terrorist attacks, Kazakhstan took precautionary measures by tightening border controls with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, placing its armed forces in the south on high alert, and enacting certain restrictions on the movements of citizens of other Central Asian countries.

On September 6, the supreme court sentenced former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin to ten years in prison on charges of tax evasion, abuse of power, and illegal arms possession. His property in Kazakhstan was confiscated and he was ordered to pay fines to the state worth more than $6 million. Kazhegeldin, who lives abroad and heads an opposition party to Nazarbayev, was convicted in absentia. Many observers maintain that the purpose of the trial was to prevent him from making a political comeback in Kazakhstan, as the conviction would bar him from running for public office.

In a public sign of a power struggle at the highest political level, Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Tokaev called for the dismissal of a number of senior government officials on November 20 after they announced the formation of a new movement called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. The following day, several of these officials, including a deputy prime minister and deputy defense minister, resigned or were removed from their posts. Democratic Choice included prominent critics of President Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, who resigned on November 15 as deputy chairman of the country's National Security Committee, and was subsequently rehired as deputy chief of Nazarbayev's presidential guard. Aliev had also been embroiled in a struggle with the governor of Pavlodar, who accused Aliev of pursing a libelous campaign against him through his vast media holdings.

As part of the government's stated intention to reverse years of capital flight from Kazakhstan, a tax amnesty law went into effect on June 14. Under the legislation, individuals were given 20 days to bring money back into the country without the threat of taxes or investigation by the authorities; the deadline was later extended by another 10 days. The government announced that by July 13, some $480 million had been deposited into special accounts at banks chosen by the National Bank. Critics of the law charged that it would allow corrupt officials and others to launder money with the government's blessing, and that the amount returned to Kazakhstan would be too small to have any real effect on the economy of such a large country.

In a significant step forward in the development of reliable export routes for Kazakhstani crude oil, construction of the Tengiz-Novorossisk pipeline, which extends from Kazakhstan to Russia, was completed in 2001. The pipeline was officially commissioned in March 2001, with the first oil reaching Russia in mid-year. According to industry observers, the line is not expected to reach its full capacity until the year 2015.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Kazakhstan cannot change their government democratically. The constitution grants the president considerable control over the bicameral legislature, the judiciary, and local governments. President Nursultan Nazarbayev continues to enjoy sweeping executive powers and rules virtually unchallenged. Opposition parties have complained of harassment, surveillance, denial of access to the state-run media, and arbitrary banning from registering candidates.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down many independent media outlets. The press is not permitted to criticize the president and his family, and self-censorship on other issues is widespread. Most newspapers, publishing facilities, and television and radio stations are controlled or otherwise influenced by the government and its supporters, including Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga and her husband, Rakhat Aliev. In April, Yermurat Bapi, the editor of the independent newspaper Soldat, was sentenced to a year in prison for printing an article linking Nazarbayev to corrupt business deals; Bapi subsequently was pardoned under a presidential amnesty. All Internet service providers must route their lines through a state registration system, allowing the government to establish control over the country's access to the Internet.

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, although the government sometimes harasses certain nontraditional Islamic and Christian groups. Religious organizations must register with the ministry of justice to receive legal status, without which they cannot engage in legal transactions, including buying or renting property or hiring employees. Religious organizations that have encountered difficulties during registration include Jehovah's Witnesses and some Protestant sects, as well as certain Muslim and Orthodox Christian groups. The government continued to discriminate in favor of ethnic Kazakhs in government employment, where Kazakhs predominate, as well as in education and housing. The 1999 Kazakhstani census revealed that, for the first time in decades, recent emigration by Russians had resulted in ethnic-Kazakhs constituting more than half of the country's population.

Freedom of association is hindered by complicated requirements that restrict the right to hold political gatherings. The government has cited minor infractions of the law to arrest and detain government opponents arbitrarily. Although the law gives workers the right to form and join trade unions, it does not provide independent union members with legal recourse from harassment by enterprise management or state-run unions. Members of independent unions have been dismissed, transferred to lower-paying jobs, and threatened.

The constitution significantly constrains the independence of the judiciary, which is subservient to the executive branch. Judges are subject to bribery and political bias, and corruption is evident throughout the judicial system. Police frequently abuse detainees during arrest and interrogation. Prisons suffer from severe overcrowding and inadequate food and medical care for inmates.

While the rights of entrepreneurship and private property are legally protected, bureaucratic hurdles and the control of large segments of the economy by clan elites and government officials loyal to Nazarbayev limit equality of opportunity and fair competition. Traditional cultural practices and the country's economic problems limit professional opportunities for women, who are underrepresented in government bodies and in the leadership of state enterprises.