Kazakhstan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Kazakhstan received a downward trend arrow due to increasing repression of the political opposition and media outlets, including a new restrictive law on political parties.


Domestic challenges to President Nursultan Nazarbayev's authoritarian regime intensified in 2002 with the establishment of a new opposition movement composed of prominent government officials and business leaders. Nazarbayev responded to the threat by increasing the government's campaign against independent media outlets, including the use of physical intimidation and violence against journalists and their organizations. The year also saw the adoption of a new restrictive law on political parties and the convictions of two prominent opposition leaders on politically motivated charges. Meanwhile, the so-called Kazakhgate scandal, in which U.S. oil companies allegedly made secret payments to senior Kazakh officials in exchange for lucrative contracts, continued to attract both domestic and international attention.

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, 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 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, a 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 obstruction and intimidation of opposition candidates, as well as the lack of an independent election commission. In June 2000, parliament overwhelmingly approved giving Nazarbayev lifetime privileges after the end of his second term in office in 2006, including formal access to key government officials to advise them on policy matters, as well as a permanent place on the Security Council.

Signs of a deepening split within the country's ruling elite became evident following the November 18, 2001, founding of a new political movement, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK). Established by prominent business leaders, some of who held positions in Nazarbayev's administration, the DCK proclaimed its commitment to democratization, rule of law, and anticorruption efforts. However, some observers questioned the sincerity of its stated goals and maintained that the group's primary purpose was to safeguard its members' substantial political and economic interests while countering those of the president's family and close associates. A few days after the group was formed, several senior government officials who were DCK members resigned or were removed from their posts.

Apparently sensing that the DCK posed a growing political threat to his regime, Nazarbayev cracked down increasingly on the group throughout 2002. In January, thousands of people participated in a demonstration organized by the DCK and another prominent opposition group, the United Democratic Party, of which Kazhegeldin was a member. Nazarbayev was reportedly shocked by the large turnout at the rally, which was broadcast live by a local television station. In what critics charged were politically motivated cases, two of the DCK's cofounders--Mukhtar Abliyazov and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov--were subsequently arrested and convicted of abuse of power during their tenure in government.

Criticism of Nazarbayev over "Kazakhgate," a scandal that centered on allegations that the president and other top officials had accepted bribes from U.S. oil conglomerates during the 1990s, continued during the year. On March 13, two prominent opposition parliamentary deputies sent a letter to the prime minister in which they maintained that they had documents proving that Kazakh government funds had been improperly deposited in Swiss bank accounts controlled by Nazarbayev, his family, and his associates. The following month, Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov confirmed the existence of a secret fund of some $1 billion, as well as of foreign bank accounts registered under Nazarbayev's name. However, he insisted that the purpose of the secret fund was to bail out the country during difficult economic times, and that the source of the fund was a 1996 government sale of a share in the Tengiz oil field. Tasmagambetov maintained that the foreign accounts allegedly belonging to Nazarbayev were set up by other people to "compromise" the president, who had ordered the money returned and used for improving the capital, Astana. In response, opposition leaders announced the creation of a fund to monitor the state's oil and gas revenues. In September, a U.S. judge ruled that Nazarbayev may not claim "sovereign immunity" from prosecution in the case, which was under investigation by a U.S. federal grand jury.

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 bans on 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 or his family, and self-censorship on other issues is widespread. The country's criminal code criminalizes "offenses against the honor and dignity of the president." 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.

In 2002, the government intensified its crackdown against media outlets critical of the regime, particularly those allied to the opposition political group Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK). During the year, authorities recalled the broadcasting licenses of a number television stations and suspended the publication of several independent newspapers for alleged technical violations. In March, TAN-TV's broadcasting rights were suspended in a move widely considered to be a politically motivated response to the station's unprecedented live broadcast of a January demonstration by opposition parties, including the DCK. While the station was granted temporary broadcasting rights just days later as a result of international and domestic pressure, its offices were attacked and equipment destroyed in late March.

On May 19, the editor of the independent weekly paper Delovoye Obozreniye Respublika, Irina Petrushova, found a decapitated body of a dog hung on an office window with a note saying that this would be the last warning. She later found the dog's head and a similar note near her home. Three days later, the newspaper's office was destroyed by Molotov cocktails. The paper, owned by DCK co-founder Mukhtar Abliyazov, had been reporting on a financial scandal allegedly involving Nazarbayev. Also in May, assailants beat two journalists of the independent paper SolDat, which was supported by Nazarbayev's chief political rival, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. Despite the fact that her body reportedly showed signs of torture, police concluded in July that the daughter of journalist Lira Baysetova had hanged herself. Baysetova had interviewed the Swiss prosecutor-general two months earlier about alleged secret bank accounts linked to Nazarbayev. In August, independent journalist Sergei Duvanov was attacked outside his home by unknown assailants, suffering head injuries. Shortly before he was scheduled in October to travel to the United States to speak about Kazakhstan's human rights situation, Duvanov was arrested for allegedly raping a 14-year-old girl. According to Human Rights Watch, Duvanov's long-standing criticisms of government policy suggested that the case against him was politically motivated. His trial opened on December 24 and continued at year's end.

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 some Protestant sects, as well as certain Muslim and Orthodox Christian groups.

A new law on political parties signed by Nazarbayev on July 15 imposes substantial restrictions on freedom of association. Among the provisions of the law is one that raises from 3,000 to 50,000 the number of members that a party must have to register. Opposition parties and the OSCE criticized the law for leading to the likely closure of most of the country's political parties, including the DCK, which must re-register before January 17, 2003, under the new regulations.

Freedom of assembly 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. In May, police dispersed antigovernment rallies in Almaty and the northeast to protest state crackdowns on the political opposition and independent media. Although workers have the legal right to form and join trade unions, members have been dismissed, transferred to lower-paying jobs, or 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. In September, Nazarbayev created the position of human rights ombudsman, naming Bolot Baykadamov, the former secretary of the presidential human rights commission, to the post. Although the ombudsman is charged with monitoring the observance of human rights nationwide, he is not empowered to interfere in the work of the police or judiciary.

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. Kazakhstan abolished the Soviet exit-visa system in 2001. 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 major enterprises.