Kazakhstan | Page 23 | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2005

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Political parties loyal to President Nursultan Nazarbayev continued to dominate parliament following the September 2004 legislative elections, which were criticized by international monitors for failing to meet basic democratic standards. Only one opposition deputy was elected, although he refused to take his seat in protest over the flawed nature of the polls. Meanwhile, the resignations of key senior officials raised questions about internal power struggles and dissension within Nazarbayev's government.

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 the December 1995 elections for a new bicameral parliament, Nazarbayev 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.

Otan (Fatherland), a newly formed party loyal to Nazarbayev, won the single largest number of seats in the September 1999 parliamentary vote, which was the first multiparty election in Kazakhstan's history and in which four opposition deputies captured seats. Despite some improvement since the controversial presidential ballot in January, the parliamentary poll remained deeply flawed. 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 whom 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.

Apparently sensing that the DCK posed a growing political threat to his regime, Nazarbayev cracked down increasingly on the group throughout 2002. In what critics charged were politically motivated cases, two of the DCK's cofounders - former minister of energy Mukhtar Abliyazov and former Pavlodar governor Galymzhan Zhakiyanov - were subsequently arrested, convicted of abuse of power and corruption during their tenure in government, and sentenced to prison. Abliyazov was freed from prison in 2003 after receiving an amnesty from Nazarbayev; as of late 2004, he was living in exile in Russia. Abliyazov announced that he would cease political activity to concentrate on his business interests, leading to widespread speculation that his release was made conditional on his leaving politics. Zhakiyanov was transferred from prison to a minimum security settlement colony in northern Pavlodar in August 2004. In May 2004, the DCK was formally registered as a political party.

In the September 19, 2004, parliamentary elections and October 3 runoff vote, pro-government parties secured an even larger number of seats than in the previous legislative poll. The election was contested by 12 parties, of which 9 supported the president. The 3 opposition parties that had been able to register for the vote - the DCK, Communist Party, and Ak Zhol - faced intense government pressure, including detentions of party activists, interference in campaign events, and unfair allocation of public space for advertising. The DCK, which was formally registered as a political party in May, formed an electoral bloc with the Communist Party in July. Otan captured 42 of 77 total seats, while nominally independent candidates - most of whom were reportedly associated with one of the pro-government parties - won 18. The Agrarian Party - Civic Party Bloc (AIST) secured 11 seats, followed by Asar, led by the president's daughter Dariga, with 4 seats, and the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan with 1 seat. The only opposition candidate to win a seat, Alikhan Baymenov of Ak Zhol, announced that he refused to take up his seat in protest over the conduct of the elections. None of the opposition parties recognized the outcome of the elections.

Although international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted some improvements over previous polls, they criticized the election for failing to meet international standards for democratic elections. Among the problems noted were lack of political balance on election commissions; media bias in favor of pro-presidential candidates; the exclusion of certain candidates for politically motivated reasons; a lack of integration between electronic and paper voter lists, which increased the possibility of multiple voting; and the presence of unauthorized personnel in polling stations.

The flawed elections heightened political tensions and, despite the overwhelming victory of pro-government parties, raised questions about dissension within Nazarbayev's support base. In October, Nazarbayev's primary economic advisor, Grigory Marchenko, resigned and called for the removal of the country's prime minister. In the same month, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai announced his resignation as both Speaker of the lower house of parliament and vice chairman of Otan, citing massive election irregularities as his reason for stepping down. Some observers speculated that his decision may have been prompted by his having lost a political fight within the ruling establishment. Tuyakbai subsequently announced that he had joined an opposition group.

Speaking to the new parliament on November 3, Nazarbayev accused wealthy businessmen of preventing competition in the economy; many observers maintained that the president's remarks were directed at key financial backers of opposition parties. On November 28, two bombs exploded in Otan's offices in the former capital of Almaty, injuring one person slightly. Although Otan party leaders did not directly accuse the political opposition of responsibility for the attacks, they characterized the bombings as an attempt to undermine the stability of the state. Meanwhile, the opposition maintained that the incident could have been conducted by the authorities as a pretext for further crackdowns against opponents of the regime.

Kazakhstan is the leading economy in Central Asia, with petroleum and gas exports contributing to an expected growth of nearly 10 percent in gross domestic product in 2004. However, the government's focus on the oil sector, which constitutes approximately half of state budget revenues, has led to concerns of over-reliance on a potentially volatile industry. In addition, much of this wealth has not benefited the majority of the population, who suffer from high levels of unemployment and low wages.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Kazakhstan cannot change their government democratically. The constitution grants the president considerable control over the legislature, the judiciary, and local governments, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev continues to enjoy sweeping executive powers and governs virtually unchallenged. The bicameral parliament is composed of an upper house (Senate), whose 39 members are chosen by regional councils, whose members are directly elected; and a lower house (Majilis), whose 77 members are elected by popular vote (67 in single-mandate constituency contests and 10 from party lists on the basis of proportional representation). A second-round vote is held if no candidate in a single- mandate contest receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The country's presidential and parliamentary elections have been neither free nor fair.

In April, Nazarbayev signed a series of amendments to the country's election law that had been the focus of intense and lengthy debate. According to representatives from the OSCE, although the amendments represented progress over previous legislation, further improvements would be necessary - including greater guarantees for pluralistic representation of political parties on election commissions - for the law to meet OSCE commitments for democratic elections fully.

The country's law on political parties prohibits parties based on ethnic origin, religion, and gender. Opposition parties have complained of harassment, surveillance, denial of access to the state-run media, and arbitrary bans on registering candidates. A 2002 law raised from 3,000 to 50,000 the number of members that a party must have to register. In addition, there must be at least 700 members in each of the country's regions (oblasts). In September 2003, Dariga Nazarbayeva announced her intention to turn her Asar political movement into a political party. Many observers believed that this move was designed to provide an additional base of support for the Nazarbayev family, help Dariga gain a seat in the 2004 parliamentary election, and position her as an eventual presidential successor to her father.

Corruption is widespread throughout all levels of government, and businesses are forced to pay bribes in order to deal with the government bureaucracy. The U.S. Justice Department is continuing to investigate the so-called Kazakhgate scandal, in which Western oil companies allegedly paid millions of dollars to top Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev, in exchange for lucrative contracts. Kazakhstan was ranked 122 out of 146 countries in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down many independent media outlets. Libel is a criminal offense, and the country's criminal code prohibits insulting the honor and dignity of the president; self-censorship is widespread. Most media outlets, including publishing houses, are controlled or otherwise influenced by members of the president's family, including Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga, and trusted government officials. Although Dariga resigned her position as head of the state-run Khabar television station before the 2004 parliamentary election campaign because of the involvement of her political party, Asar, in the election, many observers maintain that she continued to direct the station from behind the scenes. Most local media outlets are not willing to report on the Kazakhgate. The content of Web sites has been subject to libel laws, and the government at times has prevented clients of the country's two largest Internet service providers from gaining direct access to several opposition Web sites.

Harassment of and attacks against journalists and media outlets critical of the regime continued during the year. In January, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Zhuldyz Toleuova was beaten by unknown assailants, an attack which her colleagues believed was connected to her work, including reporting on the activities of the political opposition. Later that month, police beat journalist Svetlana Rychkova of the opposition paper Assandi Times - formerly known as Respublika - which had printed articles about government corruption, politics, and media rights. In March, unknown men attacked Vremya sports journalist Maxim Khartashov, who had frequently exposed corruption scandals in the country's sports sector. Independent journalist Ashkat Sharipzhan, who had interviewed leading opposition figures and reported on government corruption scandals, died of injuries he sustained in a suspicious car accident in July. In June, a fake special edition of the Assandi Times was published which contained false statements by opposition politicians. The newspaper charged that the government was behind the printing of the fake issue in an effort to discredit the opposition in advance of the September parliamentary elections. The authorities responded with a libel suit against the Assandi Times, which they won in July, and the paper was ordered to pay nearly $370,000 in damages.

In April, Nazarbayev rejected a draft media law, which had been adopted by the lower house of parliament in December 2003 and by the upper house in March. The draft had been criticized by international and domestic observers for further restricting media freedom. A new draft proposed in August by Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbayev contained more guarantees for journalistic freedoms; the bill had not been adopted as of November 30. In a legal case that attracted international attention, journalist Sergei Duvanov was sentenced in January 2003 to three and a half years in prison on charges of raping a 14-year-old girl. His supporters insisted that the case against Duvanov, who wrote articles accusing Nazarbayev and other political figures of corruption, including the Kazakhgate scandal, was politically motivated. He was transferred from prison to house arrest in January 2004 and granted early release in August for what the authorities said was good behavior; many observers believe that his release was due to international pressure.

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, although local officials sometimes harass certain nontraditional 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 groups reportedly did not experience lengthy delays registering, as in previous years, because of a law that went into effect in September 2004 that simplified registration procedures.

The government reportedly permits most academic freedom, except for criticisms of the president and his family. During the 2004 parliamentary elections, there were credible reports that teachers and professors were pressured by local officials to join certain parties and vote for particular candidates. Schoolchildren and university students are often forced to participate in staged official celebrations or face poor grades or other penalties. Corruption in the educational system is widespread, with students frequently paying bribes to professors to earn passing grades.

Despite constitutional guarantees, the government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and assembly. The government harasses nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that address sensitive issues through measures including investigations by tax police and surveillance by law enforcement and security agencies. A new law which went into effect in September 2004 simplified and shortened the registration process for NGOs and other legal entities, which is required for them to operate. Complicated procedures to obtain necessary permits for public demonstrations include a requirement that organizations must apply to local authorities 10 days in advance. In September, police broke up an unsanctioned rally that was held in front of the state-controlled Khabar television station in protest over biased media coverage of the parliamentary election campaign; nine people were arrested and briefly detained.

Workers have the legal right to form and join trade unions and participate in collective bargaining, and a number of unions operate throughout the country. Workers have engaged in strikes, primarily over the nonpayment of wages. However, the government exercises considerable influence over organized labor, and the largest trade union association is affiliated with the state. Some union members have been dismissed, transferred to lower-paying jobs, and threatened for their union activities.

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 at times abuse detainees during arrest and interrogation, often to obtain confessions, and arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. Conditions in pretrial facilities and prisons are harsh. Following a moratorium on the death penalty ordered in December 2003, Nazarbayev issued a decree in January introducing life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty. As part of the government's measures against Islamist groups that it considers a threat for advocating extremist views, parliament in October 2004 adopted a law on extremism which defined the term very vaguely.

Since Kazakhstan's independence, much of the country's large ethnic Russian population has emigrated, in part because of the enhanced role granted to the Kazakh language. Many of the remaining Russians, most of whom do not speak Kazakh, have complained of discrimination in employment and education.

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. In June 2003, parliament adopted a Land Code allowing for private ownership of the country's vast tracts of agricultural land. Critics charged that the law will primarily benefit those wealthy individuals with close ties to government officials.

Traditional cultural practices and the country's economic problems limit professional opportunities for women, and women's rights experts regard current legislation addressing sexual harassment as inadequate. Nine women were elected to parliament in the 2004 election, an increase of one since the 1999 election. Domestic violence is a problem, with police often reluctant to intervene in what are regarded as internal family matters. Despite legal prohibitions, the trafficking of women for purposes of prostitution remains a serious problem, with Kazakhstan a place of origin, transit point, and destination country for victims of trafficking. During the year, an anti-trafficking commission developed a National Plan to Combat Trafficking, and amendments to the criminal and administrative codes were drafted to strengthen legislative provisions against trafficking; parliament is scheduled to vote on the amendments in 2005.