Kazakhstan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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During the months preceding the December 4, 2005, presidential election, the Kazakh government intensified pressure on the country's civil society sector through harassment of, and attacks against, opposition activists and independent journalists. The authorities also enacted new restrictive laws, including legislation on extremism and national security that further curtailed the activities of religious groups, media outlets, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Meanwhile, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who enjoys sweeping political power, was widely expected to secure an overwhelming victory in the upcoming presidential poll.

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 USSR. 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 five-year term from 1996 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 moved forward from December 2000 to January 1999, 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 so that he may advise them on policy matters, as well as a permanent place on the country's 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 co-founders-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 and was living in exile in Russia. Abliyazov's announcement that he would cease political activity to concentrate on his business interests led 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. Meanwhile, the DCK was formally registered as a political party in May 2004.

The September 19, 2004, election for the lower house of parliament was contested by 12 parties, of which 9 supported the president. Otan captured 42 of 77 total seats, while nominally independent candidates-most of whom were reportedly associated with one of the progovernment parties-won 18. The three opposition parties that had been able to register for the vote-the DCK, the 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 only opposition candidate to win a seat, Alikhan Baimenov of Ak Zhol, 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) concluded that there had been some improvements over previous polls, they noted other serious problems, including lack of political balance on election commissions, media bias in favor of propresidential candidates, the exclusion of certain candidates for politically motivated reasons, and the presence of unauthorized personnel in polling stations.

The government intensified its harassment of the country's media and civil society sectors in the months leading up to the December 4, 2005, presidential election. The crackdown also appeared to be in response to the recent popular uprisings against repressive regimes in nearby Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, in which civil society actors were involved to varying degrees. In February, Nazarbayev signed legislation on extremism that proposed creating a formal list of extremist groups and their members and would give law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor's office greater surveillance rights and the power to disband groups suspected of extremism. Human rights activists charged that the definition of "extremism" was vague and could be used against nearly any political party, religious group, or NGO.

In July, Nazarbayev signed amendments to national security legislation that changed and imposed new restrictions on the criminal and civil procedure codes and on laws regulating political parties, NGOs, religious groups, and the media. Although the amendments were ostensibly designed to strengthen the country's security, they served to further weaken Kazakhstan's political and civil liberties environment. Throughout the year, members of the opposition alliance For a Just Kazakhstan faced threats and physical assaults, including the death of one opposition leader and the apparent abduction of another member's daughter.

Five candidates were allowed to register to participate in the presidential poll: Nazarbayev (Otan party), Zharmakhan Tuyakbai (For a Just Kazakhstan opposition alliance), Yerassyl Abylkasymov (Communist People's Party), Alikhan Baimenov (Ak Zhol), and Mels Yeleussizov (independent). Given the dominant role played by Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan's political life, most analysts predicted an overwhelming victory for the incumbent. According to preliminary reports issued by monitors from the OSCE, Tuyakbai, Abylkasymov, and Baimenov complained of interference in their campaigns, intimidation of supporters, and the destruction of campaign materials. The OSCE also noted that several recent amendments to the country's election law, including one banning protests between the end of the election campaign and the official publication of election results, did not meet OSCE criteria for democratic elections.

On the international front, Kazakhstan's relations with the United States showed strain over perceived U.S. involvement in the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the continuing U.S. investigation into the Kazakhgate scandal involving kickbacks by Western energy firms to Kazakh officials. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's ties with Russia, which had not been critical of Astana's domestic policies or government corruption, were strengthened; in 2004, bilateral trade between the two countries reach $7 billion, a 21 percent increase since 2003.

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. The constitution sets the presidential term of office at seven years and also stipulates that elections are to be held on the first Sunday in December. However, a 1998 parliamentary decision to move the December 2000 elections back to January 1999 led to a discrepancy in these constitutional provisions. In August 2005, the Constitutional Council ruled that the date of the next presidential election would be December 2005-a year earlier than some had argued was legally mandated.

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 (Mazhilis), 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.

The country's law on political parties prohibits parties based on ethnic origin, religion, or gender. A 2002 law raised from 3,000 to 50,000 the number of members that a party must have to register. Many observers believe that the purpose of Asar, a political party headed by Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, is to serve as her power base and possibly position her as an eventual successor to her father. In August 2005, the government formally registered the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition alliance, composed of Naghyz Ak Zhol (which splintered from the Ak Zhol opposition party in early 2005), the Communist Party, the Alga Party, and the Pokolenie pensioners' movement. National security legislation amendments signed by Nazarbayev in July prohibit the financing of political parties or candidates by foreign nationals during the electoral process.

Opposition parties, which have complained of harassment, surveillance, denial of access to the state-run media, and arbitrary bans on registering candidates, faced mounting pressures and attacks leading up to the December 2005 presidential election. In January, an Almaty court ordered the DCK shut down for allegedly inciting social tensions and posing a threat to national security. Prosecutors cited as evidence the DCK's second party congress in December, where it criticized Nazarbayev's policies, declared the government to be illegitimate, and urged the public to engage in acts of civil disobedience. Critics charged that the move was a politically motivated backlash in reaction to the recent popular revolt against the government in Ukraine.

The For a Just Kazakhstan opposition alliance suffered numerous attacks and incidents of harassment against its members throughout the year. In May, a group of men stormed a For a Just Kazakhstan meeting and threatened to kill the group's leader, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who escaped unharmed. Several people suffered minor injuries while police on the scene reportedly did not intervene to stop the violence. Arsonists attacked the group's campaign office in the town of Kostanai in September, destroying computers and other equipment. In October, police detained For a Just Kazakhstan member Tolen Tokhtasynov while he was on his way to the airport to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; he was charged with arranging an earlier, unauthorized meeting in Almaty. Also in October, the daughter of an official with Tuyakbai's presidential campaign disappeared; the official stated that she had recently received several phone calls and visits from police asking her for information about the campaign office's activities, which she refused to divulge. In November, For a Just Kazakhstan member Zamanbek Nurkadilov was found shot dead in his home, and two nephews of Naghyz Ak Zhol leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev were beaten by off-duty police officers.

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 107 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down many independent media outlets through measures including politicized lawsuits and confiscations of newspapers. Libel is a criminal offense, and the country's criminal code prohibits insulting the honor and dignity of the president; self-censorship is widespread. Amendments to national security legislation signed in July included prohibitions against publishing information deemed to be a state secret, advocating violence, or undermining the country's ethnic and social stability.

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 continues to direct the station from behind the scenes. The content of websites has been subject to libel laws, and the government at times has moved to block access to websites critical of the regime.

Harassment of and attacks against journalists and media outlets critical of the regime continued in 2005. In January, access to the Ak Zhol opposition party's website was blocked after it reportedly published a statement on its site criticizing the government's recent banning of the DCK. In January, the National Security Committee (KNB) won a libel suit against the opposition newspaper Soz, which had published an article with allegations by opposition party leaders that the KNB had kept them under surveillance during the 2004 parliamentary election campaign. Soz was ordered to pay $40,000 in damages and suspend publication. In April, Russian authorities released the exiled editor of the opposition Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye, Irina Petrushova, after having detained her for two days on a Kazakh extradition request for alleged tax evasion; Russian authorities concluded that she had been improperly detained. In May, the Ministry of Culture, Information, and Sport shut down Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye after the paper's parent company, Bestau, failed to pay damages following a lawsuit brought by the Kazakh government charging the paper with insulting the honor and dignity of the Kazakh nation. The legal action arose from the paper's publication of an interview with Russian parliamentary deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in which he allegedly made disparaging remarks about Kazakhstan. Respublika Delovoye Obozreniye resumed publication under the name Set.kz, which faced government harassment for alleged registration violations and had its license revoked in August.

The government's crackdown against opposition media intensified in the last few months leading up to the December 2005 presidential election. In September, the private printing house Vremya refused, without explanation, to print several opposition newspapers, which had been among the few media outlets to report positively on the presidential campaign of opposition candidate Tuyakbai. In early October, the editor of the Region Plus newspaper, which publishes articles critical of local authorities, was attacked by an unknown assailant. Later that month, the opposition weekly Juma Times was found guilty of insulting the honor and dignity of the president in an article about the "Kazakhgate" affair. Shortly thereafter, the authorities seized the paper's entire print run. On October 19, police confiscated the print run of the opposition weekly Svoboda Slova, which printed an article in which CNN journalists asked Nazarbayev whether he was a dictator. Three days later, the paper's editor in chief was found guilty of printing false information and defaming the president and fined about $360. Also in October, the government-controlled internet carrier, KazNIK, banned the opposition news website Navigator from using the web address navi.kz and forced it to use another domain.

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and many religious communities worship without government interference. However, local officials sometimes harass certain nontraditional groups, and there were legislative setbacks to religious freedom during the year. According to the 2005 amendments to national security legislation, all activities by unregistered religious groups are illegal. Previously, registration was required only if a religious group wished to receive legal status in order to engage in legal transactions, including buying or renting property and hiring employees. The 2005 extremism law gives the government wide scope in identifying and designating groups, including religious organizations, as extremist and in banning their activities.

The government reportedly generally permits 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 sometimes coerced into participating 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 NGOs that address sensitive issues through measures including investigations by tax police and surveillance by law enforcement and security agencies. As the December 2005 presidential election approached, the authorities took an increasingly hard line against both domestic and foreign-based NGOs. In June, parliament adopted two laws on NGOs that civil society activists charged would significantly restrict the activities of foreign and domestic groups, including through greater government oversight of their financial and other activities. In a positive step, the Constitutional Council subsequently struck down the laws as unconstitutional.

Amendments to national security legislation signed by Nazarbayev in July forbid participation in the activities or financing of unregistered NGOs. In September, Nazarbayev warned foreign NGOs not to interfere in Kazakhstan's internal politics, stressing what he called the negative role that he said such groups had played in the recent political upheavals in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Complicated procedures to obtain necessary permits for public demonstrations include a requirement that organizations must apply to local authorities 10 days in advance. In January, thousands of people protested the banning of the DCK opposition party; several DCK members were arrested and detained or fined.

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. In August, hundreds of salt miners went on strike to support several colleagues jailed for staging a hunger strike over delayed salary increases. 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, or 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 2004 introducing life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty. A February 2005 law on extremism gives authorities considerable latitude in designating a group as extremist and banning the group's activities.

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. A 2003 land code allows for private ownership of the country's vast tracts of agricultural land. However, critics have charged that the law will primarily benefit those wealthy individuals with close ties to government officials. Residents of Astana whose homes have been confiscated and demolished to make way for large-scale construction, including housing for the wealthy and elite, have complained of not receiving legally guaranteed financial compensation.

Traditional cultural practices and the country's economic problems limit professional opportunities for women. 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. According to the U.S. State Department's 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report, the country's National Working Group on Trafficking in Persons met regularly in 2005 and made progress in implementing the National Action Plan adopted in February 2004. While the government increased its convictions of traffickers, prosecution numbers remained low relative to the size of the problem.