Kazakhstan | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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President Nursultan Nazarbayev won a crushing victory in the December 4, 2005, presidential election against a backdrop of government pressure on the country’s civil society and political opposition, charges of electoral fraud, and a critical report by poll monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The brutal February 2006 murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev highlighted the country’s disturbing tendency toward political violence as well as serious fissures within the ruling elite ahead of Nazarbayev’s scheduled departure from office in 2012. A new media minister supervised a campaign of increased state control over information and the passage of restrictive new media legislation.

Kazakhstan, a 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 leader of the Kazakh Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became president of the republic in 1990, and was confirmed in the post in a December 1, 1991, election, just two weeks before Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union. 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 a referendum on April 29, 1995, in which a reported 95 percent of voters supported the extension of his five-year term, set to expire in 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. Nazarbayev supporters captured most of the seats in December 1995 elections for a new bicameral Parliament.

In October 1998, Parliament approved Nazarbayev’s call for the presidential election 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 elections, which marked the first multiparty balloting in Kazakhstan’s history. Four opposition deputies captured seats. Despite some improvement over the controversial presidential ballot in January, the parliamentary poll was deeply flawed. In June 2000, the Parliament overwhelmingly approved giving Nazarbayev lifetime privileges when he eventually left office, including formal access to key government officials so that he could 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 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 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 arrested, convicted of abuse of power and corruption during their tenures in government, and sentenced to prison. Abliyazov was freed in 2003 after receiving an amnesty from Nazarbayev, and went to live 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 and won early release in January 2006. Meanwhile, the DCK formally registered as a political party in May 2004 but was disbanded by court order in January 2005.

The September 2004 elections for the lower house of Parliament were contested by 12 parties, of which nine supported the president. Progovernment parties captured the vast majority of the 77 seats. 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. The only opposition candidate to win a seat, Alikhan Baimenov of Ak Zhol, refused until late 2006 to take up his position in order to protest the conduct of the elections; none of the opposition parties recognized the official results. International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found some improvements over previous polls, but they noted serious problems, including a 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 2005 presidential election. The crackdown appeared in part to be a response to the recent popular movements against entrenched incumbents in nearby Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, in which civil society actors were involved to varying degrees. Five candidates were allowed to participate in the presidential poll: Nazarbayev, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai (For a Just Kazakhstan opposition alliance), Yerassyl Abylkasymov (Communist People’s Party), Alikhan Baimenov (Ak Zhol), and Mels Yeleussizov (independent). Nazarbayev secured reelection with a crushing 91 percent of the vote amid opposition allegations of fraud and an OSCE report that found “numerous and persistent examples of intimidation by the authorities” and “overall media bias in favor of the incumbent.”

Political violence established a disturbing presence in Kazakhstan in 2005–2006. In December 2005, the authorities ruled the death of opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov a suicide, even though he was found dead in his home with two gunshot wounds to the chest and one to the head. In February 2006, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a leading member of For a Just Kazakhstan, was found shot to death along with his bodyguard and driver. The subsequent investigation pointed to the involvement of state security officers in the killing, but left many questions unanswered. The trial, which was marred by claims that confessions had been coerced, culminated in the sentencing of Yerzhan Utembayev, former head of the Senate administration, to a 20-year prison term for organizing the murder. Prosecutors said Utembayev had been acting on a personal grudge, but conflicting theories implicating higher government officials were aired by trial witnesses and the opposition.

On the international front, Kazakhstan’s relations with the United States appeared to recover from recent strains over perceived U.S. involvement in the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Nazarbayev visited the United States in September 2006 and met with U.S. president George W. Bush. The visit did not, however, produce a clear statement of U.S. support for Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. In early December, the OSCE postponed until 2007 a decision on Kazakhstan’s bid for the chairmanship. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s ties with Russia, which has not been critical of Astana’s domestic policies or government corruption, continued to strengthen. In 2004, bilateral trade between the two countries rose 21 percent to reach $7 billion, and Nazarbayev noted during an October 2006 meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin that 2006 trade volume would reach $11 billion.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Kazakhstan is not an electoral democracy. 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 currently 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 election back to January 1999 led to a discrepancy in these 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. Nazarbayev won the vote, giving him a second seven-year term. Since the current constitution limits the president to two terms, he must leave office in 2012.

The bicameral Parliament is composed of an upper house (Senate), whose 39 members are chosen by directly elected regional councils; 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. National security legislation amendments signed by Nazarbayev in July 2005 prohibit the financing of political parties or candidates by foreign nationals during the electoral process. 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 unregistered Alga party, and the Pokoleniye pensioners’ movement.

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. Alga, which represents the remnants of the banned DCK, was unable to obtain registration in 2006. In July 2006, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of For a Just Kazakhstan, announced plans to form a social-democratic party. Also that month, Asar, a party headed by Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga, merged with the largest propresidential party, Otan. The move appeared to represent a further consolidation of the president’s dominant position in the political arena.

The February 2006 murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a former Nazarbayev ally who had joined the opposition and become a leader of For a Just Kazakhstan, laid bare a wide array of deficiencies in Kazakhstan’s political and judicial system. Sarsenbayev, his driver, and bodyguard were found shot to death outside Almaty. Yerzhan Utembayev, the former head of the Senate administration, was convicted of ordering the murder, allegedly for insulting comments Sarsenbayev had made about him in a press interview. Several members of an elite National Security Committee unit were also convicted of involvement in the killing. Prosecutors’ account of the killing was widely doubted, and opposition leaders charged that Sarsenbayev had been murdered for his political beliefs. Adding to the uncertainty, Utembayev and a number of other defendants recanted their initial confessions, saying they had been coerced. The trial itself also exhibited numerous procedural irregularities.

The aftermath of the killing exposed a serious conflict between two of Kazakhstan’s most powerful political clans—one led by Dariga Nazarbayeva and her husband, Rakhat Aliyev; and another led by Timur Kulibayev, husband of the president’s second daughter. An early victim was Nartai Dutbayev, seen as a Kulibayev ally, who resigned as head of the National Security Committee shortly after the killing. The two clans used media outlets they controlled to leak compromising materials about each other, and appeared to be positioning themselves for an eventual succession struggle. The incident showed that Kazakhstan’s central political relationships remain very much in the shadows, with unofficial actors and influence groups playing far more important roles than registered parties and the public politics in which they engage.

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 U.S. oil companies allegedly used middlemen to pay millions of dollars to top Kazakh officials, including Nazarbayev, in exchange for lucrative contracts. Kazakhstan was ranked 111 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down 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 the country’s media law passed in 2006 require news outlets to include the names of editors in their registration applications, file for reregistration in the event of even minor changes, and keep $40,000 in reserve to cover potential libel damages. The law drew harsh criticism from journalists and the OSCE. Nevertheless, Parliament passed the law and Nazarbayev signed it in July.

Most media outlets, including publishing houses, are controlled or otherwise influenced by members of the president’s family or other powerful interest groups. Dariga Nazarbayeva resigned her position as head of the state-run Khabar television station before the 2004 parliamentary election campaign, but was thought to retain significant influence behind the scenes. Newly appointed information minister Ermukhamet Ertysbayev led a campaign to reassert state control over Khabar after the Sarsenbayev killing, in a move that was seen as a presidential intervention to reduce Nazarbayeva’s influence over the country’s media.

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. In December 2005, the government shut down the Kazakh-registered website of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, drawing a protest from press freedom groups. Baron Cohen routinely mocked the country through one of his characters.

The government cracked down hard on opposition media in the last few months before the December 2005 presidential election. Harassment of independent media continued in 2006, though with somewhat less intensity. In January, for example, a printing press with links to the Nazarbayev family refused to print seven Almaty-based opposition newspapers. Nevertheless, the enactment of the repressive legislation in July signaled a general worsening of the media environment in 2006.

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

The government reportedly permits academic freedom, except with respect to criticism of the president and his family. During the 2004 parliamentary elections and 2005 presidential election, 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 with threats of poor grades or other penalties. Corruption in the educational system is widespread, with students frequently paying bribes to professors for passing grades.

Despite constitutional guarantees, the government imposes restrictions on freedom of association and assembly. The authorities harass nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that address sensitive issues through measures including tax investigations 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. Complicated procedures to obtain permits for public demonstrations include a requirement that organizations apply to local authorities 10 days in advance. When opposition leaders held an unauthorized demonstration in the wake of the Sarsenbayev killing, they were arrested and jailed for a short time.

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 September and October of 2006, workers at mines owned by a unit of Netherlands-based Mittal Steel Co. struck for higher wages and improved working conditions after an accident on September 20 killed over 40 miners. Workers gained a pay raise, although it was not clear that all of the miners’ concerns were addressed by the settlement.

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. A moratorium on the death penalty was imposed in December 2003, and Nazarbayev issued a decree in January 2004 introducing life imprisonment as an alternative.

Since Kazakhstan’s independence, much of the country’s large ethnic Russian population has emigrated, in part because of the enhanced status 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 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 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 projects, including housing for the elite, have complained of not receiving legally guaranteed financial compensation. Dozens were injured and a policeman was killed in July 2006 when riot police stormed an unlicensed settlement outside Almaty that the authorities had deemed illegal. The demolition of homes in a Hare Krishna community in an Almaty suburb in late November and the forced resettlement of residents prompted statements of concern from the OSCE Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan.

Traditional cultural practices and the country’s economic imbalances limit professional opportunities for women. Nine women were elected to Parliament in the 2004 elections, an increase of one over the 1999 elections. Domestic violence often goes unpunished, as police are 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. Kazakhstan serves as a place of origin, transit point, and destination country for victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, Kazakhstan does not yet meet minimal standards for eliminating trafficking, but is making progress. The country’s relative economic prosperity has made it a magnet for migrant workers from neighboring countries, particularly Uzbekistan. The migrants frequently encounter poor working conditions and a lack of legal protections.