Kazakhstan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores


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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Kazakhstan received a downward trend arrow due to constitutional amendments that removed term limits for President Nursultan Nazarbayev and altered the election criteria and composition of the legislature, in effect reducing opposition representation from one deputy to none.


In 2007, President Nursultan Nazarbayev eliminated the last vestiges of parliamentary independence and humbled potential rivals in his own family. Constitutional amendments passed in May removed term limits for Nazarbayev and ended single-mandate constituencies for lower-house lawmakers, leaving only party-slate seats. Parliamentary elections held under the new rules in August produced a single-party legislature, with deputies from the ruling propresidential Nur Otan party now constitutionally obligated to vote along party lines or face expulsion.

Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, just two weeks after Kazakh Communist Party leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was reconfirmed as president in an election. The country’s first national legislative polls, in 1994, were invalidated by the Constitutional Court a year later because of numerous irregularities. Nazarbayev subsequently dissolved the legislature and, in April 1995, called a referendum on extending his five-year term, due to expire in 1996, until December 2000. A reported 95 percent of voters endorsed the move. An August 1995 referendum that was boycotted by the main opposition parties approved a new constitution designed to strengthen the presidency. Nazarbayev supporters captured most of the seats in December 1995 elections for a new bicameral Parliament. In October 1998, Parliament amended the constitution to increase the presidential term from five to seven years and moved the presidential election forward from December 2000 to January 1999. The main challenger was disqualified on a technicality, and Nazarbayev was reelected with a reported 80 percent of the vote.

Prominent business leaders, some of whom held positions in Nazarbayev’s administration, founded the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) party in late 2001, with the stated goal of pursuing democratization, rule of law, and anticorruption efforts. However, some observers maintained that the group merely aimed to safeguard its members’ political and economic interests while countering those of the president’s family and close associates. Two of the DCK’s cofounders were imprisoned in a 2002 crackdown, and although both were eventually released, the DCK was disbanded by court order in January 2005.

Progovernment parties captured all but one seat in the September 2004 elections for the lower house of Parliament. The lone opposition deputy refused to take up his position until late 2006 in order to protest the conduct of the elections. International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found some improvements over previous polls, but criticized the lack of political balance on election commissions, media bias in favor of propresidential candidates, and the politically motivated exclusion of candidates.

Government harassment of the media and civil society intensified before the December 2005 presidential election, which followed successful popular movements against entrenched incumbents in nearby Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Nazarbayev secured reelection with a crushing 91 percent of the vote amid opposition allegations of fraud and an OSCE report that found intimidation and media bias in favor of the incumbent.

Political violence established a disturbing presence in Kazakhstan in 2005–06, with the suspicious suicide of opposition leader Zamanbek Nurkadilov in December 2005 and the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, a leading member of the opposition coalition For a Just Kazakhstan, in February 2006. The investigation of Sarsenbayev’s killing pointed to the involvement of state security officers but left many questions unanswered. The trial of Yerzhan Utembayev, former head of the Senate administration, and his sentencing to a 20-year prison term for organizing the murder were marred by reports of coerced confessions and suspicions that higher officials were involved in the crime.

Constitutional changes in May 2007 removed term limits for Nazarbayev as the country’s founding president and eliminated individual district races for the lower house of Parliament, leaving only party-slate seats filled by nationwide proportional representation. Parliamentary elections held under the new rules in August produced a one-party legislature after the propresidential Nur Otan party garnered 88 percent of the vote. Opposition parties protested the results to no avail. OSCE election monitors found that “a number of OSCE commitments and Council of Europe standards were not met, in particular with regard to elements of the new legal framework and to the vote count.”

Presidential son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev’s fall from grace in 2007 underscored the personalized and precarious nature of politics in Kazakhstan. He was sent to Austria as Kazakhstan’s ambassador in February after the disappearance of two managers at a bank he controlled (the two were still missing at year’s end). When the authorities filed kidnapping charges against him in May, he began to make his case from Austria using media he controlled in Kazakhstan. Those outlets—KTK television and the Karavan newspaper—were soon shut down for three months, and later reopened under new management. Austria eventually denied a Kazakh extradition request, arguing that Aliyev was unlikely to receive a fair trial at home.

Aliyev, who had previously been deputy foreign minister, had a long-standing reputation for unsavory business practices. While he attempted to portray himself as a victim of political persecution, claiming that Nazarbayev was squelching his presidential ambitions, the sudden move to prosecute him, the subsequent official campaign against his media outlets, and the decision by the president’s daughter to divorce him were more indicative of an advanced family feud. In another apparent measure to keep his family in check, Nazarbayev removed a second powerful son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, from a senior post at a state-asset management firm in August, while Darigha Nazarbayeva, Aliyev’s ex-wife, gave up her seat in Parliament.

Kazakhstan continued to pursue a multivector foreign policy in 2007, aiming to maintain friendly relations with China, Russia, and the United States. At its ministerial meeting in November 2007, the OSCE reached consensus on Kazakhstan’s bid to chair the organization, but not until 2010. Kazakhstan’s foreign minister pledged that in 2008 his country would adopt amendments to the laws on elections, political parties, and the media in line with OSCE recommendations.

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. Amendments passed in May 2007 removed term limits for the country’s “first president,” paving the way for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to stay in office after the end of his current seven-year term in 2012.

The bicameral Parliament is composed of a 47-member upper house (Senate), with 32 members chosen by directly elected regional councils and 15 appointed by the president, and a lower house (Mazhilis). In accordance with the May 2007 constitutional amendments, the number of Mazhilis deputies was raised from 77 to 107, with 98 elected by proportional representation on party slates and 9 appointed by the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, which represents the country’s various ethnic groups. Parties must clear a 7 percent vote threshold to enter the Mazhilis. Once elected, deputies must vote with their party. A June 2007 law also prohibited parties from forming electoral blocs. These rules prevented opposition parties from winning representation in the August 2007 elections, as none of them cleared the 7 percent threshold. The vote count and electoral framework drew criticism from international monitors.

The country’s broader 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, and national security legislation signed by Nazarbayev in 2005 prohibits the financing of political parties or candidates by foreign nationals during the electoral process.

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 paid bribes to secure lucrative contracts. Kazakhstan was ranked 150 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 criminal code prohibits insulting the honor and dignity of the president; self-censorship is widespread. Amendments to the media law in 2006 added new regulatory and registration requirements. Most media outlets, including publishing houses, are controlled or otherwise influenced by members of the president’s family or other powerful interest groups, as was evident in the role media played in the downfall of Rakhat Aliyev in 2007.

The content of websites has been subject to libel laws, and the government at times has moved to block access to websites that are critical of the regime. In January 2007, opposition journalist Kazis Toguzbayev received a two-year suspended prison sentence for libel after he published internet articles criticizing Nazarbayev.

The constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and many religious communities practice without state interference. However, local officials sometimes harass certain nontraditional groups, as appeared to be the case with the demolition of homes in a Hare Krishna community outside Almaty in late 2006. Amendments to national security legislation in 2005 made all activities by unregistered religious groups illegal. 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. 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. In May 2007, opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov was fined for participation in an unauthorized demonstration, and in August, the prosecutor-general warned against unsanctioned protests that might follow parliamentary elections.

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 and scored occasional successes, primarily over the nonpayment of wages.

The constitution significantly constrains the independence of the judiciary, making it 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. Allegations of coerced confessions dogged the trial of Yerzhan Utembayev for the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev in 2006. 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 large ethnic Russian population has emigrated. Many of the remaining Russians, most of whom do not speak Kazakh, have complained of discrimination in employment and education. However, in February 2007, the Constitutional Court affirmed the equality of the Russian and Kazakh languages.

While the rights of entrepreneurship and private property are formally 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 private ownership of the country’s vast tracts of agricultural land. However, critics have charged that the law primarily benefits 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.

Traditional cultural practices and the country’s economic imbalances limit professional opportunities for women. The current 107-member lower house of Parliament includes 17 female deputies; there are 2 female deputies in the 47-member upper chamber. 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 the purpose of prostitution remains a serious problem. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report, Kazakhstan “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” The country’s relative economic prosperity has drawn migrant workers from neighboring countries, particularly Uzbekistan. They often encounter poor working conditions and a lack of legal protections.