Kazakhstan | Freedom House

Nations in Transit



Nations in Transit 2003

2003 Scores

Democracy Score
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Electoral Process
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Society
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Independent Media
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Judicial Framework and Independence
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)


(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In his early years in office, President Nursultan Nazarbaev successfully portrayed resource-rich Kazakhstan as a stable multiethnic state that was well positioned to enact political and economic reforms and attract foreign investment. Over time, though, Nazarbaev has squandered his reform credentials by erecting a personalistic authoritarian regime that lacks respect for basic political rights and civil liberties. Instead, a Soviet-style approach of persecuting his critics and monitoring his close clients and supporters now characterizes the Nazarbaev regime. Most recently, the president has intensified a clampdown on political activists and members of the media who expose official corruption by incarcerating them on false or trumped-up legal charges.

Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has made strides toward the establishment of a market-oriented economy. Rising oil exports since 2000 have contributed to sustained economic growth and increased macroeconomic stability. A 13 percent increase in gross domestic product between 2001 and 2002 was the highest registered by any country in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The growing volume of oil exports and the recognition of Kazakhstan as a market economy by the United States have given tremendous confidence to ruling elites who envision Kazakhstan taking its place among the top five leading oil exporters by 2015 and becoming the foremost Western trading partner in the region.

Nevertheless, corruption and uncertainty have cast a shadow over Kazakhstan's economy and given pause to once enthusiastic foreign investors. In late 2002, for example, Kazakhstan was forced to resolve a standoff with the Chevron-Texaco Corporation, which had announced the suspension of its next phase of investment (worth $3.5 billion) in the country's Tengiz oil field following a decision by the Kazakhstani government to review the terms of existing contracts with foreign investors. Chevron-Texaco's uncertainty over continued investment in the country also stemmed from a lawsuit in the United States against James Giffen, a merchant banker who is accused of illegally funneling money from Mobil Oil Corp (now ExxonMobil) into Kazakh hands in 1996. Giffen is being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of the United States. Mobil purchased a 25 percent share in the so-called Tengizchevroil venture in 1995.

President Nazarbaev, former prime minister Nurlan Balgimbaev, and other top regime figures are themselves under investigation for allegedly transferring millions of dollars from state oil investments into personal accounts. In 2001, in response to a request from the U.S. Justice Department, Swiss authorities froze 13 Geneva-based accounts containing $120 million suspected of belonging to top Kazakhstani government officials. When journalists and opposition activists tried to publicize the details of the scandal, known as Kazakhgate, the state retaliated. For example, when independent journalist Sergei Duvanov documented in an online article the involvement of President Nazarbaev and his close associates in Kazakhgate, he was arrested on fabricated charges of raping a minor and sentenced in January 2003 to 3.5 years in jail.

In the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Kazakhstan has not proved as strategically vital a partner as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which both have U.S. military bases on their soil. However, as 2002 drew to a close and the likelihood of military operation in Iraq increased, President Nazarbaev hoped to gain a more important position for Kazakhstan by offering the use of air bases and all "means of support" to the United States. His regime also has engaged in considerable international lobbying and behind-the-scene efforts to prevent an inquiry into Kazakhgate.

Since 1995, President Nazarbaev and close family members have seized control over most strategic resources and distribution networks, including the country's oil and mining sectors, pipeline and transportation networks, security services, and national media. Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter, has controlled the state news agency, Khabar, since its creation in 1996. Her husband, Rakhat Aliev, was once considered a likely successor to Nazarbaev and held important positions such as head of the Almaty taxation department and deputy head of the national security service. Today Aliev serves as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria. Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbaev's second son-in-law, has further consolidated his economic base as the deputy president of Kazakhmunaygaz, a new conglomerate formed from the merger of the state oil companies Kazakhoil and Kaztransoil.

Kazakhstan's vast resource base and its pursuit of privatization have generated tremendous opportunities for other members of the regime to amass power and wealth as well. They also have inspired the rise of a visible new group of entrepreneurs and businessmen who are referred to as the "Young Turks" or the "New Kazakhs." The Young Turks have become the leading proponents of economic and political freedoms in the country, and their demands directly undermine the personalistic and patronage-based structure of the Nazarbaev presidency. Nevertheless, their political fortunes are still dependent on collaborating with the regime. If they refuse to do so, they could suffer the fate of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former minister of energy, industry, and trade, and Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, the former head of the Pavlodar oblast, both of whom spoke out against the regime and were convicted in 2002 on politically motivated charges of corruption.

Today, the country's political elite consists primarily of prominent political figures who are also the heads of major business groups. While these business groups depend on the presidential family for patronage, they compete intensely with one another. The regime has managed to coopt many powerful entrepreneurs by offering them political positions, but these individuals could be emboldened to turn against the regime at any moment. In the near future, the stability of the regime will depend on the findings of a U.S. court on the corruption charges against President Nazarbaev and his close associates. In the meanwhile, the regime has tightened its vigilance over members of the government and various business interests.

Electoral Process: 

At age 62, President Nazarbaev is in good health and enjoys a virtually unrestrained mandate. In September 2002, Nazarbaev announced that he might take advantage of his "constitutional right" and stand for the presidential elections scheduled in 2006. Under a law passed in 2002, Nazarbaev is now immune from prosecution.

In 1999, President Nazarbaev secured another seven-year term in office. Former prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, considered the president's most serious challenger, was barred from running. Although the official election results gave Nazarbaev 81.7 percent of the vote, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and most international election-monitoring agencies declared the vote neither free nor fair.

Elected in October 1999, the current Parliament is Kazakhstan's third popularly elected legislature since 1991. The bicameral body consists of the Senate (upper house) and the Majilis (lower house). The Senate has 39 members who serve a 6-year term. Thirty-two are elected indirectly through a joint session of the maslikhats (local assemblies) from each oblast and the cities of Astana and Almaty. The president nominates the remaining seven members.

The 77 members of the Majilis are elected for 5-year terms. Ten seats are filled on the basis of proportional representation, and parties must pass a 7 percent threshold to secure one. The remaining 67 members are elected from single-member constituencies in which the winning candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. If no candidate receives a majority, the two candidates receiving the greatest number of votes compete in a second round. The candidate with the largest number of votes is then elected. The regime uses politically motivated charges to prevent independent and opposition candidates from contesting elections. It also approaches opposition activists with offers of bribes and threats of reprisals.

By-elections in December 2002 for three Majilis seats provide a case in point. In the cities of Pavlodar and Atyrau, opposition challengers lost to candidates representing pro-regime parties. In Karaganda, a local court annulled the registration of Bulat Abilov, a former dissident and member of the new pro-regime party Aq Zhol (Bright Path), on spurious grounds. Overall, the by-elections were marred by widespread interference by local authorities, irregularities in vote counting, and intimidation of nonregime candidates.

According to the Constitution, the president is above party politics but has the right to ban any political party. In practice, Nazarbaev frequently offers comments, advice, and directives to the pro-regime parties and serves as their ultimate patron and benefactor. Since gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has seen the rise and eclipse of numerous political parties, most of which have been sponsored by interests or personalities within the regime. All parties in Kazakhstan lack well-developed organizational structures and significant national membership.

Political parties can be divided into pro-presidential and opposition groups. Pro-presidential parties, which claim to be independent, confine their criticism to the prime minister and the cabinet and pledge allegiance to the president. Opposition parties target their criticism mainly at the president and his close associates.

The most prominent pro-regime parties are Otan (Fatherland), Grazhdanskaia Partiia (Civil Party), and the newly formed Bright Path. Fatherland was launched in January 1999 as the party of the regime. It utilized its control over central, regional, and local administrations to secure the largest share of seats, 24, in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Fatherland claims to have some 300,000 members, most of whom are state employees who are pressured to join in order to keep their jobs. The pro-business Civil Party was also launched a few months before the 1999 parliamentary elections. It represents the interests of the Eurasia corporate group, which controls six major metallurgical enterprises in Kazakhstan. In addition, a host of smaller parties such as the Renaissance Party, Azat, and Alash lack seats in Parliament but enjoy the patronage of forces within the regime, particularly the Ministry of Interior Affairs. These parties are commissioned to campaign against the opposition and to champion the interests of indigenous Kazakhs against Slavs and foreigners.

In November 2001, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, and other reformers such as Finance Minister Uraz Zhandosov formed a new political party called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) to advocate for greater economic liberalization and decentralization. Though not formally registered as a political party, the DVK has emerged as the leading axis of the opposition alliance. When Bulat Abilov, an influential parliamentary deputy and entrepreneur, joined the DVK and renounced his membership in Fatherland, the regime responded with efforts to intimidate and fragment the group. Zhandosov and Abilov eventually split off from the DVK to form Bright Path, which is ambiguously allied with the regime.

Former prime minister Kazhegeldin, who has lived in the West since 1998, leads an influential opposition group known as the Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan (RNPK). The RNPK, which claims a membership of 14,000, has mobilized support primarily among Western policy-making circles by offering the most trenchant critique of the Nazarbaev regime. Its main support bases are in western and northern Kazakhstan and in the cities of Almaty and Atyrau. Kazhegeldin, who became the first prominent Kazakh leader accused of corruption, was sentenced in absentia in 2001 to 10 years in prison. In 2002, the RNPK, the Forum of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan (an umbrella organization of 16 opposition parties), and the DVK formed a broad alliance calling for the abrogation of the president's unlimited powers, the establishment of a parliamentary republic, direct elections for all local and regional heads, and a two-term limit for the presidency.

The Democratic Party of Kazakhstan "Azamat" and Narodnyi Kongress (People's Congress of Kazakhstan), which in the past had vacillated between pro-regime and opposition platforms, have since 1999 allied themselves unequivocally with the Forum of Democratic Forces. The Communist Party, also in opposition since 1999, maintains a ramshackle organizational base inherited from the Soviet era and has a large following among the elderly, who form the most politically active constituency.

The constitutional right of political parties to participate in elections is undermined by constant tinkering with party registration procedures and membership requirements. A new Law on Political Parties, which was passed in June 2002, has been criticized by the opposition as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The law requires all political parties to reregister with the Ministry of Justice by showing a minimum of 50,000 signatures (the previous requirement was 3,000). In addition, a party must have at least 300 representatives in each of the country's 14 oblasts and in the cities of Astana and Almaty. A party may be abolished if it fails to register within two months of its formation, does not participate in two consecutive elections, or polls less than 3 percent of the vote. The law, initiated by the pro-regime party Fatherland, is designed to benefit the major pro-presidential parties and push out all opposition.

While Fatherland, the Civil Party, and Bright Path have succeeded in obtaining registration, it is unlikely that other political parties will register successfully by the deadline of January 20, 2003. Although the Communist Party has applied for registration, the broad opposition alliance in general has decided to boycott the process. It is feared that the authorities may register the Communist Party as a means of severing its ties with the opposition and co-opting it as the only legally registered opposition group.

Civil Society: 

Through Strategy 2030, Kazakhstan's official reform plan, President Nazarbaev has sought to coopt political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with his strategy to democratize society and establish the rule of law by the year 2030. However, increased censorship and regulation of the civic sphere contradict these stated goals. Likewise, pervasive public apathy presents a serious obstacle to the establishment of effective civic activism.

According to Evgenyi Zhovtis, the director of Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, legislation in the country is designed to protect the interests of the state rather than those of the individual. Kazakhstan's Law on Public Associations, in force since 1998, requires the permission of public authorities to hold a public rally and thereby negates the constitutional right to freedom of assembly. Participation in an "unsanctioned" rally or meeting can lead to arrest and later conviction and a fine. Persons convicted and fined in a court of law are ineligible to occupy any public post or contest elections. Article 337 of the criminal code also provides stiff penalties for participation in an unregistered public association. Overall, surveillance by Interior Ministry forces and harsh penalties make it extremely difficult to organize any public action. Individuals protesting the arrest of independent journalist Sergei Duvanov in fall 2002 devised a novel way of expressing their dissent by marching through the streets with umbrellas that had "Duvanov" imprinted on them. The protesters were still arrested and fined.

Once a multiethnic republic, Kazakhstan has become a Kazakh-dominated state during the past decade. Ethnic Kazakhs form 53.4 percent of the population, according to the 1999 census, up from 39.7 percent in 1989. Ethnic Russians make up 29.9 percent, down from 37.7 percent in 1989. Uzbeks form 2.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians 3.6 percent, Tatars 1.7 percent, and Germans 2.4 percent. Kazakhstan's population has fallen by nearly two million, or about 8 percent, over the past decade. This is due largely to emigration by nontitular groups, mainly Slavs and Germans, who lack effective organization and mobilization of ethnic grievances.

In the new ethnic hierarchy that has emerged since 1991, ethnic Kazakhs enjoy the status of "first among equals." Russians and other non-Kazakh groups have undergone a steady demotion of status. Although Russian has the status of an official language, Kazakh is effectively the sole state language. Nazarbaev has used personal patronage to create symbolic institutions of ethnic representation such as the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, established in 1995 ostensibly to comply with the recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities. Some of the assembly's members are nominated by officially recognized national cultural centers, with the president, who also serves as the assembly's chairman, nominating the remaining members. The assembly lacks juridical power and a representative base and instead serves as an instrument to coopt leading ethnic figures into the existing political system. Its members are encouraged to engage in "cultural" or "ethnographic" activities while steering clear of politics.

The Constitution authorizes ethnic groups to form official national cultural centers committed to protecting their heritage but prohibits the formation of public associations or political parties that have ethnic, religious, or nationalist identities. The national centers are encouraged, and expected, to solicit support from their "kin" states for the cultural and material advancement of their respective groups. The German and Korean centers have benefited from material support from their kin states as well as from individual ethnic sponsors. However, most other ethnic centers remain dependent on the modest support of the state. A law requiring them to be registered with the Ministry of Justice serves as an important screening mechanism. Groups championing the rights of ethnic Uighurs have faced prejudice and obstacles to their work because of a widespread perception among officials that Uighurs are "separatists" or "terrorists."

As with political parties and public organizations, NGOs must be registered with the Ministry of Justice. In contrast with its clampdown on ethnic activism, the government has generally refrained from interfering with NGO activities. According to the Confederation of NGOs of Kazakhstan (CNOK), there are 3,500 NGOs in the country. The NGO sector employs about 34,000 full-time workers, 50,000 part-time workers, and over 100,000 volunteers.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been actively involved in training NGOs to advocate their causes and has focused particular attention on public health and electoral reforms. The Soros Foundation has provided small grants to NGOs to hold hearings and conduct other activities. Organizations such as the Counterpart Consortium, the Feminist League, and the Initiative for Social Action and Renewal in Eurasia (ISAR) serve as umbrella groups for newer NGOs. Among the most active NGOs are those dedicated to children's welfare and health (16.6 percent), environmental issues (15 percent), and women's rights (13.3 percent). The more successful NGOs, particularly in the health and education sectors, are slowly altering official and popular perceptions of their roles.

Following the lobbying efforts by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Kazakhstan passed the most progressive NGO taxation regime in Central Asia in 2000. NGOs receiving grant money from international organizations, and the donors themselves, are no longer obliged to pay taxes. However, in USAID's 2000 NGO Sustainability Index, Kazakhstan ranked 21st out of 28 former Communist countries. Domestic political and financial pressures push most NGOs to obtain international assistance and protection.

Almost half of all NGOs are concentrated in Almaty oblast, and an overwhelming proportion of these are in the city of Almaty itself. More remote and needy regions, particularly in central and northeastern Kazakhstan, have few NGOs. When CNOK established a branch in the western city of Atyrau, it led to the emergence in 6 months of 25 new NGOs, focused mainly on environmental and health care issues.

Obstacles to NGO activities tend to be informal rather than legal. A common government control mechanism is the creation of state-sponsored "independent" organizations that get favorable treatment in obtaining registration and funds and competing for international aid. A typical example is the children's health and charity fund Bobek, which is headed by Sara Nazarbaeva, the president's wife. Bobek serves as an umbrella organization by sponsoring smaller NGOs and funneling international aid to them.

NGOs promoting women's issues have been quite effective, particularly the Association of Single Mothers, the Feminist League, and a group of NGOs in Semipalatinsk that assists women suffering from radiation caused by nuclear tests. The Feminist League has regional branches and has campaigned to get women elected to local government offices. The Women's Network of Almaty and the Kazakhstan Businesswomen's Association have demanded equal representation for women in Parliament and other political organs. They also have established the Women's Political Leadership project to train female NGO leaders, business executives, and politicians. Fifteen women's NGOs have established the coalition Women's Electoral Initiatives, which led to the creation of a women's party called the Political Alliance of Women's Organizations.

The state-sponsored Association of Trade Unions (ATU) remains the largest nongovernmental organization in terms of formal membership, claiming some four million members. Independent unions have steadily challenged the dominant status of the ATU, a successor to the Soviet-era General Council of Trade Unions. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, supported by the Human Rights Bureau and numerous other nonprofit organizations, has set up grassroots organizations across the country and claims 250,000 members. It is the first Soviet-era union in the former empire to gain membership in the World Labor Confederation.

Independent Media: 

Frustrated by domestic media reports of high-level government corruption, President Nazarbaev argued in 2002 that irresponsible media campaigns had set in motion the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia. He then initiated a crackdown against his critics, and media freedom became the single largest casualty. Seitkazy Mataev, the head of Kazakhstan's independent Union of Journalists, characterized 2002 as the worst year for the media in Kazakhstan since the country became independent in 1991 because virtually all independent publications have found it impossible to publish regularly. Freedom House's annual Survey of Press Freedom has rated Kazakhstan "Not Free" since 1994.

According to the Ministry of Culture and Information, 1,586 of the country's 3,877 registered mass media outlets are fully functioning. These include 1,047 newspapers, 400 magazines, 125 TV or radio channels, and 14 information agencies. Although 80 percent of these are defined as "nongovernmental" or privately owned, all broadcast transmission facilities are government owned. The number of electronic and print outlets in the country fell to 25 and 4,000, respectively, at the end of 2000, down from 200 and 8,000, respectively, in 1993.

As the owners of the former state news agency Khabar, Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president's daughter, and her husband, Rakhat Aliev, wield control over most major newspapers and broadcast channels in the country. They do so through auxiliary companies that have majority stakes in nominally privatized newspapers (Vremya, Karavan, Novoe Pokolenie, Argumenty i Fakty, Komsomolskaya Gazeta) and television stations (Khabar and KTK). The Russian-language Kazakhstanskaya Pravda and the Kazakh-language Egemen Kazakstan are the main state-supported newspapers. President Nazarbaev's second son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, owns two other prominent newspapers, Panorama and Delovaya Gazeta.

In April 2002, Dariga Nazarbaeva organized a high-profile conference in Almaty called the Eurasian Media Forum. Although the stated purpose of the event was to discuss changes in the media since the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, the conference proved more a public relations campaign designed to enhance President Nazarbaev's international profile and demonstrate to the West the supposed pluralism and freedom enjoyed by Eurasian media. Forums focused on the role of the media in covering terrorism and conflict zones and were steered judiciously away from any discussion of media in the domestic context. While over 200 foreign media personnel and various representatives of the state media were invited, the only independent Kazakhstani journalist asked to address a panel was Tamara Kalieva of Edil Soz, a USAID-financed organization that monitors media freedom. Conference organizers allowed a few independent and opposition journalists to attend, only after coming under pressure from the OSCE and the International Press Institute.

Article 318 of the criminal code penalizes a person for "insulting the honor and dignity of the president." The 1999 Law on Confidential State Affairs made "disclosure or publication of information about the president and his family and their economic interests or investments into the realm of state secrets punishable by severe sanctions." These laws, a carryover from the Soviet period, have been invoked routinely against newspapers that engage in investigative journalism.

As independent journalists have sought to report on President Nazarbaev's alleged Swiss bank accounts, the regime has retaliated against them. If critics of the regime once faced charges of engaging in "irresponsible" journalism, undermining the country's stability, violating the country's Law on the Media, or disrespecting the "honor and dignity of the president," over the last year they increasingly have been accused of criminal offenses such as possession of drugs or illegal arms, theft, and financial misdeeds.

The arrest in October 2002 of Sergei Duvanov, a long-term critic of the regime and editor of the information bulletin of Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, on charges of raping a minor is by far the most brazen act of prosecution of an independent journalist to date. Opposition members, human rights activists, and independent observers allege that the case was fabricated by authorities who coaxed the girl and her mother. Earlier in the year, Duvanov was brutally beaten by unknown assailants. Both the attack and the arrest took place just days before Duvanov was scheduled to speak in the United States about human rights in Kazakhstan.

A number of other journalists and media outlets suffered from harassment in 2002. The daughter of Lira Baeseitova, an opposition activist and editor of the weekly Respublika, was arrested on alleged possession of heroin and died in police custody under suspicious circumstances. Baiseitova had published material relating to Swiss bank accounts rumored to belong to President Nazarbaev and members of his family and had received an award from the International Committee to Protect Journalists. In another event, the corpse of a decapitated dog was hung over the door of Irina Petrushova, editor in chief of the newspaper Respublika-Delovoe Obozrenie. Days later, the offices of the paper were destroyed by fire from Molotov cocktails.

The offices of Tan, one of the most popular independent television and radio companies in Kazakhstan, was the target of repeated arson attacks and shootings in 2002 after it reported that the arrest of opposition leader Galymzhan Zhakiyanov was politically motivated. Both Tan and Irbis, a station in Pavlodar that aired demonstrations by the supporters of ousted oblast chief Zhakiyanov, were banned for alleged violations of a law stipulating that at least 50 percent of all programs must be in the Kazakh language. Saghynghaliy Khafizov, editor of the Altyn Ghasyr and Atyrau Aqshamy newspapers in western Kazakhstan, spent 52 days in jail in early 2002 for "violating the dignity and honor of the president" after he published articles explaining his refusal to accept a presidential award. Both papers are sympathetic to the opposition.

Kazakhstan's few independent advocates of media rights include the organization Edil Soz, supported by USAID, and the Association of Independent Electronic Mass Media in Central Asia, funded by several international agencies. In 2002, Tamara Kalieva of Edil Soz highlighted the pressures exerted by the government on state employees and private firms to subscribe to state-controlled newspapers. The government's aim is to show higher circulation rates.

Independent journalists have turned increasingly to the Internet to post their articles. Among the major sites they use are Eurasia (www.eurasia.org.ru) and Kazakhstan's Democratic Forces Forum (www.forumkz.org). These opposition-run Web sites offer Russian-language translations of material compiled from various Western sources that is critical of the regime. Currently, there are about 150,000 Internet users in Kazakhstan. The government has tried to maintain control of the Internet, and the two largest Internet providers, Kazaktelecom and Nursat, periodically have blocked access to popular Web sites.

Judicial Framework and Independence: 

As Kazakhstan has evolved into a superpresidential, unitary, and centralized system, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches have become subordinated to presidential authority. The concentration of power in the hands of the president and close family members has hampered the development of constitutionalism, the rule of law, and institutional accountability. The president appoints the prime minister and his cabinet and can dismiss them at any time.

Parliament is dominated by numerous financial interests and patronage networks that pledge their loyalty to the president. The OSCE's report on the 1999 parliamentary elections noted that almost a third of all deputies were closely allied with regime interests or the executive branches of local governments. They were not, however, formally associated with a political party. Ethnic Kazakhs hold 58 out of 77 seats. Only eight of the deputies are women.

Since the sentencing of Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov in 2002, the regime has tightened its surveillance over various business interests by keeping them closely linked to the state-sponsored political party apparatus. President Nazarbaev has warned entrepreneurs sympathetic to the opposition movement DVK "not to meddle in politics" and instead to work toward "opening new enterprises, creating jobs, and raising wages."

Nazarbaev has responded to the growing opposition challenge by creating Soviet-style state-sponsored bodies. In November 2002, he launched a permanent consultative body on democratization that will bring together representatives of Parliament, the government, the presidential administration, pro-presidential parties, and NGOs. However, no opposition members were invited to attend. Evgenyi Zhovtis, the director of Kazakhstan's Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and a participant in the consultative group's first session, described it as a "potentially useful" body but not a substitute for political parties.

The 2000 trial in absentia of former prime minister Kazhegeldin and the closed trials in 2002 of opposition politicians Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov have drawn increased international scrutiny of Kazakhstan's judicial system. In March 2001, Article 284 of the criminal procedure code was amended to allow Kazhegeldin's trial in absentia. Since Kazhegeldin's conviction, the Kazakhstani government has sought his arrest by Interpol, but to no avail. In July 2002, though, the government secured the revocation of an Interpol ruling stating that Kazhegeldin's arrest had been sought on political rather than criminal charges. Interpol's Constitution prohibits the organization from undertaking any intervention in or activity of a political, military, religious, or racial nature.

The closed trials of Ablyazov and Zhakiyanov in 2002 were widely condemned as politically motivated. When Zhakiyanov took refuge in an Almaty building housing several European embassies, he was handed over to Kazakhstani authorities with the understanding that he would enjoy full access to the national and international press as well a free trial. Not surprisingly, the government failed to honor the agreement and instead flew Zhakiyanov promptly to Pavlodar, placed him under house arrest, and brought him quickly to trial.

There is evidence that President Nazarbaev involved himself personally in the 2002 arrest of journalist Sergei Duvanov. Specifically, the president's press service sent a fax to law enforcement officials instructing them how to respond to media queries about Duvanov even before his arrest. Moreover, Nazarbaev claimed during an official visit to Brussels in December that Duvanov's crime had been proved, even though the trial had not yet begun. Although a few foreign observers, including this author, were permitted to attend the trial, no local observers or journalists were allowed in the courtroom. The trial was marred by innumerable procedural violations such as the judge's rejection of demands for an independent forensic examination, inconsistencies in witness testimonies, insufficient time for the defense to review the case, and severe restrictions on Duvanov's right to private consultations with his lawyers.

Kazakhstan's Constitution spells out elaborate procedures for the appointment of judges, in which the president plays a decisive role. Upon the recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council, which selects Supreme Court judges and the chairs of oblast courts, the president proposes nominees for the Supreme Court to the Senate. Oblast judges and local-level judges are appointed by the president and the Supreme Judicial Council from a list presented by the Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Judicial Council consists of the chair of the Constitutional Council, the chair of the Supreme Court, the prosecutor-general, the minister of justice, senators, judges, and other persons appointed by the president.

Although judges are appointed for life, there is a mandatory retirement age of 65. The president may remove judges, except members of the Supreme Court, on the recommendation of the minister of justice. Based on recommendations from the Supreme Judicial Council, the president can request that the Senate remove judges at the local, city, oblast, and Supreme Court levels.

The Constitution abolished the Constitutional Court and established the Constitutional Council in 1995. The main functions of the council are to offer rulings on election and referendum challenges, interpret the Constitution, and determine the constitutionality of laws adopted by Parliament. The president appoints three of the council's seven members, including the chairman, and has the right to veto its decisions. President Nazarbaev frequently attacks the judiciary for making errors, causing delays, and being incompetent. He also has deemed existing judicial reforms a "failure" and has stated that further reforms of the internal structure of the judiciary are more urgent than guarantees of its independence.

Although the judiciary is a grossly underpaid institution, entrance into the legal profession is highly coveted because judges regularly supplement their low incomes with lucrative bribes. Informal reports suggest that law faculties at the more prestigious universities routinely expect prospective students to offer bribes ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Following collaboration between the Supreme Court and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a judicial training institute was established in 2001 to train professional judges.

The American Bar Association has estimated that 80 percent of Kazakhstan's lawyers are state employed. However, the number of lawyers who are either self-employed or work with foreign companies is growing rapidly. The two main associations of independent lawyers are the Association of Lawyers of Kazakhstan and Legal Development of Kazakhstan, both based in Almaty.

The criminal code, adopted in 1997, retains many of the features of the Soviet-era code on which it is based. It prohibits authorities from detaining individuals for more than 72 hours without charge. With the approval of a prosecutor, a person may be held for up to 10 additional days. In practice, police routinely hold detainees for months without bringing charges. According to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, there are approximately 70,000 prisoners in facilities designed to hold 60,000. Although most detainees are persons arrested for petty crimes, some are there on politically motivated charges. Seven out of every 1,000 citizens are estimated to be prisoners.

A bail system exists, but bail is rarely granted. Persons who are arrested are usually presumed guilty. Individuals generally remain in custody until their trial, and detention can be extended for an indefinite period. The criminal code is subject to interpretation by the executive, particularly by officials in the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Kazakhstan has achieved some positive reforms, such as the abolition of exit visas for Kazakhstani citizens and the transfer of oversight for the penitentiary system (except detention centers) from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Justice. Nevertheless, the Office of the Prosecutor-General serves as an instrument of control over society and fulfills presidential orders. In 2002, President Nazarbaev instructed the Office of the Prosecutor-General to file criminal charges against all those who have "offended state officials."

Local police are generally unaware of changes in legislation and simply execute orders received from above. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is responsible for conducting inquiries into allegations of torture. However, the ministry's own officials have a widespread reputation for using torture, and human rights advocates have emphasized the need for independent investigations into allegations of its practice.

According to the International Bureau of Human Rights and Rule of Law, a Kazakhstani NGO, Kazakhstan ranks among the top six or seven countries in the world in its per capita use of the death penalty. In 2002, the bureau convinced the government to introduce a two-year moratorium on capital punishment, and Bolat Baykadamov, Kazakhstan's new ombudsman, called for its abrogation. In contrast, Supreme Court chairman Kairat Mami has emphasized the role of capital punishment as a deterrent. At present, Kazakhstan has some 40 prisoners on death row and another estimated 1,500 prisoners serving life sentences. Kazakhstan's retention of the death penalty is among the major obstacles to its acceptance into the Council of Europe. At the close of 2002, President Nazarbaev proposed the introduction of jury trials.

The events of September 11, 2001, have offered further justification to the regime to crack down on groups challenging its authority. The Law on Terrorism and Religion enacted by Parliament in January 2002 makes any attempt on the life of a state official punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The Majilis also voted in favor of amendments to Kazakhstan's antiterrorism legislation that make any attempt on the life of the president punishable by death. Parliament is debating a proposal for mandatory fingerprinting when individuals renew their personal identity cards.

Kazakhstan exercises tight control over migration. Migrants are registered for 45 days only. Officials in the Department of Visa Registration habitually reject documents provided by migrants, refuse to register them on arbitrary grounds, and tend to be ignorant of policy changes favoring migrants and refugees. In November 2002, Kazakhstan refused an appeal by some 300 Chechen families in Russia for temporary refuge. Officially there are some 12,000 Chechen refugees in Kazakhstan, but their actual number is estimated to be at least 30,000. Much of the $500,000 allotted in 2001 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for legal aid to Chechen refugees was spent on registration formalities, including bribes to speedy registration. Kazakhstan has not yet ratified the International Convention on Refugees (though it joined the convention in January 1999) and is not obliged to provide full state benefits entitled to bona fide refugees.

Kazakhstan's Constitution contains provisions guaranteeing human rights but does not spell out mechanisms for safeguarding them. The Constitution guarantees citizens equal rights regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. However, given the designation of Kazakh as the sole state language, ethnic Kazakhs can expect to receive preferential treatment in government employment and education. This has affirmed a widespread belief among non-Kazakhs that they are essentially second-class citizens. The elevated status of the Kazakh language has led several schools and universities to switch to Kazakh from Russian as the medium of instruction.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and proclaims Kazakhstan to be a secular state. Muslims make up 60 percent of the population, Russian Orthodox about 32 percent, and Protestants 2 percent. The remaining 6 percent consists of Catholics, Jews, and others.

Kazakhstan has tightened its vigilance over the observance of Islam and the activities of Islamic groups. However, in 2002 President Nazarbaev did refuse to ratify a controversial amendment to the Law on Religion that would have required registration of all missionaries and would have denied registration to all Muslim organizations operating outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan, the official directorate of Kazakhstan's Muslims. The proposed amendment also would have banned all unregistered religious groups. The OSCE and various religious communities criticized the controversial amendment, and the Constitutional Council voted that aspects of the proposed law violated the Constitution. However, the U.K.-based Keston News Service, which monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet Union, reported throughout 2002 that regional officials continue to take local religious groups to court and fine them for alleged failure to register. Several Baptist groups, in particular, have encountered persecution from local authorities. A 2000 amendment to Article 374 of the administrative code does make the activities of unregistered groups a legal offense, but this clearly contradicts the existing Law on Religion and the Constitution.


Corruption complaints are widespread at all levels of the government and society in Kazakhstan. In 2002, Kazakhstan ranked 88th out of 102 countries surveyed in the Corruption Perceptions Index produced by Transparency International. Kazakhstan scored 2.3 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the lowest level of corruption. In 2000, the country ranked 65th out of 91 countries surveyed.

Swiss authorities have frozen bank accounts belonging to President Nazarbaev and other close associates at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, which is conducting an investigation into the suspected funneling of millions of dollars from U.S. oil companies to top Kazakh officials via U.S. businessman James Giffen. While Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov admitted in April 2002 that a secret Swiss account was established in 1996 and contains $1 billion received from the sale of a 20 percent stake in Tengizchevroil, he blamed former prime minister Kazhegeldin for opening it and failing to inform the Parliament.

The extent and precise manifestation of corruption are impossible to document in Kazakhstan, as there are no independent agencies for investigating allegations of corruption. However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that individuals challenging or competing with the financial interests of the Nazarbaev family are likely to be accused of corruption. In the case of opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, for example, it appears that the government targeted him at a time when his company, Astana-Holding, was competing with Kazkommertsbank, a concern controlled by Timur Kulibaev, President Nazarbaev's son-in-law, in an auction for the state's share in Halyk (Narodnyi) Savings, the country's largest bank. Mangistaumunaigaz, a new financial group reportedly with close ties to Rakhat Aliev, the president's other son-in-law, eventually displaced Astana-Holding and bought the majority share.

Corruption is rampant at every level of the judicial system, and bribes, rather than appeals to higher courts, ordinarily settle cases. Although the Ministries of Justice and the Interior Affairs received funding in 2001 to increase the abysmally low salaries of law enforcement agents and judges, these professionals remain poorly paid and continue to supplement their incomes with bribes and favors. Lawyers and human rights monitors testify that judges, prosecutors, and other officials solicit bribes in exchange for favorable rulings in nearly all criminal cases. The chairman of the Supreme Court revealed in 2002 that one in four judges had been disciplined for accepting bribes, and six judges were indicted for corruption during the first half of the year. The Office of the Prosecutor-General also claimed that in the first half of 2002 it took legal measures against 2,100 civil servants suspected of corruption.

The Office of the Prosecutor-General formally handles inquiries regarding official corruption in conjunction with the Ministries of Justice and Internal Affairs. However, since the prosecutor-general is appointed by the president and is not accountable to the government, inquiries into alleged corruption are invariably politically motivated and do not involve high-level bureaucrats or other individuals close to the regime. To date, the only top government members who have been tried for "corruption" or "misuse of office" are those who have engaged in independent political activity and directly challenged the president.


As a unitary and centralized state, Kazakhstan has resisted domestic and international pressures to introduce a decentralized system of government and elections of regional and local chiefs. The president appoints the akims (heads) of the country's 14 oblasts and major cities, who in turn appoint local district administrators. President Nazarbaev has resolutely opposed the OSCE's recommendations to introduce elections for the akims, arguing that the oblasts' economic insolvency would make it impossible for elected akims to fulfill their campaign promises. Unofficially, the regime is concerned that direct elections of regional leaders could lead to a breakdown in the patronage system and weaken its hold over the country. Nazarbaev fears that elected akims, especially in the resource-rich oblasts, might exercise power like regional governors in Russia and defy the center.

As a compromise, the opposition alliance has demanded popular elections of all administrators--from oblast governors and the mayors of Astana and Almaty down to the heads of village councils--for a limited term. It also has called for the creation of a mechanism under which elected officials can be held responsible for their actions. Under the current system, akims are accountable solely to the president, and it is impossible to launch judicial proceedings against them. As presidential nominees, they are prevented from developing independent support bases in the regions. Owing to high turnover among regional leaders, the average tenure of an akim is less than one and a half years. Notwithstanding the tight control wielded by the center, the power and authority of akims have continued to rise, leading to a de facto decentralization in various regions. In October 2001, Kazakhstan introduced elections for some local administrative positions. However, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights noted that the voting procedures in the elections for regional administrators in the country's 14 oblasts were flawed and failed to meet international standards.

The central government determines taxation rates and budget regulations. As such, regional heads do not have the formal authority to generate their own revenues from local taxation. In practice, however, they retain considerable power over such matters. The relationships between President Nazarbaev and individual regional heads largely reflect personal connections and patronage. Akims in regions that have attracted the most foreign investment, such as west Kazakhstan, exercise a great deal of control over budgetary matters. Some have even extracted significant contributions from foreign investors for various "social and welfare projects" in their regional budgets.

Kazakhstan has taken some preliminary steps toward the introduction of a career civil service system. The Civil Service Agency, created to manage the implementation of the 1999 Law on Civil Service, plays a leading role in effecting administrative reform and downsizing ministries, which traditionally have controlled recruitment, promotions, and dismissals. The USAID and TACIS, the EU's technical assistance program, have offered help in developing training programs for civil servants and implementing a system of job descriptions and classifications. However, the prospects for the creation of a professional, independent, and merit-based civil service are still quite distant because personal connections remain central in recruitment and promotion procedures.