Accountability and Transparency: Country Studies — Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 5.5; Political Rights: 6; Civil Liberties 5.



In modern times, most of present-day Kazakhstan was part of the Russian empire until the Russian Revolution overthrew the Tsars in 1917. An independent republic was briefly formed, but the Bolshevik Red Army gained control of the territory in 1920 and Kazakhstan was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. After the Soviet Union was formed, it was made a separate autonomous Soviet republic in 1925 and a full republic in 1936. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Kazakhstan declared its independence, however it retained close ties to the Russian Federation as a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Recently, Kazakhstan was one of four former Soviet republics to join the Eurasian Union, established by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a counter-force to the European Union.

Since 1991, Kazakhstan has been ruled by a single leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the republic’s former Communist first secretary. As president, Nazarbayev replaced the former Communist dictatorship with an increasingly authoritarian one. Under the constitution, the president has full control over the government, the legislature, the courts, and elections. Genuine opposition parties and independent media have been suppressed; independent trade unions are illegal; and most social or civic organizations are controlled by the government. Freedom House has ranked Kazakhstan as “not free” since 1994.

Kazakhstan is the world's ninth-largest country in area, at 2.7 million square kilometers (about one-third the size of the United States), and has the second longest land-border in the world (with Russia at 4,254 miles). Kazakhstan is also one of the world’s least densely populated, with only 17.5 million people (2016 estimate). During the Soviet period, heavy Russian migration made ethnic Kazakhs a minority in their own country. Since independence many ethnic Russians returned to Russia, and today the population is 64 percent ethnic Kazakh. Most of the population lives in large industrial cities, built up during the Soviet period. Rich in resources, Kazakhstan has the tenth-highest reserves of oil and gas in the world and leads the world in uranium production. In 2014, it had a nominal GDP of around $217 billion, ranked 47th in the world according to International Monetary Fund (IMF). In nominal GDP per capita measurement for 2015, Kazakhstan ranked 60th (at $11,028 per year), a decline from previous years. In addition to having a high level of repression, Kazakhstan is highly corrupt. It is ranked 131st in the world out of 176 countries in Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.


Kazakhstan, a vast land of mountains and desert, was populated starting in 8000–10,000 BC by pastoralists and nomads. The earliest state in Kazakhstan was the Oghuz Turkish Kaganate, which was established in the sixth century AD. For the most part, however, Kazakh territory was under foreign domination. Arab invasions from the 8th to the 11th centuries led to the adoption of Sunni Islam as the dominant religion. After the invasion of Genghis Khan between 1219 and 1221, the Mongols introduced more formal territorial boundaries and administrative structures (khanates) to facilitate the payment of tributes. Both Turkic and Uzbek clans maintained these structures under succeeding khanates.

Russian Conquest, Soviet Domination

Russia exerted control over Kazakh territory starting in the 18th century and Kazakhstan was made part of the Russian Empire in the mid–19th century into the Russian Empire. An independent Kazakh state was established following the Russian Revolution in 1917 but was short lived. The Bolshevik Red Army reconquered the territory fully in 1920 and Kazakhstan was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in 1920. It became an autonomous republic in 1925 and then a full Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936.

In the period of Sovietization and collectivization, an estimated 3 million people starved to death and 1.5 million Kazakhs fled to Mongolia and China. In addition to sending millions of people to forced labor in Gulag camps and forced exile on Kazakh territory, the Soviet government encouraged Russian immigration to Kazakhstan as part of an industrialization program to take advantage of the Republic's large coal deposits. Huge industrial cities were established around coal and steel production in order to create a "working class" in territory previously dominated by agriculture. The largest city, Karaganda, is considered to be one of the most polluted and environmentally dangerous cities in the world. The Soviets also used Kazakhstan for most of its nuclear testing in the Semipalatinsk region: a total of 752 nuclear tests, 152 aboveground, were carried out between 1948 and 1989. A massive space and nuclear missile launching site was also established at Baikonur, located in south-central Kazakhstan, which was the site of the Sputnik launch and still launches Russian and international spaceships. Under Stalin's iron-fisted rule, many non-Kazakhs were resettled in Kazakhstan (such as prisoners released from the Gulag labor camps and ethnic groups of non-Kazakh origin that were forcibly relocated to the territory). By 1991, ethnic Russians were a majority of Kazakhstan's population. Initially, this period of change saw the rise of new and independent political parties, trade unions, and independent media . . . but the democratic movement was not as strong as in the Baltic States or other [Soviet] republics.

Independence Without Freedom

As in other Soviet republics, Popular Front organizations arose in different cities in Kazakhstan to press for democratic change and greater sovereignty in the late 1980s, but the pro-democracy movement was not as strong as in the Baltic States or other countries (see, for example, Estonia Country Study). In Supreme Soviet elections held in March 1990, 342 of 360 seats went to members of the Communist Party. Still, public demands and events in the rest of the Soviet Union led the Supreme Soviet to declare Kazakhstan’s sovereignty in October 1990. It selected the first secretary of the Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as the republic’s president. After the failure of a coup in Moscow in August 1991, the process of the Soviet Union’s collapse was swift. Nazarbayev arranged an uncontested election for president of Kazakhstan in December 1, 1991, just before the USSR’s formal dissolution. The Kazakhstan Supreme Soviet then formally issued a declaration of independence on December 16. The Constitutional Law recognized Nazarbayev as its President.

Initially, this period of change saw the rise of new and independent political parties, trade unions, and independent media, but operating under authority of the new state’s Constitutional Law and then a temporary constitution adopted in 1993, President Nazarbayev consolidated control over the state’s inherited security services (the old KGB), the military, the economy (especially newly discovered oil and gas fields), and political structures.

In foreign policy, Kazakhstan was an original member of the Commonwealth of Independent States formed in late December 1991 by eleven former Soviet republics. Since then, it has hewed closely to the Russian Federation in its foreign policies. In 1993, Nazarbayev signed the Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine and Kazakhstan agreed to the removal of all nuclear weapons and weapons material in exchange for guarantees of territorial integrity. In 2014, it was one of three other countries to join the Russian Federation’s Eurasian Union.

Accountability and Transparency

The people and territory of Kazakhstan were under foreign domination for much of its history before being incorporated into the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union. Since independence, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, a former Communist leader, has systematically replaced the old Soviet dictatorship with an autocracy in which his absolute power goes unchallenged. Accountability and transparency are lacking at all levels. In contrast to Botswana and the Philippines, Kazakhstan has no institutional safeguards against corruption or abuse of power.

Elections and the Constitution’s constitution establishes an absolute presidency without any checks or balances on power. . . . [T]he president himself must approve any modification of the constitution for it to take effect.

Kazakhstan's first parliamentary elections after independence were held in March 1994 under a temporary constitution adopted a year earlier that gave the president essential control over the government, the Central Election Commission, and judiciary. The president’s Party of People’s Unity of Kazakhstan won a plurality of seats, but other parties and “independents” allied to the president gave him dominance over a unicameral parliament, now called the Mazhilis. Pro-democratic parties boycotted the elections due to unfair conditions and lack of transparency.  International observers declared that the elections did not meet international standards.

A new constitution was approved in a referendum conducted in August 1995. By then, the president’s powers were clear. Another staged referendum held earlier in the year had already extended his term to the year 2000. Kazakhstan's constitution establishes an absolute presidency without any real checks or balances on power. The president has the power to appoint and dismiss without parliament’s consent all members of the government as well as all judges and senior court officials. He can also dismiss the parliament at any time. To make Nazarbayev's powers complete, the president himself must approve any modification of the constitution for it to take effect (one amendment was to formally identify Nazarbayev as “father of the nation”). In September 2002, Nazarbayev created the position of human rights ombudsman, but he is not authorized to investigate complaints concerning the president, parliament, cabinet, prosecutor’s office, Central Electoral Commission, or the courts.

The president appoints (and can dismiss) all members of the Central Electoral Commission, thereby ensuring control over the electoral process. President Nazarbayev himself heads the governing party, now called Nur Otan (“Fatherland’s Ray of Light”). The 2004 parliamentary elections established near complete control over the Mazhilis, now with 107 seats (only one seat went to a non-presidential party). In May 2007 elections, which were called ahead of schedule, the threshold required for entering parliament was raised to 7 percent, which no other parties reached. Nur Otan won 88 percent of the vote and all seats (a stipulation in the constitution requiring opposition parties in parliament was ignored). It has also secured all seats to the Senate, a second legislative chamber established in the 1995 Constitution, now with 47 members chosen through indirect elections.

In similar fashion, Nazarbayev has “won” every presidential election since 1991. Only token opposition has been allowed and any real opposition candidates have had their campaigns highly restricted or repressed. Nazarbayev declined the parliament’s “offer” to be named “president-for-life” in 2009, but then had the constitution changed to eliminate term limits. Snap presidential elections in 2011 for another five-year term for Nazarbayev resulted in a Soviet-like 96 percent favorable vote.

A clear example of how power is wielded was Nazarbayev’s decision to move the capital in 1998 from its major city, Almaty, to a city renamed Astana (meaning “capital” or “governing city”) in a remote area with few transportation services. The parliament approved the president’s desire without any debate. The ostensible reason for this costly move was to remove political decisions further away from public scrutiny. addition to having a high level of repression, Kazakhstan is also considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world. . .

Civil Society Under Control

There are few independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) willing to criticize the regime. Most civic or social organizations are generally known as GONGOs (Government Organized Non-Government Organizations). Among the few critical NGOs are the Kazakhstan Bureau for Human Rights and Transparency Kazakhstan (the Kazakh chapter of Transparency International), which have provided thorough reports on both human rights abuses and the rampant corruption that pervades the regime (see Resources for links to their web sites). As a result, both organizations are under the constant threat of deregistration and surveillance, and its members face arrest. In 2009, Evgeniy Zhovtis, the director of the Bureau for Human Rights, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on dubious charges of vehicular manslaughter stemming from a car accident. International human rights organizations determined that the court process was seriously flawed and that Zhovtis was denied the right to defend himself. After serving two-and-a-half years in prison, Zhovtis was granted amnesty and released, but his civil rights remain curtailed.

Freedom of association for workers is guaranteed by law but not in practice. The largest trade union federation is the successor to the old communist federation and cooperates fully with the government and governing party. Independent unions arose in the early 1990s, especially in large industries like mining, but were weakened by lack of resources and repression. Today, worker actions tend to be organized spontaneously, without a formal structure. The government similarly tightened controls, already strict, on the registration of religious organizations following several 2011 bomb blasts that the government blamed on religious extremists. Most “non-traditional” religions, namely those outside Sunni Muslim practice, are not allowed to practice freely.

Transparency Is Nonexistent

The constitution also provides for freedoms of speech and the press, but in practice the media are tightly controlled by the government. There was development of independent media in the late 1980s and early 1990s, first under the Soviet policy of perestroika and then in the early period of independence, when there was not yet institutionalized repression. At that point, television and radio frequencies were limited in favor of private companies that were allied to the government. The largest independent newspapers were bought and taken over. A holding company controlled by Nazarbayev’s family ended up owning the largest newspaper, television, and radio.  The state-controlled or -influenced media outlets avoid criticism of the ruling party or the president. The country's remaining independent and opposition media outlets faced harassment while journalists faced fines or imprisonment. Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch all report numerous cases of independent journalists facing physical attack, arrest, and libel suits for bringing to light issues of corruption and abuses of power or reporting on such events as the Zhanaozen worker protests (see Current Issues below).

Corruption, Human Rights, and International Legitimacy

In general, the economy, dominated by oil and gas production, is controlled by a network of clans tied to President Nazarbayev, who has built a vast financial empire of money-making enterprises around family members. Nazarbayev regularly purges members of the economic elite who attempt to use their wealth to maneuver for power, including a son-in-law. Nearly all agreements involving the government, including all energy agreements, require bribes. One confirmation of the government’s corrupt practices has come from Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakhstan's former prime minister who resigned in 1997 and later went into exile. He has alleged that direct payments were received by Nazarbayev and other officials from Western energy companies and that Nazarbayev and other top officials maintain secret Swiss bank accounts to hide and siphon off money from the government. Independent journalist Sergei Duvanov, who had exposed details of the “Khazakhgate scandal,” was arrested in 2002 on trumped-up charges of rape. He was found guilty without any evidence and sentenced to a three-and-a-half year prison term. Duvanov was released on parole in 2004 after serving over a year of his jail term, but his civil liberties remain curtailed. Nazarbayev has, through both domestic and foreign policy maneuvering, effectively muted any ramifications from the case and thwarted a domestic investigation. In 2010, a constitutional amendment was passed protecting the property and assets of himself and his family and granting immunity from any charges of wrongdoing.

Nazarbayev has escaped much international scrutiny regarding corruption or his government’s dictatorial record. In the fall of 2006, for example, he was granted a state visit to the United States by President George W. Bush. Nazarbayev was given an even higher mark of legitimacy when Kazakhstan was awarded the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2010, a clear sign that the OSCE had diminished the importance of human rights in making its decisions.

Current Issues

In the past five years, the Nazarbayev regime has responded to protests, independent political activity, and independent reporting with continued repression. One case is indicative. Vadim Kuramshin, a prison rights activist, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in December 2012 after violating travel restrictions imposed as part of an earlier release from a one-year sentence. He had challenged the restrictions to attend an international human rights conference where he delivered a speech critical of the government. According to Freedom House, in March 2013, he was transferred to the same facility he had most criticized for mistreatment of prisoners in his reports, the Petropavlovsk maximum security labor camp.

A serious protest occurred in May 2011, when several thousand oil workers went on strike in the city of Zhanaozen to protest low wages and poor working conditions. Workers there and in other cities carried out ongoing protests through December of that year. At that point, internal security forces attacked protesters and at least 15 persons were killed. The government declared a state of emergency in the region, journalists were arrested and independent media outlets shut down, and there was a large increase in web sites being blocked on the internet. Dozens of leaders and supporters of the strike were tried and sentenced. In March 2013, the government introduced a new labor code that restricted registration of independent unions. Despite these actions, independent worker organizations stemming from the strikes have joined with others to create a trade union information agency.

Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the opposition political party Algha (Forward), went to Zhanaozen to investigate independently the protests and charges of human rights violations. After reporting on his findings to European Parliament members, he was arrested on his return, tried, and sentenced to seven and one-half years in prison for “inciting social hatred,” advocating the “overthrow of the constitutional order,” and leading a “criminal organization.” After his sentence, the courts banned Algha and another party, People’s Front, from participating in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

In those elections, held in January 2012, two other parties, Ak Zhol and the Communist Party, were allowed to surpass the 7 percent threshold and gained 15 of the 98 directly elected seats (the remaining nine seats are reserved for ethnic communities). Both parties are what may be called part of the “controlled opposition” and collaborate openly with Nur Otan, which claimed 80 percent of the vote and retained 83 seats. In 2015, responding to “spontaneous” calls from “the people,” Nazarbayev again held elections ahead of schedule, on April 26, and received an even higher percentage of the vote than in 2011, 97.5 percent. The two “opposition” candidates from Ak Zhol and the Communist Party both endorsed Nazarbayev.