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Kazakhstan - Politics

Nursultan Nazarbayev 24 Apr 199020 Mar 2019
Kassym-Jomart Kemluly Tokayev 20 Mar 2019 xxx 202?
Dariga Nazarbayeva 20xx 20xx

The Republic of Kazakhstan has a parliamentary system dominated by Nursultan Nazarbayev and the ruling Nur Otan Party. While the Government of Kazakhstan articulates a strategic vision of a democratic society, it lagged on the implementation front. The leadership remained resistant to competitive political processes, and the situation is complicated by the fact that President Nazarbayev was extraordinarily popular, while the opposition was weak, fractured, and comprised principally of former Nazarbayev loyalists who fell out of favor.

Kazakhstani politics are particularly opaque due to the closed nature of the clan system, the tight family relationships among the elite, and the shortage of political analysts and investigative journalists with any first-hand knowledge of events. Nazarbayev's family excelled at keeping its differences and motives secret. Nazarbayev maintained a balance of power around him by transferring overly-successful or ambitious individuals to less-advantageous posts. The maneuverings that were visible to outsiders were merely the surface ripples of an enormous struggle that takes place far beyond the public eye. Nevertheless, a few things are clear: As early as 2007 the Kazakhstan elite were beginning to maneuver into position to succeed Nazarbayev.

The current ruling elite is a combination of the old Soviet elite, new regional elites, Nazarbayev's family, and those who were close to the President "in spirit." Most of the opposition leaders arose from the same ranks. Upon splitting with the President, they tended to ignore the existing opposition, only to repeat the same mistakes as their predecessors.

The political elite surrounding President Nazarbayev was initially split into two camps -- "the hawks and the doves." Hawks were those who believe that Kazakhstan will be accepted by the international community "as is" because of its vast natural resources and strategic geopolitical position. The hawks are the "old guard" -- remnants of the Soviet power machine who remained close to President Nazarbayev as he rose to power. The doves were those "who at least want to create the image of progress," especially for foreign audiences. The doves are the younger generation of Kazakhstan's political and business leaders, including those with strong business links to the West. President Nazarbayev makes all the major political decisions, but his decisions depend on which group has his ear.

The Kazakhstani political system -- the several score top figures who rotate among the top economic and political jobs within the system -- has calcified into a rigid "caste system" that is impossible to penetrate unless one has the necessary family connections. The constitution concentrates power in the presidency. The president controls the legislature and the judiciary as well as the regional and local government. Changes or amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. President Nazarbayev makes every critical decision on government and parliamentary appointments, regardless of what the Constitution says.

The political center carefully managed its power in the regions, appointing its own people to important regional positions. The overall effect, is a carefully-balanced, though dynamic, network of influence and power which revolved around Nazarbayev. Ultimately, the only real source of power is the favor of the President. Even though people want institutional guarantees, the President says, "I am your only guarantee."

President Nazarbayev remained extremely popular, and Kazakhstanis were optimistic about the direction of the country. According to a US government-commissioned poll in Kazakhstan (conducted 9-30 July 2007), 93% of Kazakhstanis were extremely confident about President Nazarbayev, an approval level unchanged from 2005, when he was reelected with 91% of the vote. In addition, 91% of respondents agreed that the country was heading in the right direction, and 83% felt that the economic situation was good. Poll respondents also expressed confidence in the government (72%), the parliament (69%), and local government (65%), and 78% of respondents felt that it was more important for Kazakhstan to have a strong president than to have the executive branch share power with the legislature and judiciary.

The law on state secrets makes it a criminal offense to release information regarding the health, finances, or private life of the president, as well as economic information, such as mineral reserves and government debts to foreign creditors. To avoid possible legal problems, media outlets often practiced self-censorship regarding information on the president or his family.

Under the laws governing public assembly, organizations must apply to local authorities for a permit to hold a demonstration or public meeting at least 10 days in advance. Opposition figures and human rights monitors complained that complicated and vague procedures and the 10-day notification period made it difficult for groups to organize public meetings and demonstrations, and noted that local authorities turned down many applications for demonstrations. Authorities often detained briefly and fined organizers of unsanctioned gatherings, including political party gatherings. For example, unregistered Alga party representatives reported that authorities interfered with protests to boycott the April 3 presidential election. The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law recorded 102 peaceful demonstrations during the year 2011, 93 percent of which were unsanctioned. Authorities disrupted eight demonstrations. The government designated locations for sanctioned protests in less populous city outskirts.

The law provides for limited freedom of association. There were significant restrictions on this right in practice. Any public organization set up by citizens, including religious groups, must be registered with the Ministry of Justice, as well as with ministry branches in every region in which the organization conducts activities. The law requires public or religious associations to define their specific activities, and an association that acts outside the scope of its charter may be warned, fined, suspended, or ultimately prohibited. Participation in unregistered public organizations may result in administrative or criminal liability, such as fines, dissolution, probation, or imprisonment.

Kazakhstan is authoritarian, but its authoritarianism is generally benign, in some ways even relatively progressive. Although there might not be as many independent NGOs as some might like to see, civil society exists and is active. Citizens band together to challenge the government on specific issues without fear of being rounded up and tossed into prison. Across the political spectrum they provide testimony to Parliamentary committees.

Government-approved and -financed "public associations" exist in which a broad range of opinion is expressed. Does the government always listen and implement the most liberal views? No. But public discussion without fear of retribution is the beginning of democratic institutions. Public discussion also occurs in the print media, which freely criticize the government (and occasionally even the President) and regularly uncover the malfeasance of government officials and other scandals.

One source of the current regime's power was keeping the media under control. Almost all of Nazarbayev's family were large media owners, he said, and even bankers and oligarchs own national networks. About 70% of the media is owned by those close to the President and the other 30% can be intimidated. Private, independent news outlets exist, particularly among the regional print media. However, the largest are often bought out. And remaining owners learn to practice self-censorship in order to avoid losing their business. Even "opposition" newspapers are not objective. Solid, private media, aren't obliged to praise the authorities. However, even they avoid reporting on certain, sensitive subjects.

The lack of an obvious venue for expression of popular dissatisfaction did not mean, however, that none will materialize. Nazarbayev gambled that imposition of presidential rule would permit him to transform the republic's economy and thus placate the opposition through an indisputable and widespread improvement of living standards. Experts agree that the republic had the natural resources and industrial potential to make this a credible wager. But a number of conditions outside Nazarbayev's control, such as the political climate in Russia and the other Central Asian states, could influence that outcome. By dismissing parliament and taking upon himself the entire burden of government, Nazarbayev made himself the obvious target for public discontent.

Kazakhstan's performance on human rights since independence has been patchy. NGOs are active and civil society is developing steadily. But opposition activists are subject to harassment, there are limitations on freedom of assembly for political rallies, and freedom of the press is severely curtailed. In 2007, in order to secure the 2010 chairmanship of the OSCE, then Foreign Minister Tazhin committed Kazakhstan to legislative reforms in the areas of elections, political parties, the media and local-self governance. Corresponding 2009 legislation made some improvements in each area, but many believed the changes fell short of full OSCE standards.

Politically motivated civil disturbances remained exceptionally rare. In 2012, Kazakhstan experienced several incidents in which individuals or groups associated with Islamic extremists launched small-scale violent attacks against government offices, with most concentrating on police and national security organs. The violence has remained isolated and has not targeted foreign investment or foreigners working in Kazakhstan.

Discontent had been rising in Kazakhstan: the total number of documented protests in the country was more than six times higher in 2019 than 2018, and then almost doubled in 2020, partly due to the pandemic: 112 protests related to Covid-19 were documented from the beginning of the pandemic through June 2021. Out of the five Central Asian countries, Kazakhs protest the most in absolute terms. In January 2022 a steep rise in energy prices triggered protests across Kazakhstan that resulted in mass arrests, the dismissal of the government, and the declaration of a state of emergency. For many Kazakhs, there had been long-simmering discontent over issues such as corruption, unemployment, and low wages.

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Page last modified: 21-03-2023 13:47:53 ZULU