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Accountability and Transparency: Country Studies - Kazakhstan

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 6 Political Rights, 5 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, is the world's ninth-largest country, at 2.7 million square kilometers (about one-third the size of the United States). Kazakhstan, however, is, sparsely populated, and ranked only 59th in the world in 2006 for population (15.3 million). Kazakhstan has enormous oil and gas reserves, as well as other mineral resources, which are currently being developed by Western energy companies. In 2006, it had a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $3,790, placing it 99th in the world, with a GNI per capita measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account relative exchange and inflation rates, of $7,780, placing it 101st. However, Kazakhstan's 2006 per capita income levels (by both measures) place the country just below the average for other low- and middle-income countries in Europe and Central Asia (according to data from the World Bank).


Except for a brief period between 1917 and 1920, Kazakhstan was not a sovereign state in modern times until 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the 19th century, Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire, and in 1920, it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Today, Kazakhstan is home to large industrial cities, such as Karaganda, as well as the site of the Baikonur space center and the successful Sputnik launches. Since declaring independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has been ruled by a single leader, the former Communist first secretary Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has replaced the former Communist dictatorship with a post-Soviet authoritarian one. Today, Kazakhstan is considered one of the most corrupt and repressive countries in the world, ranking 150th (out of a total of 180 countries) in Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Except for a brief period between 1917 and 1920, Kazakhstan was not a sovereign state in modern times until 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet


Kazakhstan, a vast land of mountains and desert, has been populated since 8000–10,000 BC by pastoralists and nomads. The earliest ancient state in Kazakhstan was the Turkish Kaganate, which was established in the sixth century AD. However, for the most part, the territory was under foreign domination. Arab invasions of the area in the eighth and 11th centuries led to the establishment of 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 to facilitate the payment of tributes. Both Turkic and Uzbek clans maintained these structures over time under succeeding khanates.

Russian Conquest, Soviet Domination

Russians began establishing control over Kazakh territory as early as the 18th century, and established full control over Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia in the mid–19th century. An independent Kazakh state was established following the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, but it was short lived. The Bolshevik Red Army reconquered the territory in 1920. Kazakhstan was immediately incorporated into the Soviet Union, first as an autonomous republic (initially called the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Republic and later renamed the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Republic) and then as a full Soviet republic in 1936. The Soviet government encouraged Russian immigration to Kazakhstan as part of an industrialization program that aimed to take advantage of the Republic's large coal deposits and to secure Russian domination over the Kazakhs. Huge industrial cities were established around coal and steel production in order to create a "working class," such as the city of Karaganda, which is considered to be one of the most polluted cities in the world. The Soviets also established a massive space and nuclear missile launching site at Baikonur, located in south-central Kazakhstan. Under Stalin's iron-fisted rule, many non-Kazakhs were resettled in Kazakhstan (such as prisoners sentenced to gulags and others of non-Kazakh origin he sought to relocate). By 1991, ethnic Russians composed a slight majority of Kazakhstan's society.

Nursultan Nazarbayev
Independence Without Freedom

In Kazakhstan, unlike in some other countries, there was not a strong popular movement for democracy to press for transformation. Thus, after declaring its "sovereignty" in October 1990, the holdover Communist legislature chose the first secretary of the republic's Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as president (a similar pattern occurred in a number of Soviet republics). Nazarbayev then arranged an uncontested election for president in December 1991, just before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union and Kazakhstan's declaration of independence. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's Communist dictatorship was replaced by a purely authoritarian one. The country's post-Communist leader moved quickly to consolidate his personal control over the police (the old KGB), the military, the economy (especially the newly discovered oil and gas fields), and society (by restricting independent parties, the media, and civil society).

In Kazakhstan, unlike in some other countries, there was not a strong popular movement for democracy to press for
Kazakhstan's first parliamentary elections were held in March 1994 after the adoption of a constitution that gave the president full control over the government, legislature, and judiciary. Nazarbayev ensured that elections would be fully controlled by him and that parliament would be dominated by parties supportive of his regime. Not surprisingly, Nazarbayev has remained president since independence and has presided over a submissive parliament, a corrupt and inefficient government, and a repressive police apparatus.

In foreign policy, Nazarbayev has strongly backed the leadership of the Russian Federation and supported the pro-Russian Commonwealth of Independent States. In 1993, the government agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons, which were transferred to Russia for destruction. However, Kazakhstan's main foreign policy interest has been to reach out to Western and Chinese energy companies in order to exploit large gas and oil reserves. In 2006, Kazakhstan pumped 1.4 million barrels per day and was the 14th-largest oil exporter in the world (just over one million barrels per day). By 2015, after the planned expansion of oil production and pipelines (such as to China) and the development of new fields, it is expected that Kazakhstan will be able to produce three million barrels per day. The wealth generated from Kazakhstan's mineral industries (40 percent of the country's GDP and approximately 70 percent of all exports) has helped generate GDP growth rates around 9 percent between 2002 and 2006. However, due to the high level of corruption in Kazakhstan, revenues from natural resources have not been used to improve the country's socioeconomic conditions.

Accountability and Transparency

Not surprisingly, on all levels, Kazakhstan lacks accountability and transparency and contrasts poorly with Botswana and the Philippines. Transparency International ranked Kazakhstan only 150th in the world for corruption (out of 180 countries surveyed) in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, placing it among the most corrupt countries globally.

Karaganda, one of the largest cities in Kazakhstan
Elections Without Accountability

There are no means for holding the government accountable through elections in Kazakhstan. The 1994 parliamentary elections were heavily controlled by President Nazarbayev, whose supporters achieved a large majority in the bicameral parliament. Only a small pro-democratic party was able to obtain a handful of seats. In 1998, Nazarbayev extended his term to seven years through a constitutional amendment and arranging for the next presidential election to be held in January 1999. Nazarbayev "won" with more than 80 percent of the vote after deregistering his main opponent and former prime minister, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who had broken with the regime over corruption (see below). In the parliamentary elections held in October 1999, Nazarbayev used his control over the electoral commission, the police, and the courts to interfere with the ability of democratic parties to register, campaign, and appear on the ballot. These elections resulted in an electoral majority for Nazarbayev's party.

For the 2004 parliamentary elections, Nazarbayev continued to engineer impediments for opposition parties to register, field candidates, and freely contest seats. Earlier, in 2002, the president imprisoned two leaders of the main opposition party, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), Galymzhan Zhakiyanov and Mukhtar Ablyazov, on charges of corruption (Ablyazov was released after one year by promising to stay out of politics, and Zhakiyanov served four years of a seven-year sentence and was released only in 2006). International monitors declared that the September and October 2004 parliamentary elections did not meet international standards for fairness. Monitors cited irregularities including the deregistration of candidates based on politically motivated criminal convictions, a strong media bias in favor of pro-presidential parties, the lack of opposition or independent access to election commissions, the manipulation of election results, and discrepancies in electoral rolls. The only opposition party to win a seat was the Ak Zhol Democratic Party, which gained only one seat in the 77-seat Majlis (or lower chamber of parliament) even though it received 12 percent of the vote. The party refused its seat, however, to protest the results. Nazarbayev's Otan party won the majority of seats in both chambers, but in fact had complete control. Several pro-presidential parties, including his daughter's, were merged into Otan, which changed its name to Nur-Otan (Fatherland's Ray of Light).

Kazakhstan's constitution provides no effective counterbalance to presidential power during elections. The president appoints the chairman and members of the Central Election Commission (CEC), who oversee presidential and parliamentary elections. There are no provisions allowing for unbiased or bipartisan participation in election commissions.

No Accountability in Government; No Independent Civil Society

Kazakhstan's constitution has established an absolute presidency. The president appoints and has the power to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet, including the chairperson of the National Security Committee and the procurator general. The president also appoints all judges and senior court officials without parliament's consent. The bicameral parliament is dominated by pro-presidential parties, making any requirement for consent meaningless. To make Nazarbayev's powers complete, the president must approve any modification of the constitution for it to take effect. In 2000, parliament approved a measure to allow Nazarbayev to stay in office for an indefinite number of terms.

Kazakhstan’s constitution has established an absolute

In September 2002, Nazarbayev created the position of human rights ombudsman, who is responsible for monitoring the condition of human rights in the country. However, the ombudsman is not authorized to investigate complaints concerning the president, parliament, the cabinet, the procurator general, the CEC, or the courts. In theory, the ombudsman has the authority to appeal to parliament to resolve citizens' complaints, to meet with government officials, and to cooperate with international human rights organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

There are few independent NGOs willing to criticize the regime. Among those that do, however, 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. As a result, both organizations are under the constant threat of deregistration and surveillance, and its members could even face arrest.

Transparency Is Nonexistent

Although the constitution provides for the freedoms of speech and the press, in practice the media are tightly controlled by the government. The country's independent and opposition media outlets have faced harassment, and the state-controlled or -influenced media outlets avoid criticism of the ruling party. Describing the absence of media freedoms in the country, the U.S. State Department reported in its 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices that "almost all media outlets willing to criticize the President directly were subjected to intimidation, often in the form of law enforcement actions and/or civil suits." Journalists have been beaten up, arrested, and sued in court for reporting on political scandals, abuses of power, and corruption.

Another example of the lack of transparency is Nazarbayev's decision in 1997 to move the capital from Almaty, the country's major city in the southeast, to Astana (meaning "government city"), a remote area in the north with few transportation services. Parliament approved the president's decision without any debate. The ostensible reason for this costly move was to remove political decision making farther away from public scrutiny. Yet citizens lack the rights to obtain information and to question their leaders, and there are few independent members of parliament or journalists who might lead an investigation into relevant government documents to find out the true reason.

For 2006, the Ombudsman's Office reported that there were 2,613 citizen complaints, with 20 percent concerning abuses by law enforcement officials. However, far fewer cases were actually investigated.

Corruption and Suppression at Its Worst

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakhstan's former prime minister who resigned in 1997 and later went into exile, has alleged that direct payments were received by Nazarbayev and other officials from Western energy companies, and that he and other top officials maintain secret Swiss bank accounts to hide and siphon off money. The charges were serious enough to warrant a U.S. federal investigation and to charge an American businessman with close ties to the Kazakh government with making bribes worth $78 billion (though the case was later dropped). Independent journalist Sergei Duvanov, who had exposed details of the Khazakhgate scandal, was arrested in 2002 on trumped-up charges of raping a 14-year-old girl. He was found guilty without any evidence and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Duvanov was released on parole, however, in 2004 after serving over a year of his jail term.

It is difficult to imagine a larger case implicating a leader in wrongdoing, but Nazarbayev has, through both domestic and foreign policy maneuvering, effectively muted any ramifications from the case and thwarted a domestic investigation. In the fall of 2006, he was granted a state visit to the United States by President George W. Bush.