Special Reports



Peter Crisell


The Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan extends over a million square miles, from the Volga to the Altai Mountains, and from the plains of western Siberia to oases and desert in Central Asia. It is the size of Western Europe and is the largest of the former Soviet republics. It is rich in deposits of oil and natural gas. It also has huge reserves of minerals and fossil fuel resources such as coal, iron ore, manganese, chrome, nickel, cobalt, copper, lead, zinc, gold and uranium.
In a world hungry for such resources, Kazakhstan is a treasure house, becoming an increasingly important player on the world stage and is regarded as the dominant state in Central Asia, although neighbouring Uzbekistan would dispute that.

Kazakhstan has stable, indeed good relationships with its neighbours- the two giants, Russia and China - and is cordial with the other ‘stans : Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It is a member of the UN and other international organisations, including the OSCE (The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Kazakhstan assumed the yearly rotating presidency of the organisation in January.

The OSCE is an intergovernmental organisation of 56 states from Europe, The Caucasus, Central Asia and North America. Its mandate is concerned with arms control, human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections. Its democratisation arm, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), has been critical of the way in which Kazakhstan and other former Soviet states have conducted their elections over the years. The OSCE is an ad hoc organization under the UN Charter (Chapter VIII), and is concerned with early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation. It was created during the cold war era as an East-West forum. Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the organisation has attracted criticism because of its questionable democratic credentials and record on human rights.

Under the terms of its constitution, Kazakhstan is a ‘presidential republic’. The president is elected for a seven-year term by popular vote and appoints the prime minister and first deputy prime minister. The Council of Ministers is also appointed by the president. Nursultan Nazarbayev, who turns 70 this year, has increased his presidential powers by decree. This means that he alone can initiate constitutional amendments, appoint and dismiss the government, dissolve Parliament, call referendums at his discretion, and appoint administrative heads of regions and cities. As the head of state, he is commander in chief of the armed forces and may veto legislation that has been passed by the Parliament.

Nazarbayev’s rise to power began during the Soviet era when he became the First Secretary of the Communist party in 1989, since when he has held uninterrupted power. He has been president since Kazakhstan’s independence and was originally elected president in 1991 with 91.5% of the vote. There were no other candidates standing against him. His first term was extended by referendum from1995 to 2000. He was re-elected to serve again from 2000 and further re-elected in 2005. The constitution allows for a president to serve for only two terms but in 2007 a constitutional amendment approved by Parliament allowed Nazarbayev – and him alone – to stand as many times as he likes. He began an eleven year term as president in 2006. Throughout Nazarbayev’s time in power, there have been allegations of rampant corruption and breaches of human rights as extreme as political murder and imprisonment of opponents, closure of opposition newspapers and rigged elections. If true, Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the OSCE, an organisation devoted to democracy and free speech, could only be viewed as a travesty of these values.

Allegations of corruption in Kazakhstan are widespread. Transparency International describes itself as “the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption”. In its Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2009 based on surveys of the perceived level of corruption in a country, it ranks Kazakhstan 120th out of 180 countries. It asserts in its overview that Kazakhstan’s low CPI score “indicates that corruption remains systemic, with the most problematic areas being the judiciary, police, customs, property rights, land registration and construction projects”. www.transparency.org

According to Business Anti-Corruption Portal, Kazakhstan’s recent economic growth based on its oil wealth, “the political elite have been successful in virtually monopolising the benefits of this boom. There are massive possibilities for corruption on a grand scale in Kazakhstan's environment of intra-elite allocation of benefits connected to oil production. Corruption in Kazakhstan is systemic, even within the country's anti-corruption agency, and no public office is free from executive interference. Long delays, unwieldy bureaucracy, weak business law, short deadlines, employee discontent and the absence of explanatory information, all breed corruption”.  www.business-anti-corruption.com

Kazakhstan possesses a legal and institutional framework for combating corruption. For example, anti-corruption laws were passed in 2007 and in December 2009 Nazarbayev, signed amendments to the corruption laws. According to the press service, "the head of state signed the law on the amendments and additions to the acts of Kazakhstan concerning further strengthening of struggle against corruption, responsibility for corruption offences, and introduction of the mechanisms directed at corruption prevention."

Despite such gestures, enforcement and implementation of the laws have always lacked political will. Hardly surprising since corruption is not confined to underpaid minor bureaucrats but extends through the system to Nazarbayev, his family and his kleptocratic political elite. One example is the ‘Kazakhgate’ scandal concerning James Giffen, an American businessman and former advisor of Kazakhstan president, then as now Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to US prosecutors, Giffen allegedly paid $78 million in bribes to Nazarbayev and Nurlan Balgimbayev, the former Prime Minister, to secure contracts over the Tengiz oil fields for Western companies in the 1990s. Giffen was arrested in 2003 and charged with violation of the the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1974 and with money laundering. He was accused of creating Swiss bank accounts and transferring $20 million, paying for boarding school fees for family members of Kazakh officials, and buying millions of dollars in jewellery. Giffen's lawyers maintain that Giffen was acting with the full knowledge and approval of the US government. The case has still not been tried, perhaps because it will equally embarrass the governments of both the US and Kazakhstan.

Because political power is concentrated in the presidency, it is not surprising that Kazakhstan’s record on human rights is so poor. The legislature, judiciary and regional and local government are not independent of the executive and any changes and (as stated above), amendments to the constitution require presidential consent. In the 2007 elections, Nazarbayev’s governing party, Nur Otan, won all seats in the Majlis, the Lower House. The OSCE found widespread irregularities in the conduct of the election. In the 2005 presidential elections, observers from the OSCE found that the election failed to meet international democratic standards, noting flaws such as ballot box stuffing, intimidation of the opposition and media bias.

The prospect of chairing the OSCE has not encouraged the Kazakhstan regime to progress towards democratic reform. The regime’s fear of internal dissent is thought to outweigh any concern for the disapproval of European and American governments and human rights organisations. Criticism from governments is seen as muted because commercial dictates always prevail over ethical considerations. The UK newspaper, "The Guardian" reported late last year that the opposition newspaper Respublika, whose office was burnt down in 2002, continues to publish underground. In January last year Ramazan Esergepov, the editor of the Alma-Ata info portal was jailed for three years for revealing corruption inside Kazakhstan’s spy agency. Last summer repressive legislation targeted at the internet was passed with the aim of banning stories about corrupt officials. www.guardian.co.uk

Political opponents of the Nazarbayev regime have not only been jailed but have also been murdered. For example, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party, his bodyguard, and his driver were found in the outskirts of Almaty in February 2006. The three were shot dead. A former information minister and also the former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was an outspoken critic of Kazakhstan's current regime. He had claimed that the parliamentary elections of 2004 had been conducted unfairly. He had also been fined for ‘slandering’ Nazarbayev’s daughter, Darigha, by alleging illegal conduct in setting up her media empire. Sarsenbaev's alleged murder came exactly three months after the death of Zamanbek Nurkadilov, another whistleblower on the regime who publicly accused the incumbent Nazarbayev of corruption. He also had threatened to disclose materials to prove it.

Nurkadilov was found dead on 12 November in his Almaty apartment. He had three gunshot wounds -- two in the heart and one in the head. Remarkably, the police were able to rule the incident a suicide!

This small sample of the brutalities of the Kazakhstan regime leads to the question: how did it succeed in taking over the chair of the OSCE in January? The divisions within the OSCE helped, according to Rose Kudebayeva’s report for the BBC World Service, with Germany and Spain the most supportive. www.news.bbc.co.uk Kazakhstan also gave undertakings in Madrid in 2008 on freedom of the media, elections and political parties, but human rights groups suggest that Kazakhstan has not honoured promises it made to liberalize its political system as a condition of becoming chair of the OSCE.

The Kazakhstan government itself, no doubt anxious to clean up its image, also launched a lobbying and public relations offensive. Last year, it paid the Central Asia - Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University to write three reports, according to ABC news. www.abcnews.go.com

The Kazakhstan government also paid $290,000 for the US-Kazakhstan OSCE Task Force which was managed by one of the Washington’s leading foreign policy think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); and the Institute for New Democracies. The task was to prepare a series of reports about Kazakhstan’s imminent chairmanship of the OSCE. Unsurprisingly, it places a positive interpretation on the country’s human rights record. Its most recent report called ‘Kazakhstan and the OSCE Human Dimension’, concerns the future of the much-criticized Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and also addresses Kazakhstan’s own domestic democratization process. On the ODIHR the report asserts: "Kazakhstan has made a commitment to defend the mission and mandate of ODIHR. The report also stated that "Kazakhstan has committed itself to making progress in systemic reforms by democratizing its political system." The report recommends somewhat airily that Kazakhstan should "continue and enhance efforts to democratize Kazakh society, ensure respect for human rights and support political pluralism by implementing the National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2012 and the Concept of Legal Policy of Kazakhstan."

When the report was presented in December last year, Margarita Assenova, the head of the Institute for New Democracies, admitted that Kazakhstan’s progress on liberalising laws on elections, political parties and the media, had only been partially fulfilled. Nonetheless, the country was "going in the right direction."

Various explanations and excuses have been proffered by the regime and its sympathisers to account for the slow or no progress, in implementing reform. One is that rapid change would destabilise the country. However, worries about instability are not a valid reason for Kazakhstan to delay reforms, says Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University, quoted by the EurasiaNet website. "Even if that is the case, if what they’re worried about is ’instability,’ that means the possibility that the government would lose power. And that’s what happens in democratic societies," he said.


Are there any signs that the West’s ‘softly softly’ approach to Kazakhstan is bringing about practical reforms, even of a modest kind? A small glimmer of light can be perceived in a recent libel case. Libel is a civil and criminal offence in Kazakhstan. Normally a legal action brought by an influential government official against a news organisation could only have one result – success for the government. In this case, the government official was Timur Kulibayev who is married to one of Nazarbayev’s daughters, and is deputy head of the Samruk-Kazyna sovereign wealth fund. He sought an injunction against a number of media outlets that had published allegations against him of corrupt practices made by London-based businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov. Ablyazov is wanted in Kazakhstan on fraud charges which he says are untrue and politically motivated. Ablyazov sent a dossier, whose contents appeared on the internet, to the Prosecutor-General’s Office. The dossier reportedly relates to the $150-million acquisition by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) of the Kazakhstani government’s 25.12% stake in the CNPC-AktobeMunayGaz joint venture. According to the dossier’s allegations, Kulibayev allegedly conspired to sell the stake below market price in a way that allowed him to personally profit from the deal. The allegations have not been proved and are under investigation.

On February 9, a judge issued an unprecedented ruling that lifted an injunction against reporting on Kulibayev. On February 1, a court in Almaty had issued an injunction imposing stringent reporting restrictions on the news outlets, banning them from mentioning Kulibayev’s name pending the outcome of the libel case, and ordering the confiscation of print runs. This ruling sparked a domestic and international outcry. This included sharp criticism from the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media who on February 8th said: "Shooting the messenger of bad news is an old habit of autocracy that democratic media freedom standards have banned as a dangerous attempt at censorship.” The same day, a group of Kazakhstani journalists complained about the injunction against reporting on Kulibayev. They argued that the the judge had overstepped her powers and violated the constitution, by introducing censorship for mentioning Kulibayev’s name. On February 9 the same Almaty court that issued the initial injunction surprised everyone by lifting it and cited procedural violations. However, claims of victory by journalists could be premature, despite the unprecedented ruling. The libel suit could still go to trial, if the two sides fail to reach an out-of-court settlement.


Such small successes should be seen in the wider context of Kazakhstan’s treatment of the media. After adopting some modest reforms, the government took a number of steps backward. In February 2009, President Nazarbaev signed a set of amendments into law by dropping the requirement that electronic media register. The amendments also permitted media outlets to appeal in court against denials of governmental information and allowed media workers to use audio recorders and cameras to collect information without prior permission of an interviewee. But bigger problems persist. Government loyalists dominate broadcast media outlets. There are threats and harassment against independent journalists for criticizing the president, or government policies and practices. There are prohibitive damages payable for civil libel, and harsh penalties for criminal libel. On July 10, Nazarbaev signed another package of amendments to laws dealing with the media and the internet, under which all forms of internet content could potentially be considered "internet resources" and subject to existing restrictive laws on expression. The law also expands the grounds for banning certain media content relating to elections, strikes, and public assemblies.

According to Human Rights Watch, the regime has taken important steps on human rights, such as ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2006 and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture in 2008. It has issued a declaration recognizing the competence of the UN Committee Against Torture to consider individual complaints, and invited the Special Rapporteur on torture to visit in May 2009. It has ratified the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to file complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee. It has also introduced some limited reforms to the criminal justice system, such as transferring the power to issue arrest warrants from the procuracy to judges. In July 2009, Kazakhstan issued standing invitations to UN special procedures.

Despite all this, there is still little sign of fundamental change on the ground.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented a continued deterioration of human rights. Human Rights Watch states: “The Kazakh government has rejected efforts by human rights groups and the political opposition to press for expanded human rights and freedoms guaranteed by international agreements, and Kazakhstan's own constitution. For example, the government did not react to a draft law on freedom of assembly submitted to the president's Commission on Human Rights by several Kazakh human rights groups as far back as September 2007”.

A major concern about Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship is its failure since independence to hold a national election that meets OSCE standards for free and fair elections. Constitutional amendments in 2007 added to existing election legislation, make it even more unlikely that future elections will meet international standards. In Kazakhstan's last parliamentary elections in 2007, no opposition parties cleared the 7% threshold to win seats. Thus only the ruling party, Nur Otan, was represented. The president brushed off criticism, stating that the single-party parliament was a "wonderful opportunity to adopt all the laws needed to speed up our country's economic and political modernization." In order for a party to be registered in the first place, 40,000 signatures of supporters are required.

.Democratic reform requires freedom of assembly to be a human right. Public assemblies are tightly controlled in Kazakhstan. A public meeting of a political nature that is not organized by the government, or is not in support of government policies, is likely to be denied a permit or broken up by police. Public assemblies must be registered at least 10 days in advance, and must contain information about the demonstration, its goals, the participants etc. The authorities use this law to prevent "undesirable" protests and public gatherings. For example, in April 2009, activists with the youth human rights organization Ar.Rukh.Khak were detained when they planned to participate in a "flash mob" against the draft internet law.

What are the excuses of the the Kazakh government for the lack of reform? In public statements, it often emphasizes that it has had only 18 years to develop and implement human rights standards. This does not convince many observers like Human Rights Watch which retorts “..the (Kazakh) government also stresses the dramatic strides it has made in the same period to develop the economy”. It adds: “When Kazakhstan made its bid for the OSCE chairmanship several years ago, it did so as a mature member of the international community. In seeking the position, it assumed full responsibility to serve as a leader in the economic and environmental, as well as in the human and in the politico-military dimension of the OSCE. Some of the human right changes that are needed require only political will, not years of institution building. Moreover, the proposition that the government has not had enough time to develop human rights is especially unconvincing when the government takes deliberately regressive measures on human rights”.

The member states should surely urge the government of Kazakhstan to uphold its OSCE commitments and not further undermine the credibility of the organization. The Kazakh regime has been criticised by the European Union, the United States government, and the OSCE's own representative on freedom of the media. The OSCE Ministerial Council in Athens on December 1 and 2 this year will provide another crucial opportunity to draw attention to Kazakhstan's stalled reforms and press for concrete improvements in democratic freedoms. It is essential that the OSCE members remain engaged with Kazakhstan during its chairmanship and use every possibility to outline steps the Kazakh government still needs to take in order to implement meaningful reforms. Only when Kazakhstan responds positively and practically will it be considered a worthy leader of the OSCE.