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Retreating Rights – Kazakhstan: Introduction

Kazakhstan is a coun­try that has worked hard to posi­tion itself to its peo­ple and to the world as Central Asia’s suc­cess sto­ry. On a num­ber of key mea­sures that rep­u­ta­tion would seem jus­ti­fied, not least the rapid eco­nom­ic growth that has tak­en place since inde­pen­dence and its rel­a­tive sta­bil­i­ty when com­pared to its region­al neigh­bours, but that has come at the non-nego­tiable price of the on-going repres­sion of threats, both real and per­ceived, to the pow­er of the rul­ing elite. 

This pub­li­ca­tion assess­es the sit­u­a­tion in Kazakhstan today and the emerg­ing pres­sures on that polit­i­cal set­tle­ment. It comes after a time of sig­nif­i­cant upheaval fol­low­ing not only the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic but after the for­mal (though incom­plete) tran­si­tion of pow­er in 2019 from the country’s found­ing President Nursultan Nazarbayev to his suc­ces­sor President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

A very brief history of Kazakhstan

The vast expanse of ter­ri­to­ry that makes up mod­ern Kazakhstan (at 2,724,900 square kilo­me­tres it is the 9th largest coun­try on earth) was home to a num­ber of dif­fer­ent tribes through­out its ear­ly his­to­ry. Political con­sol­i­da­tion in the region is seen to have begun with the arrival of the Mongol Empire and its suc­ces­sor state the Golden Horde in the mid-13th Century. Upon the frag­men­ta­tion of the Golden Horde the Kazakh Khanate was found­ed as its suc­ces­sor in 1465, mark­ing the grad­ual emer­gence of Kazakh iden­ti­ty with­in the land that would ulti­mate­ly become Kazakhstan. Within the Khanate three con­stituent tribes or hordes (Juz/Zhuz) would emerge: the Senior or Great Horde (Uly juz), the Middle Horde (Orta Juz) and the Junior Horde (Kishi juz).The his­to­ry of the Kazakh Khanate has been used as a build­ing block of Kazakhstan’s post-Independence nation­al iden­ti­ty, with the state cel­e­brat­ing the 550th anniver­sary of the Khanate’s found­ing in 2015 with con­spic­u­ous pageantry.[1]

Russian expan­sion into what is now Kazakhstan began in 1584 with the cre­ation of a Cossack mil­i­tary set­tle­ment in Oral (Uralsk) in West Kazakhstan (the part of Kazakhstan on the west­ern side of the Ural riv­er which places it geo­graph­i­cal­ly with­in Europe) that would expand into the Russian set­tle­ment of Yaitskiy Gorodok in 1613. Amid pres­sure from rival Dzungar Khanate (the Aktaban Shubyryndy known as the bare­foot­ed flight or great dis­as­ter) the lead­er­ship of the Kazakh hordes one by one pledged their feal­ty to the Russians who were grad­u­al­ly expand­ing into the ter­ri­to­ry. By the 1820s Russia expand­ed to hold direct con­trol over the Kishi and Orta Juz, and while the com­bined Khanate would briefly rise again from 1841–47 as part of resis­tance to Russian rule, the death of the Khan in bat­tle in 1847 marked the end of the Kazakh Khanate as a polit­i­cal enti­ty. The Russians com­plet­ed their cap­ture of the ter­ri­to­ry of what is now Kazakhstan by 1864, ful­ly absorb­ing them into the Empire.

Russian rule con­tin­ued, most­ly, unin­ter­rupt­ed until 1916 when efforts to con­script eth­nic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz into the Russian army to fight on the Eastern front led to the Central Asian (Semirechye) revolt of 1916, which would leave between 150,000–250,000 dead after its repres­sion by Tsarist forces. Following the col­lapse of cen­tral con­trol in the wake of the Russian Revolution local Kazakh lead­ers declared the cre­ation of the Alash Autonomy, on land rough­ly coter­mi­nous with mod­ern Kazakhstan in December 2017. This flow­er­ing of inde­pen­dence would last until 1920 when the Bolsheviks com­plet­ed their con­quest of the region. In August 2020 the Soviet Union estab­lished in its place the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic lat­er renamed the Kazak Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1925, sub­se­quent­ly becom­ing a full Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) in 1936.

The ear­ly Soviet peri­od was one of great upheaval for eth­nic Kazakhs of the region. Stalin’s forced col­lec­tivi­sa­tion in the ear­ly 1930s of the pre­vi­ous­ly nomadic peo­ples of the region led to the Kazakh famine of 1931–1933, which is believed to have led to the deaths of 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple (of which 1.3 mil­lion were eth­nic Kazakhs, 38 per cent of the total Kazakh pop­u­la­tion) amid the con­text of the wider Soviet famines of 1932–33. The 1950s would see the mass trans­fer of eth­nic Russians to the Kazakh SSR as part of the ‘Virgin Lands’ cam­paign to boost Soviet agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, lead­ing them to out­num­ber eth­nic Kazakhs in their tit­u­lar repub­lic until the 1980s. The peri­od from 1949–1963 would also see the Kazakhstan SSR used as the test­ing ground for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons pro­gramme with over 110 above ground weapons tests whose fall­out impact­ed 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple and left last­ing envi­ron­men­tal dam­age in the area around Semipalatinsk (now Semey).[2]

From 1960–62 and 1964- 1986 Kazakhstan was ruled by Dinmukhamed Kunaev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (and from 1971 a full mem­ber of the Politburo) and a close ally of Leonid Brezhnev. Kunaev’s undo­ing would in part stem from his appoint­ment in 1984 of an ambi­tious, young (by Soviet stan­dards) reformer Nursultan Nazarbayev as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers (equiv­a­lent to Prime Minister of the SSR). The pow­er strug­gle between the two men began in January 1986 when Nazarbayev pub­li­cal­ly crit­i­cised the First Secretary’s broth­er Askar Kunaev over his man­age­ment of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences, lead­ing to an esca­lat­ing polit­i­cal cri­sis which ulti­mate­ly led to the removal of both Kunayevs from their posts. Nazarbayev how­ev­er was not the imme­di­ate ben­e­fi­cia­ry of this change, with Gennady Kolbin, a Russian politi­cian who had nev­er pre­vi­ous­ly lived in Kazakhstan, being para­chut­ed in to take over. This deci­sion would lead to an upsurge in unrest amongst eth­nic Kazakhs that peaked in the Jeltoksan (December) protests in Alma-Ata (now Almaty) that were ruth­less­ly sup­pressed with the deaths of up to 200 protestors.

However, by June 1989 Nazarbayev would get the pro­mo­tion he had been angling for and became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. He sub­se­quent­ly became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet for a brief peri­od in spring 1990 before tak­ing over the new post of President in April 1990. As the Soviet Union col­lapsed Kazakhstan would be the last repub­lic to for­mal­ly declare its inde­pen­dence on December 16th 1991, for­mal­ly join­ing the Commonwealth of Independence States on December 21st that had been cre­at­ed by the Alma-Ata Protocol.

Independent Kazakhstan

Upon inde­pen­dence Kazakhstan wres­tled with many of the same chal­lenges as oth­er new­ly inde­pen­dent republics: sta­bil­is­ing a cra­ter­ing econ­o­my on its tran­si­tion out of the Soviet planned sys­tem into some­thing approx­i­mat­ing the free mar­ket; try­ing to build a sense of nation­al iden­ti­ty and uni­ty in the new­ly formed coun­try; while try­ing to keep a lid on poten­tial eth­nic ten­sions that were spark­ing across the region. Balancing these lat­ter two chal­lenges was a par­tic­u­lar con­cern in Kazakhstan where eth­nic Kazakhs had only recent­ly (as of the 1989 Soviet cen­sus) and nar­row­ly become a plu­ral­i­ty of the republic’s pop­u­la­tion again as there were almost the same num­ber of eth­nic Russian cit­i­zens (6,534,616 and 6,227,549 respec­tive­ly). The eth­nic Russia pop­u­la­tion sig­nif­i­cant­ly out­num­bered eth­nic Kazakhs in many parts of Kazakhstan’s north­ern regions.[3] In 1992 and again in 1999–2000 there were efforts, of var­i­ous degrees of seri­ous­ness, amongst Russian com­mu­ni­ties in parts of the north to reunite with Russia, all of which fiz­zled out with the Government of Kazakhstan work­ing to mol­li­fy poten­tial concerns.[4] However, over the years since inde­pen­dence through a com­bi­na­tion of the grad­ual migra­tion of eth­nic Russians to Russia, the return of eth­nic Kazakhs from East Asia and high­er birth rates amongst the Kazakh pop­u­la­tion have seen the pop­u­la­tion bal­ance shift to the eth­nic Kazakh pop­u­la­tion, with it being esti­mat­ed to be more than 68 per cent by the present day.[5] This shift does not pre­vent the ‘Russian ques­tion’ peri­od­i­cal­ly rais­ing its head, with Russian nation­al­ist politi­cians peri­od­i­cal­ly rais­ing the ques­tion of rein­cor­po­rat­ing the Northern Kazakhstan region that still home to more eth­nic Russians than Kazakhs.[6]

One of the dri­vers of the migra­tion of the Russian pop­u­la­tion in the 1990s was the ini­tial­ly chal­leng­ing state of Kazakhstan’s econ­o­my, with the econ­o­my con­tract­ing over nine per cent per year on aver­age between 1991 and 1995.[7]However, after weath­er­ing the ini­tial storm, Kazakhstan’s immense nat­ur­al resource wealth enabled it to sta­bilise in the late 1990s (despite the impact of the 1998 Russian finan­cial cri­sis on the region) and then dri­ve dra­mat­ic GDP growth over the years that fol­lowed, with a six fold increase in its GDP per capi­ta since 2002. Kazakhstan has the 12th largest proven oil reserves in the world and would become by 2018 the ninth largest glob­al exporter of coal and crude oil as well as the 12th largest exporter of nat­ur­al gas.[8]

This resource wealth has enabled Kazakhstan to sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve its over­all stan­dard of liv­ing beyond that of its Central Asian neigh­bours. This includ­ed sub­stan­tial invest­ment in the phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of the coun­try which act­ed both as a lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal nation-build­ing exer­cise. At the heart of this project was the plan, announced in 1994, to move the nation’s cap­i­tal from the bustling but earth­quake prone Almaty (renamed from Alma Ata the year before) to the small­er city in the north of the coun­try Akmola that phys­i­cal­ly trans­formed into Astana (mean­ing cap­i­tal city in Kazakh) to reflect Nazarbayev’s vision of a mod­ern Kazakhstan, but whose design reflect­ed the tropes of Kazakh folk his­to­ry and iden­ti­ty he was seek­ing to promote.

For 30 years Nazarbayev’s polit­i­cal con­trol was near total. In every Presidential elec­tion he ran either lit­er­al­ly unop­posed, as in his ini­tial elec­tion in December 1991, or with sup­port­ive or no hope can­di­dates to cre­ate the façade of com­ple­tion while ensur­ing the President received vote shares between 91 per cent – 99 per cent. The only excep­tion was the 1999 con­test, held after a ref­er­en­dum in 1995 had extend­ed Nazarbayev’s ini­tial term and removed term lim­its, when Communist par­ty can­di­date Serikbolsyn Abdildin was able to stand (under heavy restric­tions and reports of wide­spread abuse of process) where the President only received 81 per cent. As set out in more detail below, gen­uine efforts to cre­ate oppo­si­tion move­ments either root­ed in civ­il soci­ety or by for­mer mem­bers of the rul­ing elite have been blocked through a mix of bureau­crat­ic obsta­cles and often bru­tal repres­sion. This polit­i­cal dom­i­nance by Nazarbayev, his fam­i­ly and close asso­ciates has been inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined with the hoard­ing of eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties by the same elite, fur­ther entrench­ing their pow­er and ampli­fy­ing the sense of threat from any chal­lenge to the cur­rent system.

While avoid­ing the reg­u­lar bouts of polit­i­cal upheaval seen in neigh­bour­ing Kyrgyzstan, the social pic­ture in Kazakhstan has become some­what more unset­tled since the 2008 finan­cial crash, 2014 oil price crash (that has led to low­er prices ever since) and the 2014–15 Russian finan­cial cri­sis, which all accu­mu­lat­ed to take the rock­et boost­ers off Kazakhstan’s econ­o­my. Labour unrest has peri­od­i­cal­ly flared, most notably and trag­i­cal­ly in the 2011 Zhanaozen strike and sub­se­quent mas­sacre that killed at least 14 pro­tes­tors and saw inde­pen­dent trade union activ­i­ty cracked down upon, but this has not pre­vent­ed sub­se­quent protests over wages, attempts to fire and rehire work­ers on worse con­tracts and work­ing con­di­tions as the Government has sought to trans­fer state run assets in the oil sec­tor into pri­vate hands.[9]

In 2016 eco­nom­ic chal­lenges min­gled with con­cerns over Chinese encroach­ment into Kazakhstan (tap­ping into the same deep fears about the country’s sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed rur­al areas falling into for­eign hands that had pre­vi­ous­ly cen­tred on Russia), led to land protests that broke out in response to reforms to the Land Code that would have enabled for­eign­ers to rent agri­cul­tur­al land for up to 25 years. The protests spread across the coun­try in April 2016 ahead of the law’s imple­men­ta­tion in the July, spark­ing a change in pub­lic will­ing­ness to engage in protest despite the restric­tive legal situation.[10] As April turned to May the Government’s response grew harsh­er. On May 17th 2016 pro­test­ers and envi­ron­men­tal activists Max Bokayev and Talgat Ayanov were arrest­ed for their role in par­tic­i­pat­ing in and help­ing to organ­ise protests. Arrests that ulti­mate­ly esca­lat­ed into a five year prison sen­tence and a sub­se­quent three year ‘free­dom restric­tion’ ban on polit­i­cal activism on the grounds of ‘incit­ing social dis­cord’, ‘dis­sem­i­nat­ing infor­ma­tion known to be false’, and ‘vio­lat­ing the pro­ce­dure for hold­ing assemblies’.[11] At protests in sev­er­al cities on May 21stthe police made hun­dreds of arrests and charges on the grounds of ‘hooliganism’.[12] To quell the grow­ing unrest President Nazarbayev ordered a five year mora­to­ri­um on land sales, a pause that would be turned into a per­ma­nent ban in May 2021 before its expiry.[13] The issue of China has been a dimen­sion to a num­ber of oth­er protests in recent years from labour dis­putes, water use at Lake Baikal, through to protests against the human right abus­es towards eth­nic Kazakhs in Xinjiang touched on below.[14]

In February 2019, the trag­ic deaths of five young girls (aged between three months and 13 years) in a house fire in Astana while both par­ents were work­ing overnight shifts, sparked a wave of protests across Kazakhstan argu­ing for increased social wel­fare pay­ments for moth­ers with more than one child, improved hous­ing and bet­ter healthcare.[15] These ‘moth­ers’ protests’, as explained in more detail in the essay by Colleen Wood, touched a pub­lic nerve over the extent of inequal­i­ty in the coun­try and act­ed as a spark to an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of polit­i­cal change through­out the year.

After major protests on February 15th, President Nazarbayev moved to dis­miss the Government of Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, argu­ing that they had failed to fol­low his instruc­tions to address social issues and he ordered that new fund­ing to be direct­ed to increas­ing sup­port pay­ments and oth­er mea­sures to respond to the pro­tes­tors con­cerns. Only a month lat­er how­ev­er, on March 19th, Nazarbayev made the much more sur­pris­ing announce­ment that he would be imme­di­ate­ly resign­ing from the Presidency to be replaced by Chair of the Senate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (who had pre­vi­ous­ly also served as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister), ini­tial­ly in an act­ing capac­i­ty before elec­tions that would take place in July 2019. That Nazarbayev might seek to tran­si­tion away from the Presidency at some point was not entire­ly a sur­prise, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en the unique pow­ers he had been bestowed with as ‘First President’ and ‘Elbasy’ (leader of the nation) that would endure after he left the Presidency. These life-long pow­ers includ­ed remain­ing as Chair of the National Security Council (a role with wide-rang­ing pow­ers in inter­na­tion­al affairs, law enforce­ment and secu­ri­ty mat­ters and as well as pow­ers over polit­i­cal appoint­ments), con­tin­u­ing as leader of the rul­ing Nur-Otan par­ty and oth­er posi­tions includ­ing mem­ber­ship of the Constitutional Council.[16] This spe­cial sta­tus has allowed Nazarbayev not only to pro­tect him­self and his family’s polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic inter­ests but to play an impor­tant role in shap­ing the country’s devel­op­ment whilst in-effect devolv­ing day-to-day func­tions to President Tokayev. This has cre­at­ed uncer­tain­ty, both with­in the sys­tem and out­side, around where pow­er tru­ly lies, act­ing as a break on Tokayev’s abil­i­ty to set out his own inde­pen­dent agen­da, to the extent that a num­ber of observers still see ulti­mate pow­er with­in the polit­i­cal sys­tem resid­ing with the ‘First President’ rather than his suc­ces­sor who lacks a clear inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal base of his own.

Handing over the duties of President has not sig­nif­i­cant­ly hin­dered the con­tin­ued pro­mo­tion of Nazarbayev and his lega­cy as a cen­tral build­ing block in the nation­al nar­ra­tive. For exam­ple, three days after his depar­ture from office Tokayev signed a decree renam­ing Astana (which had only been renamed from Akimola in 1997) as Nur-Sultan in hon­our of the Elbasy. While at time of pub­li­ca­tion we have seen the unveil­ing of two more large stat­ues of Nazarbayev and launch of an eight hour Oliver Stone direct­ed doc­u­men­tary enti­tled Qazaq: History of the Golden Man aimed at bur­nish­ing Nazarbayev’s lega­cy for both a nation­al and inter­na­tion­al audi­ence.[17]

The tran­si­tion peri­od and ear­ly elec­tions were marked by a ris­ing num­ber of polit­i­cal protests, which though firm­ly repressed, hint at fur­ther cracks in the facade of what had been seen as a rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble author­i­tar­i­an sys­tem. In his first months in office President Tokayev tried to set out his own stall as some­one offer­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly both con­ti­nu­ity with Nazarbayev’s lega­cy and sys­temic reform to respond to the grow­ing calls for change. He described his approach as a ‘lis­ten­ing state’ but in the con­text of Nazarbayev’s endur­ing pow­er and influ­ence, both for­mal­ly and infor­mal­ly behind the scenes, his room for inde­pen­dent manoeu­vre was lim­it­ed and his influ­ence over the state bureau­cra­cy com­par­a­tive­ly weak even before the cri­sis that descend­ed upon Kazakhstan and the world a year after his arrival in the Presidency.[18]


The COVID-19 cri­sis has graph­i­cal­ly exposed the strengths and weak­ness­es of polit­i­cal sys­tems around the world and Kazakhstan has been no excep­tion to this rule. The first report­ed case of the virus was iden­ti­fied in Kazakhstan on March 13th 2020 and by March 15th President Tokayev had announced a state of emer­gency until May, can­celling planned cel­e­bra­tions for Nowruz (unlike his coun­ter­part in Tajikistan) and Victory Day. A quar­an­tine cov­er­ing Astana and Almaty was intro­duced from March 19th, pre­vent­ing res­i­dents from trav­el­ing out­side their local areas. This was expand­ed into a lock­down by March 26th that pre­vent­ed peo­ple from leav­ing their homes except to buy food or go to work, with meet­ings of more than three peo­ple banned and restric­tions on pub­lic trans­port that were soon fol­lowed by restric­tions on non-essen­tial work.[19]Such mea­sures were seen to have an impact on the ini­tial spread of the virus but the planned reopen­ing in May, as else­where in Central Asia, led to a sig­nif­i­cant spike in the num­ber of cas­es that far exceed­ed the ini­tial wave, lead­ing to the rein­tro­duc­tion of a num­ber of restric­tions over the summer.

2021 has seen the num­ber of cas­es in Kazakhstan expand dra­mat­i­cal­ly with peaks in April and at time of writ­ing that exceed the pre­vi­ous peaks from 2020, with the arrival of the more con­ta­gious Delta vari­ant adding to the lat­est peak since mid-June. At time of writ­ing pri­or to pub­li­ca­tion (as of July 14th) Kazakhstan had record­ed 520,336 con­firmed cas­es of COVID-19 with 8,173 deaths, though those num­bers are expect­ed to con­tin­ue to surge due to this lat­est wave.[20] The cur­rent wave of COVID cas­es is see­ing state media more open­ly talk­ing about hos­pi­tals being at capac­i­ty in a bid to urge the pub­lic to change behav­iour.[21] As of mid-July Kazakhstan had admin­is­tered almost sev­en mil­lion indi­vid­ual vac­cine dos­es (for a pop­u­la­tion of 18.5 mil­lion) using a mix of the Russian Sputnik, Chinese Sinopharm and Kazakhstan’s local­ly pro­duced vac­cine QazVac.

As in most coun­tries the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic impact have been severe. The impact of the pan­dem­ic and ini­tial lock­downs pushed the econ­o­my in 2020 into reces­sion (-2.6 per cent) for the first time since the 1998 Russian eco­nom­ic cri­sis, despite cash injec­tions from the Government and the National Fund of Kazakhstan (the country’s oil fund). While the econ­o­my had been expect­ed to return to growth in 2021 the impact of the most recent COVID waves are like­ly to slow progress. A recent report by openDemocracy and local jour­nal­ists at and Mediazona have shown how the pan­dem­ic has exac­er­bat­ed the already heavy reliance many Kazakhstani cit­i­zens have on cred­it to cov­er the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of their fam­i­ly finances after years of wage stag­na­tion, with the amount of per­son­al loans jump­ing by $1.7bn in 2020.[22]

The polit­i­cal chal­lenges that have flowed from the cri­sis have come in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent forms. The ini­tial response from the Ministry of Health was heav­i­ly crit­i­cised for over bur­den­ing the resources of the hos­pi­tal sys­tem and oth­er ini­tial mis­steps in treat­ment, includ­ing drug and test­ing short­ages. The Health Minister Yelzhan Birtanov resigned from his post in June after con­tract­ing the virus and would sub­se­quent­ly be arrest­ed on cor­rup­tion charges relat­ing to long­stand­ing alle­ga­tions sur­round­ing a major health dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion project called Damumed.[23]

As else­where in Central Asia mea­sures to restrict the spread of dis­in­for­ma­tion end­ed up being deployed against online crit­ics of the Government’s response to the cri­sis and its wider performance.[24] For exam­ple, civic activist Alnur Ilyashev was sen­tenced to three years of parole-like per­son­al restraint, 100 hours of com­pul­so­ry com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice, and a five year ‘free­dom restric­tion’ ban on social and polit­i­cal activism fol­low­ing a con­vic­tion for the ‘dis­tri­b­u­tion of mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion’ that was ‘threat­en­ing to pub­lic secu­ri­ty’ over two Facebook posts crit­i­cal of the rul­ing Nur-Otan par­ty, Nursultan Nazarbayev and President Kassym Zhomart-Tokayev, com­ing after his past efforts to cre­ate a new inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal par­ty had pre­vi­ous­ly been cracked down on.[25]COVID also pro­vid­ed cov­er for the state to inten­si­fy pres­sure against its exist­ing polit­i­cal oppo­nents as out­lined in the sec­tions below.[26]

Other exam­ples of mis­use of the pan­dem­ic for polit­i­cal pur­pos­es include alle­ga­tions ahead of the 2021 Mazhilis (Parliamentary) elec­tions that offi­cials were breach­ing the COVID-19 test­ing pro­to­cols to dis­rupt the work of inde­pen­dent elec­tion observers.[27] More overt­ly ahead of a pro­posed anti-Government ral­ly on February 28th 2021 the city author­i­ties in Nur-Sultan raised the pan­dem­ic threat lev­el from amber to red, which imposed strict lim­its on free­dom of move­ment, for one day only seem­ing­ly to head off the poten­tial protest before low­er­ing it again.[28]

The situation today: Politics and protest

Kazakhstan’s rul­ing elite remains in the process of tran­si­tion, with Nazarbayev slow­ly trans­fer­ring for­mal pow­ers to President Tokayev and being less vis­i­ble in pub­lic, while retain­ing strong influ­ence over appoint­ments to posi­tions with­in Tokayev’s admin­is­tra­tion and oth­er arms of the Government, both nation­al­ly and local­ly. President Tokayev’s ini­tial reforms have includ­ed for­mal abo­li­tion of the death penal­ty (though a mora­to­ri­um had been in place since 2003) and the elec­tion of local Akims (may­ors) in rur­al areas.[29] On this lat­ter ini­tia­tive the direct local elec­tions for rur­al Akims, replac­ing indi­rect elec­tion by the maslikhats (local coun­cils), are tak­ing place for the first time in July 2021, with inde­pen­dent can­di­dates able to stand. There is under­stand­able hope that this will help make local Akims more account­able and respon­sive to their local com­mu­ni­ties, ahead of the planned roll­out of the direct elec­tion mod­el to oth­er tiers of local Government in the com­ing years. However, there are pre­qual­i­fi­ca­tion require­ments for can­di­dates than include either hav­ing worked in the civ­il ser­vice or held a lead­er­ship role in the pri­vate sec­tor, vague cri­te­ria that have the poten­tial to be used to weed out poten­tial critics.[30]

Some parts of the state seem will­ing to engage with NGOs and oth­er experts to con­sult them over pro­posed leg­isla­tive changes, while oth­ers parts con­tin­ue puni­tive tax inves­ti­ga­tions against them at the same time, dash­ing any hopes that Tokayev’s calls for reform would lead to a much wider lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the sys­tem. His fram­ing of the ‘lis­ten­ing state’ aims to con­tin­ue his predecessor’s approach of try­ing to man­age com­plaints by ordi­nary cit­i­zens (while con­tin­u­ing to crush dis­sent that chal­lenges the sys­tem) albeit now with a tone of cau­tious man­age­ri­al­ism and insti­tu­tion­al­ism (at a min­istry lev­el) rather than per­son­al­i­sa­tion through the office of the Presidency as under Nazarbayev. This has giv­en greater lat­i­tude for min­istries to lean into their own pref­er­ences towards reform or reac­tion, with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Security Committee being at the heart of the lat­ter tendency.

The Government’s over­all approach remains broad­ly trans­ac­tion­al in that the state will seek to pro­vide sta­bil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic growth while the cit­i­zen­ry will not seek to (and not be allowed to) desta­bilise con­trol by the rul­ing elite. For most of the post-Soviet peri­od much of the pub­lic has remained broad­ly risk averse, with a mid­dle class focused on pro­tect­ing their posi­tion and wary of the risk of uncer­tain polit­i­cal change. Part of the rea­son for that is, as Aina Shormanbayeva and Amangeldy Shormanbayev argue in their essay, the pen­e­tra­tion of the state and elite pow­er struc­ture into all aspects of life cre­ates a huge obsta­cle for those wish­ing to chal­lenge or hold the pow­er­ful to account. However, grow­ing inequal­i­ty and the slowed growth rates of recent years have seen a greater ten­den­cy towards protest, if not yet a wider polit­i­cal mobilisation.

Despite puta­tive reforms to Kazakhstan’s par­ty sys­tem in 2010 and a for­mal trans­fer of pow­ers to Parliament in the 2017 Constitutional reform process, gen­uine plu­ral­ism in Kazakhstan’s pol­i­tics is con­spic­u­ous­ly absent. No new par­ties have been reg­is­tered since 2013 despite nine attempts to do so since the pre­vi­ous Parliamentary elec­tions in 2016.[31] Although the par­ty reg­is­tra­tion require­ments have been for­mal­ly reformed, such as reduc­ing the required num­ber of mem­bers from 40,000 to 20,000, prac­ti­cal chal­lenges per­sist. For exam­ple, the OSCE note the reten­tion of require­ments that par­ties should hold a con­gress of more than 1,000 peo­ple, with the same num­ber required for a party’s ini­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee, all of which require sig­nif­i­cant iden­ti­ty ver­i­fi­ca­tion and the risk of pres­sure on those who do par­tic­i­pate in the above. At present there is no con­fi­dence that even if new par­ties were to over­come these bureau­crat­ic hur­dles that they would be allowed to suc­cess­ful­ly reg­is­ter, with end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for bureau­crat­ic quib­bling to pre­vent a new par­ty being formed. At present, par­tial­ly as a func­tion of oper­at­ing a par­ty list sys­tem, inde­pen­dent can­di­dates are barred from stand­ing for the Mazhilis.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) which run the gold stan­dard elec­tion obser­va­tion mis­sions in the wider region have been blunt in their assess­ment of the polit­i­cal process. In their most recent report they state that ‘the 10 January par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in Kazakhstan lacked gen­uine com­pe­ti­tion and high­light­ed the need of the announced polit­i­cal reforms. They were tech­ni­cal­ly pre­pared effi­cient­ly amid the chal­lenges posed by the out­break of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. While five par­ties par­tic­i­pat­ed in the elec­toral process, and their can­di­dates were able to cam­paign freely, lim­its imposed on the exer­cise of con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly guar­an­teed fun­da­men­tal free­doms restrict the polit­i­cal space.’[32] The five par­ties were are allowed to stand were all ‘con­struc­tive oppo­si­tion’ that broad­ly sup­port the President and the cur­rent polit­i­cal system.

As explained fur­ther below it was of lit­tle sur­prise that the recent spate of tax inves­ti­ga­tions into well-known NGOs took place in the run-up to the Parliamentary polls.[33] The author­i­ties also took steps to pre­vent NGOs that were not explic­it­ly found­ed for the pur­pose of con­duct­ing elec­tion obser­va­tion from scru­ti­n­is­ing the elec­toral process and try­ing to restrict those who were allowed to observe from tak­ing pho­tos, depart­ing from pre­vi­ous practice.[34]

The result saw a small drop in the vote for the rul­ing Nur-Otan par­ty and a slight rise for the Ak Zhol par­ty and the People’s Party of Kazakhstan, with a turnout (63.3 per cent) the low­est since 1999 amid the con­tin­u­ing pan­dem­ic and vot­er apa­thy. That the lev­els of pres­sure on those seek­ing to scru­ti­nise the elec­tions, despite Tokayev’s ini­tial promis­es of polit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion and the low stakes of an elec­tion where every par­ty stand­ing sup­port­ed the Government, sug­gests a grow­ing ner­vous­ness about the recent eco­nom­ic and social protest move­ment poten­tial­ly bleed­ing through into sup­port to more overt polit­i­cal opposition.[35]

There are a num­ber of extra-Parliamentary oppo­si­tion groups that are at least in the­o­ry look­ing to fill that poten­tial vac­u­um. The Nationwide Social Democratic Party (OSDP) has been the only reg­is­tered par­ty that has pub­li­cal­ly declared its oppo­si­tion to Nazarbayev and now Tokayev since the mid-2000s, albeit in what Eurasianet described as a ‘high­ly mut­ed and accom­mo­da­tion­ist’ manner.[36]The par­ty ulti­mate­ly decid­ed to with­draw from the 2021 elec­tions fol­low­ing a com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal dis­agree­ments, the con­tin­ued unfair elec­toral ter­rain but also after the inter­ven­tion of Muktar Ablyazov (about whom more is explained below) who called on his sup­port­ers to vote for the Social Democrats as a vehi­cle to reg­is­ter dis­sent with Nur-Otan (despite derid­ing them as a fake oppo­si­tion group) and as a move that opened up the par­ty to pres­sure from both sides.[37] After the OSDP’s with­draw­al Ablayazov would turn his atten­tion to call­ing for a tac­ti­cal vote for Ak Zhol as a method of show­ing oppo­si­tion to the Government (despite Ak Zhol’s sup­port for Tokayev), echo­ing Alexi Navalny’s ‘smart vote scheme’ in Russia. In any case most of the noise and activ­i­ty amongst the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion lies elsewhere.

For the best part of the last two decades the loud­est and most con­tro­ver­sial oppo­si­tion fig­ure in the polit­i­cal life of Kazakhstan has been Muktar Ablyazov.[38] Ablyazov first came to promi­nence in the 1990s as the head of the Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company before serv­ing an 18 month stint as Minister of Energy, Industry and Trade until October 1999. In 2001, Ablyazov and a broad array of fig­ures from inside the rul­ing elite, includ­ing the Deputy Prime Minister Oraz Zhandosov, Minister of Labour Alikhan Baymenov and the Akim of Pavlodar Region Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, formed a nascent polit­i­cal par­ty called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (known as the QDT in Kazakh or DVK in Russian) on a plat­form call­ing for fur­ther eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal lib­er­al­i­sa­tion includ­ing more pow­ers for Parliament and the elec­tion of region­al Akims (Governors).[39]

Then Prime Minister Tokayev sum­mar­i­ly fired all of the serv­ing offi­cials, call­ing them ‘plot­ters’, and the Government turned up the polit­i­cal pres­sure on the group’s mem­bers to the extent that the less com­mit­ted would qui­et­ly return to the fold, while oth­er less stri­dent mem­bers of the group­ing would go on to form Ak Zhol (which is now the pro-Government polit­i­cal par­ty men­tioned above),  some of whom would sub­se­quent­ly leave Ak Zhol to form a splin­ter par­ty that would even­tu­al­ly merge with the National Social Democrats. Ablyazov how­ev­er pressed on with his own par­ty and soon found him­self, in March 2002, arrest­ed as part of a cor­rup­tion inves­ti­ga­tion that had been opened but not pur­sued three years ear­li­er. Initially jailed for six years Ablyazov would soon be freed after issu­ing a florid apol­o­gy to Nazarbayev and swear­ing off any future polit­i­cal involve­ment. The first incar­na­tion of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan would be wound up in 2005.

Upon his release Ablyazov osten­si­bly returned to his busi­ness activ­i­ties, act­ing as Chairman of BTA Bank, which grew rapid­ly in the years pre­ced­ing the finan­cial crash to become Kazakhstan’s largest com­mer­cial bank. However things began to fall apart by ear­ly 2009 when the Bank was tak­en over by the state in the wake of a $10 bil­lion debt being found and Ablyazov fled to London. The years that fol­lowed would see an inter­na­tion­al hunt for the miss­ing mon­ey and dis­clo­sures in the UK and US courts about the com­plex web of off­shore hold­ings through which the now state run BTA argued Ablyazov had com­mit­ted an exten­sive fraud, but which he argued were a defence against his mon­ey being tak­en as per­se­cu­tion for his polit­i­cal activ­i­ties. After years of wran­gling, pri­mar­i­ly in the UK Courts, lawyers on behalf of BTA secured judge­ments against Ablyazov demand­ing the return of $4.8 bil­lion, with efforts to enforce those judge­ments against assets believed to be owned by Ablyazov, includ­ing lux­u­ry prop­er­ties in Surrey and on the Bishop’s Avenue in London (known col­lo­qui­al­ly as Billionaires Row) and busi­ness hold­ings around the world that are con­tin­u­ing to this day.[40] In 2012 Ablyazov was found guilty of con­tempt of court at the High Court in London for fail­ing to dis­close details of his assets and had to flee to France where he would ulti­mate­ly gain asylum.[41] However his wife and chil­dren would be briefly tak­en from Italy to Kazakhstan in a scan­dal that would sub­se­quent­ly see Italian police offi­cers jailed for tak­ing part in a de fac­tokid­nap­ping and the fam­i­ly returned to Italy after mount­ing polit­i­cal pressure.[42]

What became clear in the years that fol­lowed Ablyazov’s depar­ture from Kazakhstan in 2009 was that, despite ini­tial denials, he had con­tin­ued to be a major finan­cial sup­port­er of oppo­si­tion par­ties and media out­lets in the years that fol­lowed his ini­tial arrest. This was believed to include the unreg­is­tered Alga par­ty, formed by for­mer Democratic Choice mem­bers in 2005, that served as the largest oppo­si­tion group­ing until it was banned on grounds of extrem­ism in 2012 in the wake of the jail­ing of its leader Vladimir Kozlov.[43] Koslov would be impris­oned as part of the crack­down that fol­lowed the Zhanaozen protests, though he was released in 2016 after years of inter­na­tion­al pres­sure over his sentencing.[44]

By 2017 Ablyazov began to open­ly reassert him­self direct­ly into the polit­i­cal fray in Kazakhstan with the reestab­lish­ment of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan as a polit­i­cal move­ment. The revived QDT/DVK move­ment was for­mal­ly banned as an extrem­ist move­ment by March 2018, with the whole of Kazakhstan’s social media fac­ing block­ages and speed restric­tions when­ev­er Ablyazov would broad­cast on Facebook Live.[45] Following the ban­ning of Ablyazov’s par­ty a new ‘Street Party’ or Koshe start­ed to become active, but was itself banned on extrem­ism grounds in June 2020 on sus­pi­cion of links to the QDT.[46]

Public protests by QDT and Koshe sup­port­ers have become a notable part of the polit­i­cal land­scape, since their involve­ment in and par­tial pig­gy back­ing on the pub­lic protests on the role of China, the 2019 Presidential elec­tion (which saw hun­dreds of pro­tes­tors arrest­ed) and the social issues that have being roil­ing in recent years.[47] They have been notable in par­tic­u­lar because of the lev­el of feroc­i­ty with which the Government has respond­ed, with the movement’s des­ig­na­tion as extrem­ist enabling the use of laws designed for com­bat­ting ter­ror­ism and ‘extrem­ism’ to be deployed against pro­tes­tors believed to be part of the move­ment. Article 174 of the Criminal Code on ‘Institution of social, nation­al, gener­ic, racial, class or reli­gious dis­cord’ was used as a reg­u­lar tool to arrest peo­ple, but more often in recent times Article 405 about mem­ber­ship of banned extrem­ist organ­i­sa­tions has been the tool of choice with Human Rights Watch doc­u­ment­ing over 130 such cases.[48] The use of these laws have not just been applied to phys­i­cal pro­tes­tors but to any­one shar­ing infor­ma­tion about the protests or about the QDT and Koshe more gen­er­al­ly, with arrests and ‘free­dom restric­tion’ bans on activists being deployed.

While the lev­el of anger gen­er­at­ed by Ablyazov at the high­est lev­els of Kazakhstan’s Government can­not be under­stat­ed, most inter­na­tion­al human rights observers and Western Governments have chal­lenged the ban­ning orders against the QDT and Koshe on the basis that the Government of Kazakhstan is seek­ing to pro­hib­it peace­ful protest move­ments. While these groups are clear­ly aim­ing to achieve a change of gov­ern­ment in Kazakhstan, there is not cur­rent­ly evi­dence avail­able that the QDT and Koshe are seek­ing to achieve this goal through vio­lence rather than pub­lic pres­sure, with the Government of Kazakhstan unwill­ing to share the evi­dence of extrem­ism relied on in court for inde­pen­dent verification.[49] Given Ablyazov’s straight for­ward polit­i­cal tac­tic of seek­ing to insert him­self into issues of pop­u­lar protest it is dif­fi­cult to gauge the pro­por­tion of the pub­lic who active­ly sup­port him, rather than sim­ply share some of his cri­tiques of the Government, though the num­bers active­ly involved in QDT and Koshe protests would seem to be rel­a­tive­ly low, albeit giv­en the lev­el of pres­sure from the state on any­one who does so. Even for those who are open­ly sup­port­ive of the par­ty it would seem clear that ordi­nary activists are peo­ple show­ing their frus­tra­tion with the exist­ing order rather than try­ing to enact a vio­lent over­throw of the Government.

Trying, but not always suc­ceed­ing (lit­er­al­ly giv­en they reg­u­lar­ly try to protest on sim­i­lar issues of pub­lic dis­con­tent on the same days), to keep their dis­tance from the QDT is the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan (QDP or DPT).[50] The QDP was found­ed in October 2019 with a mix­ture of old­er oppo­si­tion fig­ures (such as Tulegen Zhukeyev) and younger activists, led by 33 year old Janbolat Mamai, for­mer­ly a cam­paign­ing jour­nal­ist with the Tribuna Newspaper before being banned from jour­nal­ism for three years as a ‘free­dom restric­tion’ in 2017 over mon­ey laun­der­ing claims that the Government said was linked to Ablyazov.[51]The par­ty has tried to cap­i­talise on the mood of change that flowed from the social protests and the sense that the change of the guard that took place when President Tokayev took over should actu­al­ly presage more sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal change. So far it has been blocked from reg­is­ter­ing as an offi­cial par­ty, though it did suc­ceed in get­ting offi­cial per­mis­sion for a protest ral­ly in November 2020, an extreme­ly rare occurrence.[52]

While explic­it­ly not a polit­i­cal par­ty, the youth-focused social move­ment Oyan Kazakstan (Wake Up Kazakhstan) has been a reg­u­lar pres­ence on the streets since its found­ing in June 2019, lead­ing to its mem­bers being swept up in gov­ern­ment crack­downs on such protests.[53] Young pro­tes­tors in their teens and ear­ly 20s have been protest­ing in sup­port of a plat­form of ideas, includ­ing an end to polit­i­cal repres­sion, reform­ing the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er between the branch­es of gov­ern­ment, free elec­tions in line with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards, and a sys­tem of self-gov­er­nance at the local level.[54]

Unregistered oppo­si­tion groups and pro-reform social move­ments are not the only ones try­ing to make their voice heard at present. As set out above, anti-Chinese nation­al­ist sen­ti­ments have been a major fea­ture of polit­i­cal protests and con­cerns in recent years but Kazakhstan is also to some extent catch­ing up with the rest of Central Asia when it comes to social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive activism that links to anti-Western nation­al­ism. Efforts to pass anti-LGBTQ+ ‘pro­pa­gan­da’ bills in 2015 and 2018–19 were pushed back after inter­na­tion­al pres­sure but there are rum­blings from Parliamentarians for anoth­er attempt to pass sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion. In her essay in this col­lec­tion, Aigerim Kamidola doc­u­ments the rise of ‘anti-Gender’ nar­ra­tives, feed­ing off region­al and nation­al debates. However, it has been the recent debate about attempts to pass a bill to stop domes­tic vio­lence that have stirred a nation­al­ist and con­spir­acist back­lash from groups online such as Unity of Conscious KZ and MOD People’s Unity (that often link to region­al and glob­al net­works, such as Citizen Go, pro­mot­ing anti-vac­cine nar­ra­tives and social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues on fam­i­ly issues).[55]

Despite pledges to the con­trary in 2019, as the arrest record shows, President Tokayev has not so far sig­nif­i­cant­ly deliv­ered on his pledge to make it eas­i­er for peo­ple to pub­li­cal­ly protest in prac­tice. As Colleen Wood points out in her essay, the reforms to the law on peace­ful assem­bly passed in May 2020, that had been announced with much gov­ern­men­tal fan­fare were seen as more cos­met­ic than mean­ing­ful by local activists. Whilst the request process has tran­si­tioned from one of ask­ing per­mis­sion to giv­ing advance notice in prac­tice the author­i­ties still have wide-rang­ing pow­ers to set the loca­tion of and rearrange or can­cel pro­posed gath­er­ings, which have been used to keep it very dif­fi­cult for pro­tes­tors to hold legal­ly sanc­tioned rallies.[56] It is worth not­ing, how­ev­er, that even leav­ing aside some of the banned groups list­ed above, if an organ­i­sa­tion is not for­mal­ly reg­is­tered with the Government it is not legal­ly allowed to organ­ise protest.[57] The con­tin­u­ing dif­fi­cul­ties have left activists reg­u­lar­ly hold­ing sin­gle per­son pick­ets with protest signs to attempt to draw atten­tion to their causes.[58] Restrictions in the Criminal Code against ‘pro­vid­ing assis­tance to’ ille­gal protests have been used to tar­get social media users who have com­ment­ed or shared infor­ma­tion about such events, a wor­ry­ing trend iden­ti­fied by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to free­dom of peace­ful assem­bly and of association.[59] While the case for deep­er reform remains urgent even with­in the frame­work of the cur­rent law there is more that could be done to cre­ate a clear guid­ance with list of duties that local author­i­ties should ful­fil to proac­tive­ly enable peace­ful protest rather than sim­ply pro­vid­ing a list of demands for pro­tes­tors, while both the Government of Kazakhstan and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty should record the num­ber of protests that have end­ed up being legal­ly sanctioned.

It is not only the arrests of activists that have drawn con­cerns from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty but how they have been treat­ed by police dur­ing the protests. Tatiana Chernobyl’s essay in this col­lec­tion address­es the grow­ing use of the con­tro­ver­sial polic­ing tac­tic known as ket­tling, adapt­ed from ear­li­er forms of cor­don­ing police protest by the Metropolitan Police in the UK dur­ing protests against the WTO in 1999.[60] Although the tac­tic has been ruled legal in prin­ci­ple, by for exam­ple the European Court of Human Rights, how it its deployed and the pro­tec­tion of pro­test­ers con­tained with­in the ‘ket­tle’ remains a sen­si­tive top­ic, par­tic­u­lar­ly if deployed for non-vio­lent protest in breach of OSCE guid­ance as Chernobyl points out.[61] At the heart of the issue is how the state per­ceives any unsanc­tioned protest as a poten­tial threat to its con­trol, there­by legit­i­mat­ing in its eyes the use of tac­tics more com­mon­ly deployed in high­er risk situations.

The wider human rights and civil society situation

Beyond the heavy crack­down on oppo­si­tion activists and street move­ments the wider sit­u­a­tion for civ­il soci­ety is some­what more mixed. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World rank­ings place Kazakhstan mar­gin­al­ly above Russia and three of its Central Asian neigh­bours (for now Kyrgyzstan remains above it), this stems from a civ­il lib­er­ties score that is some­what bet­ter than its rat­ing for polit­i­cal free­dom.[62]

A lead­ing Kazakhstani NGO activist described the three com­pet­ing forces that shape the Kazakhstani state as: Personality (above all Nazarbayev but also lead­ers of Ministries and oth­er parts of the rul­ing elite both in Government, Parliament and in state con­nect­ed busi­ness­es with a great degree of vari­abil­i­ty of out­come depend­ing on who is exert­ing influ­ence in a par­tic­u­lar area); Protectionism (the desire to pro­tect the wealth and pow­er of rul­ing elites and elim­i­nate threats to the exist­ing order); and Modernisation (actions by tech­no­crat­ic, often Western-edu­cat­ed sec­tions of the rul­ing elite that seek to mod­ernise and cau­tious­ly reform how the state and soci­ety oper­ate with­in the guardrails of the polit­i­cal sta­tus quo).

The last few months have neat­ly illus­trat­ed the ten­sion between the last two trends. Firstly not only has the last year seen increased pres­sure on the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion but a cam­paign of tar­get­ed pres­sure against some of Kazakhstan’s lead­ing NGOs, both before and imme­di­ate­ly after the January 2021 elec­tions, in a clear attempt to apply a chill­ing effect to their pub­lic activ­i­ties around the vote. This includ­ed 13 lead­ing human rights NGOs (includ­ing Kadyr-Kasiyet and the International Legal Initiative Public Foundation who have pro­vid­ed con­tri­bu­tions to this col­lec­tion) who were placed under inves­ti­ga­tion by the tax author­i­ties over the report­ing of their activ­i­ties fund­ed by inter­na­tion­al grants, threat­en­ing them with fines and a require­ment to tem­po­rary sus­pend their activities.[63]Under sus­tained inter­na­tion­al pres­sure and as time passed since the January elec­tions most of the tax cas­es were dropped between February and April 2021.[64]

Many of these and oth­er NGOs have faced harass­ment for years through the use of tough report­ing require­ments that can be deployed puni­tive­ly to apply pres­sure to NGOs.[65] The legal frame­work was made more exact­ing for NGO’s through changes to the laws gov­ern­ing them in 2015 and 2016 that cul­mi­nat­ed in require­ments to pro­vide large amounts of detailed infor­ma­tion about their oper­a­tions and how much they both receive and spend that comes from for­eign sources (with debates about the impact of fluc­tu­at­ing exchange rates fuelling some of the recent cas­es not­ed above).[66] However, despite the pres­sure they faced from the tax author­i­ties many of these organ­i­sa­tions were still being invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate in offi­cial work­ing groups and pro­vide advice to the Government on pol­i­cy devel­op­ment on areas of their exper­tise, with fur­ther engage­ment with these stake­hold­ers now tak­ing place in the wake of President Tokayev’s lat­est ini­tia­tive on human rights.

In a Decree enti­tled ‘On fur­ther human rights mea­sures in Kazakhstan’ signed on June 9th 2021 President Tokayev com­mits the Government to cre­at­ing a human rights action plan to address the top­ics of:[67]

  • Improving the mech­a­nisms of inter­ac­tion with the UN treaty bod­ies and spe­cial pro­ce­dures of the UN Human Rights Council; 
  • Ensuring the rights of vic­tims of human trafficking; 
  • Human rights of cit­i­zens with disabilities;
  • The elim­i­na­tion of dis­crim­i­na­tion against women; 
  • The right to free­dom of association; 
  • The right to free­dom of expression; 
  • The human right to life and pub­lic order; 
  • Increasing the effi­cien­cy of inter­ac­tion with non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions; and
  • Human rights in crim­i­nal jus­tice and enforce­ment, and pre­ven­tion of tor­ture and ill-treatment.’

Given the Government’s recent track record on a num­ber of top­ics on this list most observers will treat pledges on polit­i­cal­ly con­tentious issues such as free­dom of asso­ci­a­tion and expres­sion with a sub­stan­tial degree of skep­ti­cism until proven oth­er­wise. However, the extent of Government-civ­il soci­ety dia­logue under­way sug­gests there is at least hope that mod­est improve­ments may be made in oth­er areas that do not mean­ing­ful­ly seek to alter the fun­da­men­tal pow­er struc­ture. Sadly as set out here and in a num­ber of essay con­tri­bu­tions not all of these less polit­i­cal top­ics are nec­es­sar­i­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial, par­tic­u­lar­ly mea­sures that seek to address domes­tic vio­lence giv­en the nation­al­ist back­lash it is cur­rent­ly generating.

So for those who avoid step­ping over the state imposed line from civic activism into oppo­si­tion pol­i­tics (par­tic­u­lar­ly oppo­si­tion pol­i­tics linked to the elite’s bête noire) there can be more room to crit­i­cise the Government on its per­for­mance and make the case for reforms with­in the con­straints of the sys­tem. It is a strat­e­gy designed to give activists a stake, a space to exert some degree of influ­ence (to help shape ‘insti­tu­tion­al change over the next ten years’ as one put it) pro­vid­ed they do not let mea­sured crit­i­cism cross over into explic­it demands for a change of polit­i­cal lead­er­ship despite the rigged nature of the system.

From the per­spec­tive of the state a part­ner­ship approach with civ­il soci­ety, designed to make the sys­tem work bet­ter in deliv­er­ing out­comes for cit­i­zens rather than try­ing to change it makes a lot of sense, at least to the more mod­ernising-wing of the rul­ing elite. ‘Modernising’ is prob­a­bly the right word (rather than lib­er­al­is­ing or democ­ra­tis­ing) to use because it is approach that seeks to main­tains the sta­tus quo pow­er struc­tures, keep­ing any ‘reformism’ with­in clear polit­i­cal bounds. It is an approach illus­trat­ed by the increased fund­ing being made avail­able to NGOs to deliv­er ser­vices, a set of themes Colleen Wood’s essay in this col­lec­tion reflects more on.

For those unwill­ing to engage with the Government the sit­u­a­tion is even tougher, whether linked to the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion or not, and many NGO’s find it dif­fi­cult to assist polit­i­cal activists due to pres­sure, though a num­ber of them are able to raise aware­ness about their cas­es and call for com­pli­ance with inter­na­tion­al stan­dards at arms-length. Despite Government offi­cials argu­ing that there are no polit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Kazakhstan local human rights defend­ers put the fig­ure at  around 20 (many of whom have been pros­e­cut­ed under Article 405 for par­tic­i­pa­tion in banned organ­i­sa­tions), though Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience Max Bokayev was final­ly released in February 2021.[68]

In a high pro­file case, Aset Abishev, a QDT (DVK) activist jailed for four years in 2018, was grant­ed ear­ly release on July 14th, short­ly pri­or to this report’s pub­li­ca­tion. Abishev had become a cause for inter­na­tion­al con­cern after he slit his wrists in April 2021 in protest at his treat­ment by prison guards.[69] Sadly the sim­i­lar­ly high pro­file sit­u­a­tion of his fel­low QDT activist Dulat Agadil did not have the same end­ing. Agadil was arrest­ed at his home in February 2020, for fail­ing to respond to a request to appear in court for his activism. The long­stand­ing activist died in police cus­tody in what his fam­i­ly believe were sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances, an event that led to protests and wide­spread pub­lic anger.[70]

Not all of Kazakhstan’s con­tentious pris­on­er cas­es are new. Poet and Protestor Aron Atabek was jailed in 2007 for 18 years and remains in prison over organ­is­ing a protest that led to the death of a police offi­cer. International human rights organ­i­sa­tions and local cul­tur­al fig­ures have long called for Atabek’s release and argued he has faced ill-treat­ment (includ­ing extend­ed peri­ods of soli­tary con­fine­ment and a bro­ken leg from the guards) par­tic­u­lar­ly fol­low­ing the release of crit­i­cism of Nazarbayev made whilst in jail.[71]

In February 2021, the European Parliament passed a hard hit­ting res­o­lu­tion crit­i­cis­ing the dete­ri­o­rat­ing human rights sit­u­a­tion in Kazakhstan, focused on the deten­tion of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers and the crack­down on oppo­si­tion groups.[72] This does not seem to have had an impact on how the Government is con­tin­u­ing to approach the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion with the Democratic Party lead­ers cur­rent­ly fac­ing a wave of arrests under admin­is­tra­tive code vio­la­tions at time of writing.[73]

Many activists face pro­hi­bi­tions on their polit­i­cal or jour­nal­is­tic activ­i­ty in addi­tion to or in lieu of their cus­to­di­al sen­tences as part of parole type pro­vi­sions known as ‘free­dom restriction’.[74] For exam­ple, in June 2020 civic activist Asya Tulesova was threat­ened with up to three years in prison for knock­ing the cap off a police offi­cer in protest at how a ral­ly was being policed. After inter­na­tion­al out­cry and two months in pre-tri­al deten­tion the even­tu­al sen­tence was a one and a half year pro­ba­tion order that includ­ed ‘free­dom restric­tions’ on her activities.[75] Activists with links to banned groups have been giv­en longer-terms, such as region­al QDT activist Marat Duisembiev who received a three and a half year restriction.[76] Irrespective of the rea­son for the ‘free­dom restric­tion’ it sig­nif­i­cant­ly increas­es the risks of a sig­nif­i­cant cus­to­di­al sen­tence for any form of polit­i­cal activ­i­ty, how­ev­er loose­ly defined they may engage in dur­ing the restrict­ed peri­od. Its pur­pose is very clear­ly designed to chill civic and polit­i­cal activism with­out gen­er­at­ing the back­lash, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, that cus­to­di­al sen­tences for these activists would generate.

Monitoring the security situation of human rights defenders

By Public Association Kadyr-Kasiyet

The Public Association Kadyr-Kasiyet con­ducts month­ly mon­i­tor­ing of the pres­sure against human rights defend­ers in Kazakhstan. Monitoring is con­duct­ed in rela­tion to eight broad cat­e­gories of human rights defend­ers: human rights defend­ers, civ­il activists, lawyers, jour­nal­ists, activists of trade unions, reli­gious asso­ci­a­tions, polit­i­cal par­ties, and pub­lic figures.

Each of the eight cat­e­gories of activists sup­ports, strives to pro­tect, pro­mote, or demon­strates how one or more fun­da­men­tal human rights and free­doms can be enjoyed. This, in turn, cre­ates an idea of what rights and free­doms are under threat. Over the course of 2020, as well as first five months of 2021, the rights under threat have been the same: free­dom of peace­ful assem­bly, asso­ci­a­tion, and free­dom of expression.

In 2020 alone, there were 1,414 threats record­ed against 684 peo­ple. Of these, the largest num­ber of threats were received against civ­il soci­ety activists (482), jour­nal­ists (64), polit­i­cal activists (48), human rights defend­ers (45), lawyers (24), activists of reli­gious asso­ci­a­tions (ten), pub­lic fig­ures (six), trade union activists (five). For five months of 2021 , more than 400 threats were made against 475 people.

Analysis of the peri­od showed the fol­low­ing trends:

  • The num­ber of threats decreased due to the intro­duc­tion of the state of emer­gency, and restric­tions were used against jour­nal­ists, med­ical work­ers, and activists. At the same time, the pros­e­cu­tion of lawyers and jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing events relat­ed to COVID-19 began.
  • The state of emer­gency has been lift­ed, but quar­an­tine mea­sures have been maintained.
  • Banned ‘par­ties’ the ‘Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan’ and ‘Koshe par­tiyasy’, which led to crim­i­nal cas­es and sum­mons­es for ques­tion­ing of their members.
  • Despite the coro­n­avirus out­break and the entry into force of amend­ments to the law on peace­ful assem­blies unap­proved ral­lies were held in Nur-Sultan, Almaty and oth­er cities of the coun­try and arrests were made.
  • In dif­fer­ent cities of Kazakhstan, cit­i­zens were arrest­ed and sen­tenced for a peri­od of five days to two months and a fine of up to 70 MCI (195,000 tenge) for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a memo­r­i­al ser­vice in the fam­i­ly home of the late activist Dulat Agadil.
  • Rallies for a cred­it amnesty, the release of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and against the trans­fer of land to for­eign­ers took place.
  • A num­ber of non-prof­it organ­i­sa­tions were ‘attacked’ by the tax author­i­ties before the par­lia­men­tary elections.

The secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion of human rights defend­ers and activists is linked and depends on events in the coun­try. For exam­ple, in 2020, the largest num­ber of threats was record­ed in February and October. In February, Dulat Agadil died in pre-tri­al deten­tion cen­ter in Nur-Sultan. Peaceful ral­lies in his mem­o­ry of led to deten­tions and admin­is­tra­tive charges in the form of fines and/or restric­tions on free­dom of par­tic­i­pants. In October, the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion was affect­ed by a ral­ly autho­rised by the author­i­ties for polit­i­cal reforms and against repres­sion. In 2021, the largest num­ber was in January, asso­ci­at­ed with the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. Detentions and restric­tions on the rights of elec­tion observers were observed through­out the country.

Main and sec­ondary threats: Police; Court; Temporary deten­tion facil­i­ty; Akimat; Unknown per­sons; Citizens; National Security Committee; Local author­i­ties; and Tax authorities.

To access the month­ly mon­i­tor­ing reports please vis­it

In human rights chal­lenges that apply both with­in and beyond the polit­i­cal sphere the need to improve over­sight of the police and prison sys­tem remain areas of con­cern. Driving cul­ture change in polic­ing will need reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and mea­sures to pro­vide improved over­sight through a new inde­pen­dent police com­plaints body. Another poten­tial option could be devolv­ing cer­tain man­age­ment func­tions to local gov­ern­ment as part of Tokayev’s grad­ual elec­tion of local Akims, though coun­try-wide over­sight mech­a­nisms would need to remain to lim­it abus­es tak­ing place away from the nation­al spotlight.

Torture and ill-treat­ment are still major prob­lems with the case of Azamat Orazaly, killed in police cus­tody after steel­ing live­stock, high­light­ing the ongo­ing prob­lems of ill-treat­ment by the police.[77] The increas­es in alleged tor­ture cas­es report­ed through the Government’s National Preventive Mechanism against Torture (NPM) is an ongo­ing con­cern though it may also be a reflec­tion of improved report­ing through the mech­a­nism, though pun­ish­ment of abusers remains rare and often then lenient.[78] The impact of the pan­dem­ic has exac­er­bat­ed long-stand­ing con­cerns about harsh and unsan­i­tary prison con­di­tions and aggres­sive treat­ment by prison officers.[79] As in many coun­tries of the region the Government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, whose duties include run­ning the NPM, would ben­e­fit from greater capac­i­ty, increased pow­ers to hold oth­er arms of the state account­able and greater inde­pen­dence from the polit­i­cal system.

Kazakhstan has shares a num­ber of chal­lenges with its many of its neigh­bours in that the rule of law is impinged by both over­ly pow­er­ful and unac­count­able pros­e­cu­tors office (as Aina Shormanbayeva and Amangeldy Shormanbayev note in their essay) and a judi­cia­ry that lacks inde­pen­dence from the state and polit­i­cal­ly con­nect­ed inter­ests, despite years of inter­na­tion­al­ly backed reform pro­grammes designed to improve their per­for­mance. USAID describes the sit­u­a­tion as ‘while well-trained and qual­i­fied judges can be found in Kazakhstan, the judi­cial sys­tem over­all con­tin­ues to suf­fer from (i) lack of inde­pen­dence of the courts, (ii) insuf­fi­cient train­ing of judges, lead­ing to ques­tion­able deci­sions, (iii) a per­cep­tion of bias against for­eign­ers in dis­putes with the state, and (iv) cor­rup­tion.’[80]

As with oth­er parts of the state the per­son­al dimen­sion mat­ters great­ly, with pro­tes­tors able to get reviews of their fam­i­ly member’s cas­es (for non-polit­i­cal offens­es) through the use of sin­gle per­son pick­ets and oth­er atten­tion rais­ing efforts.[81] In a recog­ni­tion of some of the chal­lenges the legal sys­tem faces, busi­ness­es in Nur-Sultan’s finan­cial cen­tre can cir­cum­vent the domes­tic legal sys­tem entire­ly by using an English lan­guage Common Law based sys­tem head­ed by 88 year old for­mer UK Chief Justice Lord Woolf and oth­er UK legal luminaries.[82]

Some hopes for grad­ual improve­ments in the sit­u­a­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in non-polit­i­cal cas­es, have been vest­ed in the imple­men­ta­tion in July 2021 of the new Administrative Procedures Code that con­sol­i­dates the country’s admin­is­tra­tive law (includ­ing civ­il pro­ce­dure) in one place for the first time, pro­duced under guid­ance from the German Government through its Development agency GIZ and the German Foundation for International Legal Cooperation (IRZ).[83] There have also been rumours that the new head of the Supreme Court is keen to see judges act more inde­pen­dent­ly but there is a long way to go before such claims are proved in practice.

When it comes to emerg­ing human rights chal­lenges Anna Gussarova’s essay in this col­lec­tion high­lights con­cerns about both the capac­i­ty of the state and its inten­tions when it comes to pro­tect­ing the vast quan­ti­ties of new per­son­al data that have been cre­at­ed by the shift to dig­i­tal. In response Gussarova argues the case for new laws, improved train­ing for offi­cials and law enforce­ment and greater trans­paren­cy to avoid the COVID peri­od ush­er­ing in a more intru­sive sur­veil­lance state on the Chinese model.

Issues relat­ing to China’s role in Kazakhstan’s econ­o­my and its per­ceived strate­gic threat have been a sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal and social mobil­is­ing force that trig­gered a harsh reac­tion from the Government of Kazakhstan, as not­ed above. However, these domes­ti­cal­ly focused China issues are not the only area where the sub­ject of China has led to a local crack­down. The per­se­cu­tion of the 1.5 mil­lion eth­nic Kazakhs in the Xinjiang region (as well as the Uyghurs) has been a run­ning source of polit­i­cal ten­sion, with local fam­i­lies hav­ing rel­a­tives in the China. Protest move­ments swelled in 2018 on this issue and the organ­i­sa­tion Atajurt Eriktileri (Homeland Volunteers) became a key NGO involved in the glob­al doc­u­men­ta­tion efforts fol­low­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Xinjiang.[84] The Government of Kazakhstan was caught between appeas­ing local sen­ti­ment and heavy pres­sure from Beijing whose eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal influ­ence had been grow­ing (and grow­ing angered by the anti-Chinese sen­ti­ment on sev­er­al fronts). In 2018 2,500 eth­nic Kazakhs were allowed to leave China for Kazakhstan as a small ges­ture aimed at mol­li­fy­ing the situation.

In March 2019 how­ev­er Kazakhstani offi­cials raid­ed the offices of Atajurt and arrest­ed its founder Serikzhan Bilash, an eth­nic Kazakh born in China, on the grounds that his crit­i­cism of the Chinese Government amount­ed to incit­ing eth­nic tensions.[85] Bilash was forced to accept a ‘free­dom free­dom’ order agree­ing to cease his activism to avoid a sev­en year jail term, despite the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declar­ing that his pros­e­cu­tion breached inter­na­tion­al human rights law and crit­i­cised the Article 174 of the Criminal Code (on incite­ment to social, nation­al, gener­ic, racial, class or reli­gious dis­cord) as being over­ly broad and lack­ing legal certainty.[86] Faced with being unable to con­tin­ue his work in Kazakhstan amid pres­sure both from the state, through new crim­i­nal cas­es, and peo­ple try­ing to take over his YouTube chan­nel he fled to Turkey in the sum­mer of 2020 and then on to the United States.[87] Activism on the ground in Kazakhstan on this issue is now more mut­ed, though small groups of women con­tin­ue to protest out­side the Chinese con­sulate in Almaty, as the police are pre-emp­tive­ly tar­get­ing oth­er activists such as Baibolat Kunbolat (who leads an unreg­is­tered suc­ces­sor group to Bilash’s Atajurt) who con­tin­ue to attempt protests to free their loved ones in China.[88]

Questions of eth­nic ten­sion do not only relate to China or Russia but a bloody out­burst of vio­lence, spi­ralling from a traf­fic inci­dent, in February 2020 high­light­ed ten­sions between local eth­nic Kazakhs and mem­bers of the small Dungan minor­i­ty group. The vio­lence left nine Dungan’s and one Kazakh dead, many more peo­ple injured and many homes and busi­ness­es in the Dungan vil­lage of Masanchi burned or damaged.[89] The inci­dent high­light­ed fears that grow­ing nation­al­ism amongst eth­nic Kazakhs has the poten­tial to desta­bilise the intereth­nic sta­bil­i­ty that Nazarbayev put at the cen­tre of his polit­i­cal project.

Labour rights

As set out above and in the essay con­tri­bu­tion by Mihra Rittmann the labour sit­u­a­tion, after a decade of pres­sure on house­hold incomes and struc­tur­al change in the econ­o­my, remains chal­leng­ing. After years of strug­gle and Government crack­downs in the years since Zhanaozen it has become hard­er than ever for oil work­ers to organ­ise at scale to defend their rights. Mihra Rittmann’s essay doc­u­ments the depress­ing his­to­ry of the legal cas­es and con­vic­tions against union lead­ers Larisa Kharkova, Amin Eleusinov and Nurbek Kushakbaev that includ­ed ‘free­dom restric­tion’ bans on being involved in trade union activity.

The inde­pen­dent con­fed­er­a­tions pre­vi­ous­ly led by Larisa Kharkova, first­ly the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (KSPK) and then Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KNPRK), were ulti­mate­ly liq­ui­dat­ed due to bureau­crat­ic harass­ment despite inter­na­tion­al pres­sure and local protests includ­ing hunger strikes by 400 union mem­bers in 2017.[90] The largest, state recog­nised and state sym­pa­thet­ic, trade union con­fed­er­a­tion the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (FPRK) remains sus­pend­ed by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) for fail­ing to meet its stan­dards on inde­pen­dence.[91]

Erlan Baltabay, leader of the Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers (part of Kharkova’s KNPRK), has been in and out of jail since 2017 on a series of dubi­ous charges, includ­ing a sen­tence in 2019 that com­bined an ini­tial sev­en year jail term with a sim­i­lar length ban on union activ­i­ty, though after inter­na­tion­al pres­sure this was fol­lowed by a Presidential Pardon for the ini­tial jail term and giv­en a new five month conviction.[92] Though he was final­ly released in March 2020 his ‘free­dom restric­tion’ on his activism remains until 2026.[93]

Labour activist Erzhan Elshibayev remains in prison on a five year prison sen­tence after his con­vic­tion in 2019 on high­ly dubi­ous charges that came in the wake of him lead­ing protests against unem­ploy­ment in Zhanaozen, which includ­ed crit­i­cisms of Nazarbayev that were sub­se­quent­ly shared online. This is despite a rul­ing of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention call­ing for his imme­di­ate release and cred­i­ble con­cerns that he is suf­fer­ing abuse by prison guards.[94]

Along with the stick wield­ed against union lead­ers, the car­rot often deployed by the Government when try­ing to encour­age work­ers to go along with state plans to ‘opti­mise’ the oil sec­tor and pri­va­tise func­tions of oil ser­vice com­pa­nies was an ‘ear­ly retire­ment’ scheme where they would get an upfront lump sum equiv­a­lent to 50 per cent of salary for five years. This would often be along­side sup­port for them to retrain for oth­er forms of work or to start their own busi­ness­es, as well as oth­er induce­ments to pre­vent or end strike action in order to keep a lid on the poten­tial for wider polit­i­cal unrest. In keep­ing with the Government’s phi­los­o­phy of mod­erni­sa­tion with­in the sys­tem they have offered train­ing to trade union­ists on how to nego­ti­ate their griev­ances through the labour code rather than resort­ing to strikes that they will con­tin­ue to repress.

The pas­sage in 2020 of long-over­due amend­ments to the law on trade unions gave some degree of hope for the future if it were to be prop­er­ly imple­ment­ed. The changes, which came after repeat­ed crit­i­cisms from the International Labour Organisation, would not force local or sec­toral unions to become part of a nation­al federation.[95] However, so far signs are not encour­ag­ing giv­en that the Industrial Trade Union of Fuel and Energy Workers was sus­pend­ed for six months in February 2021 on the basis of non-com­pli­ance with pro­vi­sions of the old 2014 Trade Union law that had sup­pos­ed­ly been removed in the 2020 amendments.[96] The lack of progress has led the ILO to con­tin­ue its crit­i­cisms over Kazakhstan’s lack of imple­men­ta­tion of its reforms at its June 2021 sit­ting of its Committee on the Application of Standards.[97]

In line with their peers around the world work­ers in Kazakhstan’s gig econ­o­my, which has sig­nif­i­cant­ly expand­ed in recent years includ­ing through a sig­nif­i­cant rise in deliv­ery ser­vices dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, have been organ­is­ing to improve their pay and work­ing con­di­tions amid efforts by boss­es to weak­en them. Over the last few months couri­ers work­ing for inter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies Wolt and Glovo have engaged in pub­lic protests and unof­fi­cial strike action, while such protests were nar­row­ly avoid­ed at local firm Chocofood.[98] Attempts at union­is­ing the couri­ers are ongo­ing despite risks of reprisals from both the com­pa­nies and the Government.

Media freedom 

Unsurprisingly, giv­en the polit­i­cal ten­sions out­lined above, Kazakhstan faces a num­ber of media free­dom chal­lenges. The coun­try ranks 155th out of 180 in the Reporters with­out Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom Index.[99] As with much else there is some degree of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in the states reac­tion to out­lets with links to the oppo­si­tion and oth­er organ­i­sa­tions that are sim­ply crit­i­cal of it. Independent news web­sites such as and Mediazona have been able to grow their read­er­ship and under­take hard hit­ting inves­ti­ga­tions, becom­ing more out­spo­ken in the Tokayev-era and test­ing the lim­its of the lev­els of crit­i­cism the sys­tem will allow. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is able to oper­ate in the coun­try, and is afford­ed some pro­tec­tion giv­en US Government advo­ca­cy on its behalf, but its jour­nal­ists are fac­ing pres­sure when cov­er­ing protests and oth­er con­tentious issues. Instagram (the country’s most used social media plat­form) and YouTube are increas­ing­ly home to crit­i­cal voic­es, albeit ones that often stay focused on social and eco­nom­ic rather than par­ty polit­i­cal chal­lenges.[100]

Traditional media is much more restrict­ed with many oppo­si­tion and inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers hav­ing been forced to close. Independent TV chan­nels were squeezed off the air­waves in the late 90s after a mas­sive hike in licens­ing fees and tighter bureau­crat­ic pres­sure on dis­sent­ing voices.[101] After a cat and mouse game with the author­i­ties last­ing between 2002–2016 the last iter­a­tions and off­shoots of Kazakhstan’s high­est pro­file oppo­si­tion-aligned news­pa­per Respublica were forced to close and a num­ber of its jour­nal­ists were jailed.[102]The few inde­pen­dent mind­ed print out­lets that remain, such as Uralskaya Nedelya in Oral and Dat in Almaty, con­tin­ue to face heavy pres­sure. For exam­ple, Lukpan Akhmedyarov, edi­tor of Uralskaya Nedelya, faced threats ear­li­est this year for report­ing a leak from a high pro­file local cor­rup­tion trial.[103]Akmedyarov had pre­vi­ous­ly been heav­i­ly assault­ed in 2012 for his work in expos­ing anoth­er cor­rup­tion scandal.

Officials have reg­u­lar­ly denied accred­i­ta­tion to inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists, lim­it­ing their abil­i­ty to cov­er offi­cial gov­ern­ment announce­ments and the rules have now been for­mal­ly tight­ened requir­ing jour­nal­ists to be pared with an offi­cial chap­er­one (‘a host’) when cov­er­ing gov­ern­ment events.[104] Similarly media work­ers have repeat­ed­ly been arrest­ed or harassed whilst cov­er­ing unsanc­tioned protests over recent years. Overall the Justice for Journalists Foundation record­ed 24 inci­dents of phys­i­cal attacks or threats of vio­lence against Kazakhstani media work­ers in 2020, as well as a far broad­er range of online and bureau­crat­ic harassment.[105] Galiya Azhenova’s essay draws atten­tion to a num­ber of these incidents.

There are warn­ing signs ahead for Kazakhstan’s online media. The laws on spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion dur­ing COVID have been used to chill report­ing and par­tic­u­lar­ly activism from online com­men­ta­tors with polit­i­cal connections.[106]The case of Temirlan Ensebek, a satirist who was detained by police and forced to close down (on charges of dis­in­for­ma­tion) his Instagram chan­nel over par­o­dies fea­tur­ing Nazarbayev, is a reminder that while the crim­i­nal offense of defama­tion (slan­der) has been recent­ly removed from the Criminal Code, laws against ‘insult’ (the ‘humil­i­a­tion of hon­our and dig­ni­ty of oth­er per­son’) and in par­tic­u­lar insult against gov­ern­ment offi­cials remain (includ­ing spe­cif­ic pro­vi­sions, Article 373, relat­ing to Nazarbayev as leader of the nation and his fam­i­ly that could have led to up to three years in prison for Ensebek).[107] Galiya Azhenova also points how the trans­fer of defama­tion from the crim­i­nal to admin­is­tra­tive code has left local police try­ing to judge com­plex issues of free speech and there­fore insti­gat­ing lots of admin­is­tra­tive cas­es for crit­i­cism of local offi­cials. The Ministry of Information is prepar­ing a new draft law on dig­i­tal media (on Mass Communications) that is believed to be like­ly to include a def­i­n­i­tion of ‘inter­net resources’ there­by extend­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent restric­tions that apply in print and on tele­vi­sion to online plat­forms as a way of curb­ing its cur­rent rel­a­tive freedoms.

Cashing in

Kazakhstan’s resource wealth have enabled many of those with access to polit­i­cal influ­ence to become very wealthy, amid the scram­ble for oil in the mid-1990s and the sub­se­quent boom years, per­haps few more so than First President Nazarbayev’s own fam­i­ly. Gauging the true extent of the family’s wealth is a dif­fi­cult task but a recent inves­ti­ga­tion by RFE/RL iden­ti­fied at least $785 mil­lion in European and US real estate pur­chas­es made by Nazarbayev’s fam­i­ly mem­bers and their in-laws in six coun­tries over a 20-year span.[108]

One of the first major pub­lic debates about cor­rup­tion in the rul­ing elite was the ‘Kazakhgate’ scan­dal that came to pub­lic atten­tion in 2002 and 2003 with US Prosecutors alleg­ing that around $80 mil­lion in funds from US oil com­pa­nies were divert­ed into Swiss bank accounts for the use by President Nazarbayev and oth­er lead­ing offi­cials in order to help win con­tracts on the Tengiz oil­fields. The US busi­ness­man (and Counsellor to the President of Kazakhstan) James Giffen who was at the heart of the case would even­tu­al­ly serve no jail time after most of the charges were dropped, not because the finan­cial trans­fers did not take place, but on the basis that there were rea­son­able grounds to believe he had been work­ing with the CIA at the time of the affair.[109] Kazakhstani jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the sto­ry were less for­tu­nate with one of the main inves­ti­ga­tors of the case, Sergei Duvanov, sub­se­quent­ly jailed on what were wide­ly seen as fab­ri­cat­ed rape charges and pres­sure was put on news­pa­pers such Respublica that had cov­ered the sto­ry.[110]

While, as in Kazakhgate, alle­ga­tions would occa­sion­al­ly touch Nazarbayev him­self (includ­ing recent­ly when busi­ness­man Bulat Utemuratov, alleged by US diplo­mats to be his finan­cial fix­er, was swept up in the ongo­ing saga over retriev­ing BTA assets from Ablyazov, with three bil­lion USD in assets frozen by the UK courts) more often than not pub­lic dis­cus­sion around the family’s wealth cen­tred on his chil­dren and in par­tic­u­lar the hus­bands of the old­est two daugh­ters.[111]

Dinara Kulibayeva and her hus­band Timur Kulibayev, a busi­ness­man who held many senior posi­tions in state affil­i­at­ed bod­ies (includ­ing the sov­er­eign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna) and through­out the ener­gy indus­try (includ­ing sit­ting on the board of Russian ener­gy giant Gazprom), have become the sec­ond rich­est peo­ple in Kazakhstan.[112] The Kulibayevs are known to have sub­stan­tial hold­ings in the UK, includ­ing the for­mer home of Prince Andrew (Sunninghill Park), a con­nec­tion that would peri­od­i­cal­ly be raised in the British press over alle­ga­tions that the Prince did favours for Kulibayev whilst serv­ing as UK trade envoy and over his close­ness to Kulibayev’s for­mer mis­tress Goga Ashkenazi.[113] More recent­ly, in December 2000, the Financial Times alleged Kulibayev’s involve­ment in a scheme to siphon mil­lions of dol­lars from a Chinese pipeline con­tract.[114]

Nazarbayev’s old­est daugh­ter Dariga Nazarbayeva has had the high­est pro­file pres­ence in Kazakhstan’s pub­lic life over the years and had been often tout­ed as a poten­tial suc­ces­sor to her father. After a media own­er­ship career in the 1990s, she for­mal­ly entered pol­i­tics in 2003 with her own ‘Azar’ par­ty that was elect­ed to the Mazhilis in 2004. Her par­ty would for­mal­ly merge with her father’s Otan par­ty to cre­ate Nur-Otan, the rul­ing par­ty of Kazakhstan to this day. After sit­ting out the next Parliament she returned in 2012 on the Nur-Otan list, becom­ing the Nur-Otan Parliamentary leader and Deputy Chair of the Mazhilis from 2014–15 before becom­ing Deputy Prime Minister for a year and then join­ing the Senate in 2016. Upon Tokayev’s assen­ta­tion to the Presidency Dariga would become Chair of the Senate and the for­mal next in line to the Presidency.

Until 2007 she was mar­ried to the con­tro­ver­sial oli­garch Rakhat Aliyev, whose noto­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion has repeat­ed­ly singed the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the sys­tem over his finan­cial deal­ings and links to crim­i­nal­i­ty. Aliyev would ulti­mate­ly be cart­ed-off to Vienna as Ambassador to Austria and the OSCE as claims of his involve­ment in the mur­ders of two bankers began to swirl.[115] He would ulti­mate­ly be charged and sen­tenced in absen­tia in Kazakhstan for those crimes, along­side alle­ga­tions of a fur­ther mur­der of oppo­si­tion politi­cian Altynbek Sarsenbayev, the sus­pi­cious death of his for­mer mis­tress Anastasiya Novikova, as well as alle­ga­tions of tor­ture, kid­nap­ping and evi­dence of mon­ey-laun­der­ing. Aliyev would ulti­mate­ly be found hanged in an Austrian prison in 2015 while await­ing tri­al over the mur­der of the bankers.[116] The link to Aliyev was of lat­er rel­e­vance to a high pro­file, and ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, case by the UK National Crime Agency that sought to use an Unexplained Wealth Order to freeze own­er­ship of three UK homes worth £80 mil­lion belong­ing to Nazarbayeva and her fam­i­ly. The National Crime Agency had argued that the prop­er­ties came from Aliyev’s ill-got­ten gains but the court sided with Nazarbayeva’s posi­tion that these assets had been pro­cured with her own mon­ey.[117] However, in the wake of the tri­al she was sur­pris­ing­ly removed as Chair of the Senate (and from the line of Presidential suc­ces­sion) by President Tokayev in May 2020 and it remains unclear whether this was due to the pub­lic impact of the rev­e­la­tions of her wealth or an inter­nal pow­er strug­gle that led to her removal. Later in 2020 fur­ther rev­e­la­tions of the extent of Nazarbayeva’s UK prop­er­ty hold­ings were revealed when she was found to be the own­er of £140 mil­lion worth of build­ings on Baker Street in Central London.[118] Despite these fur­ther rev­e­la­tions about the size of her per­son­al wealth she made her return to Kazakhstani pol­i­tics in January 2021 by return­ing to the Mazhils as a Nur-Otan par­lia­men­tar­i­an.[119]

As the sit­u­a­tion of Nazarbayev’s daugh­ters and indeed Muktar Ablyazov shown above illus­trate the UK is a major exter­nal venue for the invest­ments and entan­gle­ments of Kazakhstan’s elite. Recent analy­sis has shown that Kazakhstan was one of the major ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the UK’s Tier one Investor visa sys­tem (or Golden Visas as they are known) with 205 Kazakhstani’s gain UK res­i­den­cy in the peri­od 2008–2015 (the fifth most com­mon coun­try and the largest per capi­ta exclud­ing microstates).[120] While lux­u­ry prop­er­ty mar­ket may act as a store of wealth from Kazakhstan it is worth not­ing that accord­ing to the UK Government’s most recent fig­ures Foreign Direct Investment from Kazakhstan into the UK totalled less than one mil­lion pounds in 2019.[121]

The for­mer first fam­i­ly are far from only peo­ple with polit­i­cal con­nec­tions in being able to make their for­tunes in post-Independence Kazakhstan. Just to cite one indica­tive exam­ple, RFE/RL recent­ly exposed how for­mer high rank­ing offi­cials in the Education Ministry, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fam­i­ly of Bakhytzhan Zhumagulov, own most of Kazakhstan’s for-prof­it col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.[122]Access to polit­i­cal influ­ence over sec­tors of the econ­o­my have led to oppor­tu­ni­ties for offi­cials, their fam­i­lies and asso­ciates to enrich themselves.


As with so many issues in Kazakhstan the state’s approach to reli­gion is root­ed in its desire to main sta­bil­i­ty, both between its cit­i­zen­ry and of the sys­tem as a whole. Kazakhstan is a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Muslim Country (72 per cent) but giv­en the resid­ual size of its Russian pop­u­la­tion Orthodox Christianity retains a sig­nif­i­cant toe hold (23 per cent) along­side oth­er reli­gions linked to small­er minor­i­ty groups.[123] So as a result of the post-Independence demo­graph­ics and Nazarbayev’s own vision of the nation, Islamic iden­ti­ty played less of a role than in its Central Asian neigh­bours as a build­ing block of Kazakhstani nation­al iden­ti­ty (as indeed did the ini­tial ret­i­cence to con­flate Kazakhstan’s nation-build­ing project with eth­nic Kazakh iden­ti­ty, though it would be infused with Kazakh folk sym­bol­ism such as the Samruk bird). As such Kazakhstan’s con­sti­tu­tion does not make any ref­er­ence to Islam or any oth­er spe­cif­ic reli­gion, retain­ing its sec­u­lar status.[124]

Kazakhstan has used this approach reli­gion as a key part of its nation brand­ing not only inter­nal­ly but on the world stage. Since 2003, Kazakhstan has host­ed a Nazarbayev-cen­tric inter­faith ini­tia­tive known as the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions that brings togeth­er senior fig­ures from larg­er ‘main­stream’ or ‘tra­di­tion­al’ denom­i­na­tions of world religions.[125] It preach­es mutu­al tol­er­a­tion and under­stand­ing for the main­stream insti­tu­tions that the Government of Kazakhstan believes it can do busi­ness with at a domes­tic lev­el and use strate­gi­cal­ly at an inter­na­tion­al lev­el to pro­mote an image of tol­er­ance and peace, as well as a role for Kazakhstan (and Nazarbayev per­son­al­ly) as a con­venor to pro­mote those goals. For reli­gious groups that fall out­side the ‘tra­di­tion­al main­stream’ how­ev­er it can be much tougher. As a result Kazakhstan can find itself laud­ed by inter­na­tion­al actors for pro­mot­ing reli­gious tol­er­ance, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly being rec­om­mend­ed for place­ment on the State Department’s Special Watch List for Religious Freedom by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (albeit the State Department has not giv­en yet it this designation).[126]

The chal­lenge in Kazakhstan, as in the sec­u­lar world, is with the issue of unreg­is­tered groups where the state makes it hard to reg­is­ter and cracks down on any­thing that is not. Kazakhstan’s 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations set strin­gent require­ments on what types of groups could be reg­is­tered and how, with a min­i­mum of 50 Kazakhstani cit­i­zens required to set up a local reli­gious organ­i­sa­tion through to at least 5,000 mem­bers (with 300 in each oblast as well as in Almaty, Nur-Sultan and Shymkent) to set up a nation­al organisation.[127] There are also heavy restric­tions on pros­e­lyti­sa­tion, such as require­ments that reli­gious mate­ri­als can only be dis­trib­uted on the premis­es of a reg­is­tered reli­gious groups, which have been seen to tar­get Jehovah’s Witnesses and evan­gel­i­cal protes­tant groups. There has, how­ev­er, been a down­ward trend in the num­ber of admin­is­tra­tive offens­es record­ed each year in rela­tion to this law, with 139 cas­es report­ed in 2020 down from 284 in 2017 accord­ing to the reli­gious free­dom organ­i­sa­tion Forum 18.[128]

The new­ly inde­pen­dent state built on the lega­cy of Soviet reli­gious man­age­ment and reg­is­tra­tion by cre­at­ing the Spiritual Association of Muslims of Kazakhstan under which all reg­is­tered mosques are affil­i­at­ed. Wearing of the hijab in schools is restrict­ed through the wide­spread appli­ca­tion of school uni­form pol­i­cy pre­vent­ing the wear­ing of reli­gious symbols.[129]

As else­where in the region con­cerns about reli­gious rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion stem both from con­cerns about the risk of ter­ror­ism and from the growth of groups that fall out­side of the state’s con­trol. Non-vio­lent extrem­ist groups such as Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir are banned and the use of the term ‘extrem­ist’ has been used wide­ly in arrests of gov­ern­ment crit­ics (both reli­gious and sec­u­lar) with­out proven ties to violence.

Women’s and LGBTQ+ rights

In terms of women’s polit­i­cal lead­er­ship in Kazakhstan’s the OSCE note that ‘women held only one out of 17 (region­al) Akim and two out of 22 min­is­te­r­i­al posi­tions’ at the time of the January 2021 Parliamentary elec­tions. Despite the intro­duc­tion of a 30 per cent quo­ta the num­ber of women in the new­ly elect­ed Mazhilis actu­al­ly fell from 29 to 28 seats.[130]

As not­ed above and in the essay by Dr Khalida Azhigulova efforts to intro­duce new leg­is­la­tion focused on improv­ing women’s rights have met with push back from social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive forces. At the moment the leg­is­la­tion on tack­ling domes­tic vio­lence in Kazakhstan is weak, with cas­es usu­al­ly dealt with under the admin­is­tra­tive code (for minor offens­es) rather than Criminal Code (which is used only for severe assaults), lead­ing to a sit­u­a­tion where the penal­ties for drop­ping a cig­a­rette on the street (clas­si­fied as pet­ty hooli­gan­ism) are harsh­er than for most domes­tic vio­lence cases.[131] In 2020, 45,000 cas­es of domes­tic vio­lence were ini­ti­at­ed through the admin­is­tra­tive code but is far low­er than the true extent of the sit­u­a­tion due to under report­ing and even then more than 60 per cent of the cas­es are with­drawn before a rul­ing is made due to pres­sure for fam­i­ly reconciliation.[132] It is pos­i­tive that President Tokayev has recom­mit­ted to a law on domes­tic vio­lence as part of his recent Human Rights Decree but the details remain like­ly to be keen­ly fought over, such as whether ‘minor beat­ings’ would become a crim­i­nal offense or not.[133] Attempts to bring in laws against sex­u­al harass­ment have stalled under pres­sure from the sim­i­lar social con­ser­v­a­tive forces.

International Women’s day (March 8th) has often been a flash­point between women’s rights activists and social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive forces across Central Asia. In a pos­i­tive step in 2021 the Women’s March was giv­en per­mis­sion by the city author­i­ties in Almaty for the first time and between 500–1,000 women’s rights activists were able to protest in what has been described as Kazakhstan’s largest women’s march.[134] However, the state remains ret­i­cent to allow groups under­tak­ing more ‘rad­i­cal’ advo­ca­cy on both women’s and LGBTQ+ rights to get a hear­ing. The group Feminata has been repeat­ed­ly denied offi­cial reg­is­tra­tion and its lead­ers were recent­ly attacked by unknown assailants in Shymkent whilst hold­ing a pri­vate meet­ing on gen­der equal­i­ty before being detained by police ‘for their own safety’.[135]

More broad­ly for LGBTQ+ Kazakhstanis the sit­u­a­tion remains tough. Homosexuality was decrim­i­nalised in 1998 (unlike in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) but the legal frame­works to pro­tect the com­mu­ni­ty are piece­meal (based on gen­er­alised anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­vi­sions in the Constitution) and cul­tur­al atti­tudes remain deeply hos­tile in large seg­ments of society.[136]

In 2015 and 2018–19 attempts were made by the Government to intro­duce a Russian style law on ‘pro­pa­gan­da’ about ‘non-tra­di­tion­al sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion’ that would have restrict­ed the abil­i­ty for mem­bers of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty and rights activists to speak open­ly about their con­cerns.[137] These efforts were pushed back after both local cam­paign­ing and pres­sure from Kazakhstan’s west­ern part­ners, but there are con­cerns efforts will be made in Parliament to try again in the near future. Aigerim Kamidola’s essay high­lights cur­rent mea­sures to past a draft Law ‘On the Introduction of Amendments and Additions to Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Family and Gender Policy’ that would remove the term gen­der from exist­ing the anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law and replace it with ‘equal­i­ty on the basis of sex’. This move taps into nar­ra­tives that have seen the con­cept of gen­der stig­ma­tised both as a gen­er­al label attached to LGBTQ+ and Women’s rights (‘gen­der ide­ol­o­gy’) by illib­er­al or anti-Western ‘anti-Gender’ cam­paign­ers across the post-Soviet space, as well as being used in a more nar­row sense as to spe­cif­ic debates around rights and pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der people.

International influence

Kazakhstan has so far suc­cess­ful­ly pur­sued a mul­ti-vec­tor for­eign pol­i­cy that has enabled it to nego­ti­ate tricky region­al rela­tion­ships and project a pos­i­tive image of the coun­try on the world stage

Kazakhstan. The coun­try has remained part of the Moscow-ori­ent­ed post-Soviet region­al infra­struc­ture such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and more recent­ly the Eurasian Economic Union. Despite the some­what fraught domes­tic polit­i­cal chal­lenges China has been steadi­ly grow­ing its influ­ence with over 18 per cent of Kazakhstan’s total trade and almost five per cent of its total inward invest­ment, as well as a deep­en­ing secu­ri­ty rela­tion­ship that includes mem­ber­ship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.[138] For a long-time under President Nazarbayev Kazakhstan assumed a region­al lead­er­ship role with­in and to some extent on behalf of Central Asia, though in recent years Uzbekistan’s President Mirziyoyev has end­ed his country’s vir­tu­al iso­la­tion and the region­al bal­ance is some­what more even­ly split between the region’s most pop­u­lous coun­try (Uzbekistan) and its rich­est (Kazakhstan).

At the same time, Kazakhstan has dra­mat­i­cal­ly deep­ened its eco­nom­ic ties to the West as touched on above. The EU is Kazakhstan’s largest exter­nal trad­ing part­ner, account­ing for 30 per cent of its exter­nal trade, and the coun­try is the first in Central Asia to con­clude a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA) which came into force in 2020. The EU insti­tu­tions have tend­ed to raise human rights and gov­er­nance issues with­in the con­fines of its for­mal human rights dia­logue process­es, though the European Parliament has often been more vocal on these issues despite rat­i­fy­ing the EPCA.[139]

The OSCE has always been an impor­tant part of Kazakhstan’s diplo­mat­ic ini­tia­tives with Kazakhstan hold­ing the chair­man­ship in office in 2010 and using the oppor­tu­ni­ty to host a rare sum­mit of the organisation’s heads of Government (it was the last time such an event has tak­en place, with the next most recent OSCE sum­mit tak­ing place in 1999).[140] As a sign of Kazakhstan’s con­tin­u­ing involve­ment Former Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov became the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM) in December 2020. Other ini­tia­tives to put Kazakhstan (and par­tic­u­lar­ly Astana, now Nur-Sultan) on the map include the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions as not­ed above and the ‘Astana process’ which has seen Kazakhstan host peace talks over the Syrian cri­sis since 2017.

Kazakhstan’s posi­tion as a rel­a­tive­ly pros­per­ous, well con­nect­ed coun­try with a broad base to its inter­na­tion­al rela­tions means that there are some oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­na­tion­al influ­ence over the tra­jec­to­ry of its per­for­mance on human rights issues but these should not be over­stat­ed. Its lead­er­ship, and par­tic­u­lar­ly a num­ber of younger gen­er­a­tion of offi­cials and lead­ers, care about Kazakhstan’s rep­u­ta­tion, some­thing it has worked hard to pro­mote inter­na­tion­al­ly as a good part­ner and mod­ern coun­try. There is an ongo­ing desire from Kazakhstan to con­tin­ue to receive for­eign invest­ment and sup­port, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the world tran­si­tions away from fos­sil fuels. However, it is far from clear that these con­sid­er­a­tions out­weigh the desire to main­tain the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sta­tus quo, par­tic­u­lar­ly amongst the upper ech­e­lons of the state and par­tic­u­lar­ly the secu­ri­ty apparatus.

Image by Jussi Toivanen under (CC).

[1] Francisco Olmos, State-build­ing myths in Central Asia, Foreign Policy Centre, October 2019,

[2] Wudan Yan, The nuclear sins of the Soviet Union live on in Kazakhstan, Nature, April 2019,–01034‑8

[3] Institute of Demography named after A.G. Vishnevsk National Research University Higher School of Economics, 1989 All-Union Population Census National com­po­si­tion of the pop­u­la­tion in the republics of the USSR: Kazakh SSR,

[4] Alimana Zhanmukanova, Is Northern Kazakhstan at Risk to Russia?, The Diplomat, April 2021,; RFE/RL, A Tale Of Russian Separatism In Kazakhstan, August 2014,

[5] CIA World Factbook, Kazakhstan,

[6] Alimana Zhanmukanova, Is Northern Kazakhstan at Risk to Russia?, The Diplomat, April 2021,

[7] The World Bank, GDP growth (annu­al per cent) – Kazakhstan,

[8] IEA, Kazakhstan ener­gy pro­file, April 2020,

[9] Maurizio Totaro, Collecting bee­tles in Zhanaozen: Kazakhstan’s hid­den tragedy, openDemocracy, May 2021,

[10] Abdujalil Abdurasulov, Kazakhstan’s land reform protests explained, April 2016,

[11] UN Human Rights, “Kazakhstan should release rights defend­ers Bokayev and Ayan” – UN experts, December 2016,; Sarah McCloskey, Why Kazakh polit­i­cal pris­on­er Max Bokayev should be released, openDemocracy, April 2019,

[12] Catherine Putz, Kazakhstan Cracks Down on Weekend Protests, The Diplomat, May 2016; Eurasianet, Kazakhstan Takes Autocratic Turn With Mass Detentions, May 2016,

[13] Catherine Putz, Kazakhstan Bans Sale of Agricultural Lands to Foreigners, The Diplomat, May 2021,

[14] David Trilling, China’s water use threat­ens Kazakhstan’s oth­er big lake, Eurasianet, March 2021,

[15] RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Dozens Of Mothers Protest In Kazakhstan Demanding Government Support, February 2019,; RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Angry Kazakh Mothers Demand Reforms After Five Girls Die In House Fire, February 2019,

[16] The move also came 30 years after his ele­va­tion to become First Secretary of the Communist party.

[17] Paolo Sorbello, Kazakhstan cel­e­brates its leader with two more stat­ues, Global Voices, July 2021,; Andrew Roth, Oliver Stone derid­ed for film about ‘mod­est’ for­mer Kazakh pres­i­dent, The Guardian, July 2021,; Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan’s gold­en man gets the Oliver Stone treat­ment, Eurasianet, July 2021,

[18] Catherine Putz, Kazakhstan Remains Nazarbayev’s State, The Diplomat, October 2019,

[19] Global Monitoring, COVID-19 pan­dem­ic – Kazakhstan,

[20] World Health Organisation, COVID-19 Kazakhstan,

[21] Qazaqstan TV News, Doctors of the cap­i­tal showed the sit­u­a­tion inside the hos­pi­tal, July 2021,

[22] William Tompson Twitter post, Twitter, April 2021,; Dmitriy Mazorenko, Dariya Zheniskhan and Almas Kaisar, Kazakhstan is caught in a vicious cycle of debt. The pan­dem­ic has only made it worse, openDemocracy, June 2021,

[23] Bagdat Asylbek, Diagnosis: “dev­as­ta­tion”. Kazakhstani health care and pan­dem­ic, Radio Azattyq, August 2020,; Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan: Former health min­is­ter arrest­ed, Eurasianet, November 2020,

[24] Bakhytzhan Toregozhina, Pandemic and Human Rights: Only Repressive System is Functioning in Kazakhstan, Cabar Central Asia, July 2020, Though Kazakhstan already had laws in place against ‘dis­in­for­ma­tion’ that were able to be used.

[25] Madina Aimbetova, Freedom of expres­sion in Kazakhstan still a dis­tant prospect, says pros­e­cut­ed activist, Global Voices, July 2020,

[26] IPHR, Kazakhstan: Massive restric­tions on expres­sion dur­ing Covid-19; sud­den ban­ning of peace­ful oppo­si­tion, August 2020,;

Asim Kashgarian, Rights Groups: Kazakh Authorities Use Coronavirus to Smother Political Dissent, VOA News, November 2020,

[27] Jeff Bell, Twitter post, Twitter, January 2021,

[28] Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan: Authorities use pan­dem­ic to quash protests, Eurasianet, March 2021,

[29] DW, Kazakhstan abol­ish­es death penal­ty, January 2021,‑56117176

[30] Radio Azattyk, Direct elec­tions of rur­al akims: the cam­paign has not start­ed yet, but obsta­cles are already being raised, May 2021,

[31]OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Parliamentary Elections, January 2021,

[32] OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Parliamentary Elections, January 2021,

[33] Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan: Civil soci­ety com­plains of pre-elec­tion pres­sure, Eurasianet, December 2020,

[34] Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan: Nervous author­i­ties keep elec­tion observers at arm’s length, Eurasianet, January 2021,

[35] The Economist, All the par­ties in Kazakhstan’s elec­tion sup­port the gov­ern­ment, January 2021,

[36] Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan: Nervous author­i­ties keep elec­tion observers at arm’s length, Eurasianet, January 2021,

[37] RFE/RL, Kazakh Opposition Figure Calls On Supporters To Vote To Expose ‘Opposition’ Party, November 2020,

[38] For a good sum­ma­tion of the his­to­ry of the his­to­ry of this case see the chap­ter in Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, IB Taurus, October 2018.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Hogan Lovells, Hogan Lovells Secures Major High Court Victory for BTA Bank in US $6bn Fraud Case, August 2018,

[41] Rupert Neate, Arrest war­rant for Kazakh bil­lion­aire accused of one of world’s biggest frauds, The Guardian, February 2012,

[42] RFE/RL Kazakh Servicem Italian Officials Imprisoned Over ‘Unlawful’ Deportation Of Former Kazakh Banker’s Wife, Daughter, October 2020,

[43] Dmitry Solovyov and Robin Paxton, Kazakhstan in move to ban oppo­si­tion par­ties and media, Reuters, November 2012,; Human Rights House, Kazakhstan oppo­si­tion leader sen­tenced in polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed tri­al, October 2012,

[44] Vladimir Kozlov,

[45] Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan is throt­tling the inter­net when the president’s rival is online, Eurasianet, July 2018,

[46] Manshuk Asautay, Activists demand­ed the removal of the “Street Party” from the list of banned organ­i­sa­tions, Radio Azattyq,;l RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Kazakh Activists Start Hunger Strike To Protest Opposition Party Ban, June 2021,

[47] RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Hundreds Rally In Kazakhstan To Protest Growing Chinese Influence, March 2021,; Joanna Lillis, Nazarbayev ally wins big in Kazakhstan elec­tion after hun­dreds arrest­ed, The Guardian, June 2019,; See footage here via Maxim Eristavi’s Twitter feed:

[48] Andrey Grishin, When Kazakhstan Will Stop Making “Extremists” of Ordinary People? CABAR Central Asia, March 2020,; Legislationline, Criminal codes – Kazakhstan,; Article 405 of the Criminal Code states – ‘Organisation and par­tic­i­pa­tion in activ­i­ty of pub­lic or reli­gious asso­ci­a­tion or oth­er organ­i­sa­tion after court deci­sion on pro­hi­bi­tion of their activ­i­ty or liq­ui­da­tion in con­nec­tion with car­ry­ing out by them the extrem­ism or ter­ror­ism’; Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Crackdown on Government Critics, July 2021,; From Our Member Dignity – Kadyr-kas­siyet (KK) from Kazakhstan and Bir Duino from Kyrgyzstan – Anti-Extremist Policies in Russia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. Comparative Review, Forum-Asia, April 2020

[49] Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Crackdown on Government Critics, July 2021,; European Parliament, RC-B9-0144/2021,‑9–2021-0144_EN.html

[50] For exam­ple both groups chose to protest on Capital day this year, despite meet­ing at dif­fer­ent times both were swept up in the same rounds of ‘pre­ven­ta­tive’ arrests. See Joanna Lillis, Twitter post, Twitter, July 2021,

[51] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Journalist Convicted Of Money Laundering, Walks Free In ‘Huge Victory’, September 2017,

[52] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Activist Demands Registration Of Party Before Parliamentary Vote, November 2020,; RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Opposition Group Allowed To Hold Rally Challenging Upcoming Polls, November 2020,; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Twitter post, Twitter, November 2020,

[53] Bruce Pannier, Hectic Times in Kazakhstan Recently, And For The Foreseeable Future, RFE/RL, June 2019,

[54] Colleen Wood, New Civic Movement Urges Kazakhstan to ‘Wake Up’, The Diplomat, June 2019,

[55] Medet Yesimkhanov, Pavel  Bannikov and Asem Zhapisheva, Dossier: Who is behind lob­by­ing for the abo­li­tions of laws and the spread of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries in Kazakhstan,, February 2021,; Medet Yesimkhanov, Dossier: CitizenGO – an ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive lob­by dis­guised as a peti­tion site,, November 2020,‑mire/dose-citizengo-ultrakonservativnoe-lobbi-pod-vidom-ploshhadki-dlya-peticij/

[56] Mihra Rittmann, Kazakhstan’s ‘Reformed’ Protest Law Hardly an Improvement, Human Rights Watch, May 2020,

[57] Legislation Online, On the pro­ce­dure for organ­is­ing and hold­ing peace­ful assem­blies in the Republic of

Kazakhstan, May 2020,

[58] Mihra Rittmann, Kazakhstan’s ‘Reformed’ Protest Law Hardly an Improvement, Human Rights Watch, May 2020,

[59] Human Rights Council, Rights to free­dom of peace­ful assem­bly and of asso­ci­a­tion, United Nations General Assembly, May 2019,

[60] Indymedia UK, A brief his­to­ry of “ket­tling”, November 2010, As described by the OSCE, ket­tling (or cor­ralling) is a ‘strat­e­gy of crowd con­trol that relies on con­tain­ment […], where law enforce­ment offi­cials encir­cle and enclose a sec­tion of assem­bly participants.’

[61] Paul Lewis, Human rights court backs police ‘ket­tling’, The Guardian, March 2012,

[62] Freedom House, Countries and Territories,

[63] Front Line Defenders, Authorities pres­sur­ize human rights groups – Kazakhstan, December 2020,; ACCA, Kazakhstan may sus­pend the activ­i­ties of the International Journalism Center, January 2021,; Almaz Kumenov, Kazakhstan: Government’s war on NGOs claims more vic­tims, Eurasianet, January 2021,

[64] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Authorities Drop Changes Against NGOs After Outcry, February 2021,; Bagdat Asylbek, Human Rights Bureau and NGO Echo won law­suits against tax ser­vice, Radio Azattyq, April 2021,

[65] OMCT, Harassment on the part of the Kazakh tax author­i­ties against human rights NGOs inter­na­tion­al legal ini­tia­tive, June 2021,; Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Rights Groups Harassed, February 2017,

[66] ICNL, Kazakhstan, May 2021,

[67] Government of Kazakhstan, President Tokayev Signs a Decree on Further Measures of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the Field of Human Rights, June 2021,

[68] ACCA, Expert: there are no polit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Kazakhstan, but they are, July 2021,

[69] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Jailed Kazakh Political Prisoner In Solitary After Slitting Wrists, Rights Group Says, RFE/RL, April 2021,; EU in Kazakhstan, Twitter post, Twitter, April 2021,; RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Jailed Opposition Activist Unexpectedly Granted Early Release, July 2021,

[70] U.S. Department of State, 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Kazakhstan,; Chris Rickleton, Kazakhstan: Activist dies in deten­tion, pil­ing pres­sure on the author­i­ties, Eurasianet, February 2020,

[71] RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Writers Urge President To Release Dissident Poet Atabek, RFE/RL, February 2021,; English PEN, Kazakhstan: take action for impris­oned poet Aron Atabek,

[72] European Parliament, RC-B9-0144/2021,‑9–2021-0144_EN.html

[73] Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Dostiyarov was report­ed­ly beat­en, July 2021,

[74] ACCA, Expert: peo­ple are deprived of civ­il and polit­i­cal rights in Kazakhstan, May 2021,

[75] IPHR, Kazakhstan: Massive restric­tions on expres­sions dur­ing COVID-19; sud­den ban­ning of peace­ful oppo­si­tion, August 2020,; IPHR, Kazakhstan: Free civ­il rights defend­er Asya Tulesova, June 2020,; RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Kazakh Court Convicts Activist Charged With Assaulting Police, August 2020,

IPHR, Kazakhstan: Free civ­il rights defend­er Asya Tulesova, June 2020,

[76] RFE/RL, Kazakh Activist Receives Sentence For Links With Banned Political Group, December 2020,

[77] Asemgul Mukhitovna, A res­i­dent of Makanchi died at the police sta­tion. A case was ini­ti­at­ed under the arti­cle “Torture”, Radio Azattyq, October 2020,

[78] U.S. Department of State, 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Kazakhstan,; Human Rights Commissioner in the Republic of Kazakhstan,

[79] See State Department ibid and ACCA, Kazakhstan: tired of bul­ly­ing, con­vict threat­ens to hang him­self, March 2021,

[80] Duke University, Kazakhstan Rule of Law project, January 2020,

[81] Saniyash Toyken, A group of peo­ple who demand­ed a meet­ing with Asanov spent the night in the build­ing of the Supreme Court, Radio Azattyq, June 2021,

[82] Court, An Introduction,

[83] Christian Schaich and Christian Reitemeier, The Republic of Kazakhstan’s New Administrative Procedures Code, ZOIS, June 2021,; Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Administrative Procedural and Procedural Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, (with changes as of 01.07.2021),;-13

[84] Mehmet Volkan Kasikci, Documenting the Tragedy in Xinjiang: An Insider’s View of Atajurt, The Diplomat, January 2020,

[85] Reid Standish, Astana Tried to Silence China Critics, Foreign Policy, March 2019,

[86] Agence France-Presse, Xinjiang activist freed in Kazakh court after agree­ing to stop cam­paign­ing, The Guardian, August 2019,; Freedom Now, Kazakhstan: UN Declares Detention of Human Rights Activist Serikzhan Bilash a Violation of International Law, November 2020,

[87] Bruce Pannier, Activist Defending Ethnic Kazakhs In China Explains Why He Had To Flee Kazakhstan, RFE/RL, January 2021,

[88] Reid Standish and Aigerim Toleukhanova, Kazakh Activism Against China’s Internment Camps Is Broken, But Not Dead, April 2020,

[89] Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan’s Dugan com­mu­ni­ty stunned by spasm of dead­ly blood­let­ting, February 2020,; Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan: Trial over dead­ly eth­nic vio­lence leaves bit­ter taste for Dungans, Eurasianet, April 2021,

[90] ITUC CSI IGN, Kazakhstan: Statement of the ITUC Pan-European Regional Council, April 2017,; RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, Hunger Strike Protests By Oil Workers Growing In Western Kazakhstan, January 2017,

[91] ITUC CSI IGN, List of affil­i­at­ed organ­i­sa­tions, November 2019,

[92] IndustriALL Global Union, IndustriALL calls for release of Kazakh trade union leader, July 2019,

[93] IndustriALL Global Union, Kazakh union leader Erlan Baltabay released, March 2020,

[94] Human Rights Council, Advance Unedited Version, Freedom Now,  May 2021,; Freedom Now, Kazakhstan: Freedom Now Condemns Treatment of Imprisoned Labour Activist, July 2021,

[95] Mihra Rittman, Kazakhstan Adopts Long-Promised Amendments to Trade Union Law, Human Rights Watch, December 2020,

[96] Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Independent Union Under Threat of Suspension, January 2021,

[97] International Labour Conference, Committee on the Application of Standards, July 2021,—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_804447.pdf

[98] Radio Azattyk, In Almaty, Glovo couri­ers who went on strike tried to block the street, July 2021,‑almaty-obyavivshie-zabastovku-kurery-glovo-popytalis-perekryt-ulitsu/31345823.html

[99] RSF, 2021 World Press Freedom Index,

[100] Sher Khashimov and Raushan Zhandayeva, Kazakhstan’s Alternative Media Is Thriving—and in Danger, Foreign Policy, July 2021,

[101] Ibid.

[102] See Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, IB Taurus, October 2018.

[103] RSF, Regional news­pa­per edi­tor harassed after inves­ti­gat­ing real estate scan­dal, February 2021,

[104] Order of the Minister of Culture and Information of the Republic of Kazakhstan dat­ed June 21, 2013 No. 138,

CPJ, Kazakhstan adopts new accred­i­ta­tion require­ments that jour­nal­ists fear will pro­mote cen­sor­ship, March 2021,

[105] Justice for Journalists Foundation, Kazakhstan, 2020,

[106] IPHR, Kazakhstan: Massive restric­tions on expres­sion dur­ing COVID-19,; sud­den ban­ning of peace­ful oppo­si­tion, August 2020,

[107] Paolo Sorbello, Kazakhstan Decriminalizes Defamation, Keeps Hindering Free Media, June 2020,; Legislationline, Penal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, July 2014,

[108] Mike Eckel and Sarah Alikhan, Big Houses, Deep Pockets, RFE/RL, December 2020,–5XVsTgP5c3oesqt7eomZmsfeUiOjahO5QThDmcGU

[109] RFE/RL, After Seven Years, ‘Kazakhgate’ Scandal Ends With Minor Indictment, August 2010,; Steve LeVine, Was James Giffen telling the truth?, Foreign Policy, November 2010,

[110] Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan: Nazarbayev-linked bil­lion­aire sucked into UK court bat­tle, Eurasianet, December 2020, See also Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, IB Taurus, October 2018.



[113] Robert Booth, Prince Andrew tried to bro­ker crown prop­er­ty deal for Kazakh oli­garch, The Guardian, July 2016,; Ian Gallagher, Kazakh-born socialite ‘Lady Goga’ who par­tied with her ‘very, very close friend’ Prince Andrew at her 30th birth­day reveals she leads a far qui­eter life after turn­ing 40, Mail Online, March 2020,

[114] Financial Times, The secret scheme to skim mil­lions off cen­tral Asia’s pipeline megapro­ject, December 2020,; Eurasianet, Financial Times: Kazakh leader’s son-in-law skimmed mil­lions from Chinese loads, December 2020,

[115] See: Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan, IB Taurus, October 2018.

[116] Joanna Lillis, Kazakhstan: Rakhatgate Saga Over as Former Son-in-Law Found Hanged, Eurasianet, February 2015,

[117]BBC News, Kazakh fam­i­ly win Unexplained Wealth Order bat­tle over London homes, April 2020,

[118] George Greenwood, Emanuele Midolo, Marcus Leroux and Leigh Baldwin, Strange case of Dariga Nazarbayeva, mys­tery own­er of Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street address, The Times, November 2020,

[119] Sumaira FH, Nazarbayev’s Daughter Secured Seat In Kazakh Parliament On Ruling Party’s Ticket, Urdu Point, January 2021,

[120] John Heathershaw, Twitter post, Twitter, July 2021,; Susan Hawley, George Havenhand and Tom Robinson, New Briefing: Red Carpet for Dirty Money – The UK’s Golden Visa Regime, Spotlight on Corruption, July 2021,; Dominic Kennedy, National secu­ri­ty review of gold­en visas for investors, The Times, July 2021,

[121] Department for International Trade, Trade & Investment Factsheets, Kazakhstan, UK Gov, July 2021,–07-07.pdf

[122] Ron Synovitz and Manas Kaiyrtayuly, How Top Officials, Relatives Scooped Up Kazakhstan’s Higher – Education Sector, RFE/RL, June 2021,

[123] Pew Research Center, Religious Composition by Country, 2010–2050,

[124] Legislationline, The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan,

[125] Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions,

[126] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Reports,

[127] Legislationline, The Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan of October 11, 2011, No 483-IV, On Religious Activity and Religious Associations,

[128] Felix Corley, Kazakhstan: 134 admin­is­tra­tive pros­e­cu­tions in 2020, Forum 18, February 2021,

[129] Zhanagul Zhursin and Farangis Najibullah, The Hijab Debate Intensifies As School Starts In Kazakhstan, RFE/RL, September 2019,

[130] OSCE, Kazakhstan – Parliamentary Elections, 10 January 2021,

[131] Amina Chaya, What’s wrong with the domes­tic vio­lence law in Kazakhstan? Part two, Masa Media, November 2020,

[132] Evgeniya Mikhailidi, Alina Zhartieva, Nazerke Kurmangazinova, Victorious Violence, Vlast, February 2021,

[133] Kazinform, Domestic and domes­tic vio­lence: MPs and experts talked about the new law, October 2020,

[134] Malika Autalipova and Timur Nusimbekov, The Largest Women’s March in the History of Kazakhstan, Adamar, March 2021,; Asylkhan Mamashevich, National val­ues, LGBT rights and “jus­ti­fi­ca­tion before the European Parliament”. How did the soci­ety eval­u­ate the women’s march?, Radio Azattyq, March 2021,

[135] Human Rights Watch, Kazakhstan: Feminist Group Denied Registration, September 2019,; Mihra Rittmann, Activists Detained in Kazakhstan ‘For Their Own Safety’, Human Rights Watch, June 2021,

[136] The Constitution con­tains Article 14. 2 which promis­es ‘No one shall be sub­ject to any dis­crim­i­na­tion for rea­sons of ori­gin, social, prop­er­ty sta­tus, occu­pa­tion, sex, race, nation­al­i­ty, lan­guage, atti­tude towards reli­gion, con­vic­tions, place of res­i­dence or any oth­er cir­cum­stances’. See The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Legislationonline,;

RFE/RL Kazakh Service, Sexual Minorities In Kazakhstan Hide Who They Are To Avoid Abuse, June 2021

[137] Draft Law ‘On pro­tec­tion of chil­dren from infor­ma­tion harm­ing their health and devel­op­ment’, 2015; Ministry of Information and Communication of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Instruction ‘On Classification of Informational Products’ and ‘Methodology of Defining Informational Products for Children (Not) Harming Their Health and Development’, 2018.

[138] Zhanna Shayakhmetova, Positive Dynamics Observed in Trade Between Kazakhstan and China, The Astana Times, April 2021,

[139] Ayia Reno, “You need to have not only beau­ti­ful reform pack­ages.” EU spe­cial envoy on rela­tions with Kazakhstan, Radio Azattyq, January 2021,; European Parliament, RC-B9-0144/2021,‑9–2021-0144_EN.html

[140] OSCE, Summits,

The Foreign Policy Centre by Adam Hug

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