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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,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[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,

[140] OSCE, Summits,

The Foreign Policy Centre by Adam Hug

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