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Retreating Rights – Kazakhstan: Executive Summary

Article by Adam Hug

July 22, 2021

Retreating Rights – Kazakhstan: Executive Summary

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Kazakhstan’s independence this publication finds the country in a period of change. The gradual passing of the torch from First President Nazarbayev to President Tokayev, growing social protests as living standards have been squeezed for many, and an uncertain future that lies ahead given the global move away from fossil fuels, make it an important time to take stock of the current state of human rights and governance in Kazakhstan.


Over the last 30 years Kazakhstan’s ruling elite has delivered substantial economic growth – albeit particularly benefiting itself – and has mostly maintained stability between the country’s different ethnic groups. This has come at the cost of almost all political freedoms and many civil liberties. The Government and its supporters still argue that gradual steps will enable Kazakhstan to transition to democracy and help ‘evolve’ the political culture in Kazakhstan. Their critics point to the lack of change at the heart of the country’s political system over the last 30 years, where reforms have helped deliver improvements in the standards of living and the delivery of public services but have not lead to a meaningful transfer in political power from the elite to the citizen. The only political choice in Kazakhstan, such Tokayev assuming the Presidency, is exercised by those already in power.


President Tokayev has promised a ‘listening state’ and committed to delivering reforms that would improve freedoms and make the Government more responsive but change so far has been limited. His approach seems to be continuing the path of ‘modernisation without democratisation’ or ‘reform within the system’ that improves state efficiency and outcomes while mostly retaining existing authoritarian power structures. The widespread use of ‘freedom restrictions’ that prevent activists from continuing their work is indicative of the objective to curb criticism and silence dissent.


There are opportunities for local activists and the international community to apply pressure to address human right abuses and to help deliver reform, particularly in areas of governance that do not address the wider balance of power. Achieving more systemic change is a greater challenge and one that will likely involve further action at an international level to expose corruption.


Key recommendations

Based on the findings of the research in this publication the Government of Kazakhstan should:

  • Stop targeting NGOs with punitive tax inspections and burdensome reporting requirements;
  • Make it easier for parties to register and protect political activists from state harassment;
  • End the use of anti-extremism legislation powers under Criminal Code Article 405 and Article 174 to target protestors or those liking or sharing opposition posts on social media;
  • Further reform the law on public assembly to end restrictions on unregistered groups;
  • Stop using kettling as a policing tactic for peaceful demonstrations;
  • End the use of ‘freedom restrictions’ in sentencing that prevent activists and bloggers from continuing their work holding the Government to account;
  • Stop the continued harassment of independent trade unions and striking workers;
  • Remove laws on insulting the honour and dignity of public officials used to silence criticism;
  • Improve data protection and privacy regulation and enforcement; and
  • Deliver on commitments to produce new laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment, while retaining protections on the right to gender equality.


The international community should:

  • Raise systemic problems and individual cases of abuse both in private and in public; and
  • Examine the use of international mechanisms for tacking corruption and kleptocracy, including improved transparency requirements, reform of ‘golden visas’, Magnitsky sanctions and anti-corruption tools such as Unexplained Wealth Orders where appropriate.


Image by Jussi Toivanen under (CC).

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