Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: Kazakhstan has been ruled by one person, Nursultan Nazarbayev, since before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During that time, governance has been destabilized by the dismissal of several governments, a series of referenda that changed governmental practice, periods of rule by presidential decree, and the establishment of two new constitutions. These events have concentrated power in the presidency, severely limiting the power of the legislature and the ministries. Nazarbayev has acted to discourage opposition, although some opposition parties exist. Government corruption has been a major issue. In 2005 the corruption index of Transparency International rated Kazakhstan 111 out of 163 countries. At the same time, Kazakhstan’s international prestige has improved because of its oil and gas resources and its geographic importance in antiterrorism operations.

Executive Branch: The president is elected by direct ballot to a five-year term. The constitutions of 1993 and 1995 have given increased powers to the president, and subsequent referenda have made key changes such as the abolition of the two-term limit for that office. Officially, the prime minister, one deputy, and the 17 ministers that compose the government implement policy; the president determines policy. Nazarbayev has dissolved several governments in instances when a prime minister threatened his position as sole policy maker. Between 1992 and 2004, four prime ministers were dismissed or forced to resign. Only the president can introduce constitutional amendments. He or she has the power to appoint and dismiss the government, dissolve parliament, call for referenda, and appoint administrative heads of regions. Major foreign investment and foreign policy issues are handled by the president’s office. The president appoints the members of the Committee for National Security, which plays a major role in law enforcement through its responsibilities for national security, intelligence, and counterintelligence. Nazarbayev, an indecisive administrator whose regime has been plagued by corruption, has survived by balancing competing factions. His daughter and son-in-law have assumed influential positions in politics and the media, fueling controversy about a potential dynastic succession. In a case labeled “Kazakhgate,” Nazarbayev has survived longstanding accusations of taking bribes from a U.S. oil executive. Nazarbayev was reelected in December 2005 by an overwhelming majority.

Legislative Branch: In the post-Soviet era, Kazakhstan has had four parliamentary structures. Since 1998 the bicameral parliament has consisted of the 39-seat Senate and the 77-seat Majlis. The president appoints seven senators; every three years, half of the remaining 32 senators are elected by the governing councils of their respective provinces. Senators serve six-year terms; two are elected from each of 14 provinces and the cities of Almaty and Astana. Majlis members serve five-year terms. Ten Majlis members are elected from the winning party’s lists, and the remainder are elected from single-seat districts. Legislation normally is introduced and pushed through parliament by the president or government members, although members of parliament also have the right to introduce legislation. The legislature has no power to appropriate state funds or to lower taxes without approval from the executive branch. The Majlis can dismiss the president by a three-quarters vote only in case of treason or gross incompetence. In the 1999 Majlis elections, only four of 67 successful candidates represented opposition parties. In the 2004 Majlis elections, Otan (Fatherland), the presidential party, once again won a decisive majority of seats. Otan also held a majority in the Senate before and after the indirect elections of 2005. In 2006 two women had seats in the Senate, and eight women had seats in the Majlis.

Judicial Branch: The highest court in Kazakhstan is the 44-member Supreme Court, whose members are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. The Supreme Court is the appeals court for decisions taken at lower (district and province) court levels. Although nominally Supreme Court judges are appointed for life, in fact they retire at the mandatory federal retirement age of 65. Under the 1995 constitution, the Constitutional Court that had been established in 1991 was replaced by the Constitutional Council. The council rules on all constitutional matters, but its decisions are subject to a presidential right of veto. The council is composed of seven members: three appointed by the president and four appointed by the legislature. Citizens have no right of appeal on council decisions.

Administrative Divisions: In 1997 an administrative reform reduced the number of Kazakhstan’s provinces from 19 to 14. The cities of Almaty, Astana, and Baykonur have the same status as provinces. The 1997 reform divided the country into 160 districts and 10 municipal districts.

Provincial and Local Government: The governors of the provinces and districts, called akims, are appointed by the president. In 2006 a reform measure established direct elections for local governors, who previously were appointed by the akims. At city, district, and province level, the legislative body is the council (maslikhat), which is directly elected but has only budgetary and tax-raising power. The province maslikhats also elect the members of the national Senate from their provinces.

Judicial and Legal System: The system, whose independence is compromised by heavy control by the executive branch, functions at three levels: district, provincial, and federal. Judges at all levels are appointed by the president. Supreme Court and province-level appointments are made through the Supreme Judicial Council, which in turn is composed of ex officio presidential appointees. District-level judges are appointed from lists provided by the Ministry of Justice. Most criminal cases are heard at the district level; provincial courts try cases involving a possible death penalty and serve as appeals courts for decisions at the district level. Provincial court decisions can be appealed to the Supreme Court at the federal level. In 2002 legislation, the prosecutor general, who is the chief legal representative of the state, received new quasi-judicial powers that eroded the already small independence of the judiciary. Although judges are well-paid at all levels, bribery is common. Trial by jury, for which the constitution provides, was to be introduced for the first time in 2007, for capital cases only. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to counsel; however, in 2005 only half of criminal trials involved defense lawyers. Higher-court reversals of verdicts because of improper procedure have been common.

Electoral System: The national election law provides for universal suffrage for citizens aged 18 or older. National elections are overseen by the Central Election Commission, whose members are appointed by the president with the approval of the Majlis. The commission has summarily removed opposition candidates from ballots as recently as the 2002 Senate elections. Opposition candidates also have been bribed and intimidated, and in 2004 a court rejected the qualifications of one electoral bloc. International monitors found major procedural flaws in the Senate elections of 2002 and the Majlis elections of 2004. International observers declared the presidential election of December 2005, which Nazarbayev won easily, to be an improvement over earlier elections but still below democratic standards. The next Majlis elections are scheduled for September 2009.

Political Parties: Parties have not played an important role in Kazakhstan’s political structure, and the Nazarbayev government has worked to prevent the development of an adversarial system. The constitution prohibits political parties based on religion. The election law of 2002 substantially reduced the number of parties by setting new financial and membership requirements on registration, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Justice. In the 2003 local elections, candidates from the presidential party, Otan (Fatherland), ran unopposed in more than 50 percent of races. Aside from Otan, 10 parties—one of which is chaired by the president’s daughter—were registered for the Majlis elections of 2004. Three of the parties called themselves opposition parties, although all were considered moderate. All of the other seven had strong government ties. Otan won a decisive majority in the 2004 elections, whose procedures were criticized by international monitors. Some leaders of two forceful opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party of Kazakhstan (RPPK, founded in 1998) and the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK, founded in 2001), have been sentenced to prison, and RPPK leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin has been in exile since 1998. The government deprived DVK of its legal status in 2005. Less threatening opposition parties such as the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) Party have been allowed legal status. In 2005 Ak Zhol split into pro-government and antigovernment parties, the latter of which was denied registration. The Coalition for a Just Kazakhstan, including most of Kazakhstan’s opposition groups, was refused registration in 2005. Nevertheless, its chairman, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, finished second to Nazarbayev with 6.6 percent of the vote in the presidential election. In February 2006, the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbayev, leader of the unregistered splinter of Ak Zhol, cast suspicion on the ruling party. As of early 2006, some 12 parties had official status, and four of them held seats in the Majlis. In mid-2006 the pro-government Asar Party joined Otan.

Mass Media: Although the constitution and the Media Law provide for freedom of speech and the press, by 2002 the government had eliminated or silenced most independent media outlets. The daily newspapers with widest circulation are the Almaty Asia Times (in English), the Almaty Herald (in English), Ekspress–K (in Russian), Kazakhstanskaya Pravda (expressing the official views of the government in Russian, circulation 55,000), Khalyk Kenesi (in Kazakh), Vecherniy Almaty (in Russian), and Yegemen Kazakhstan (expressing the official views of the government in Kazakh, circulation 62,000). The Times of Central Asia covers all of Central Asia except Tajikistan. The weekly Russian-language Karavan, owned by President Nazarbayev’s daughter, has a circulation of about 250,000. The government also controls most printing and distribution facilities, and many of the approximately 1,000 privately owned newspapers receive government subsidies.

A large percentage of broadcast media outlets were privatized in the late 1990s, but most broadcast companies are operated by pro-government owners, including Nazarbayev’s daughter and son-in-law. The main television channel, Khabar, reaches 64 million people in Central Asia and parts of China and Russia. Six other national channels are active. Public and private regional television channels and radio stations also broadcast, many of them on frequencies owned by regional governments. In 2000 Kazakhstan had about 6.3 million radios and 3.6 million television sets. The state press agency is the National Information Agency, Kazinform. Major foreign news agencies in Kazakhstan are Agence France-Presse, Anadolu Ajansı of Turkey, the U.S.-based Internews Network, the Islamic Republic News Agency, ITAR–TASS and RIA–Novosti of Russia, Reuters, and Xinhua.

Foreign Relations: In 2006 Kazakhstan continued its largely unsuccessful advocacy of stronger relations among the states of the former Soviet Union and among the five Central Asian states. Despite ongoing efforts by President Nazarbayev, neither of the two existing regional economic organizations—the Central Asian Economic Community and the Eurasian Economic Community—has increased regional cooperation. The only regional rapprochement occurred in the realm of national security, as the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) began issuing geopolitical policy statements as a bloc in 2004. Kazakhstan’s bilateral relations with Russia improved significantly in the early 2000s, and the government declared 2004 the “Year of Russia.” Bilateral programs with Russia involve joint exploitation of Caspian Sea fuel deposits, long-term Russian rental of Kazakhstan’s Baykonur Cosmodrome, and cooperation in power generation. Caspian Sea exploitation remains in dispute with the other three littoral states, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. Beginning in the early 2000s, a series of agreements with China on pipelines and the oil industry reduced Kazakhstan’s suspicions of Chinese regional ambitions. Relations with Uzbekistan have remained tentative because of earlier border disputes, accusations that terrorists in Uzbekistan had trained in Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan’s ambitions to dominate the region. Relations with the United States have been fruitful for Kazakhstan, which has benefited from substantial U.S. investment in the fuels industries. In 2001 Kazakhstan provided the United States landing and overflight rights for military operations in Afghanistan, an arrangement still in force in 2006. In the early 2000s, Kazakhstan carefully balanced its position among the competing regional interests of China, Russia, and the United States, emphasizing common concerns about terrorism with the United States. In 2003 Kazakhstan supported the U.S. policy in Iraq, contributing a small military contingent to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Membership in International Organizations: Among the international organizations of which Kazakhstan is a member are the Asian Development Bank, Central Asian Cooperation Organization, Collective Security Treaty Organization (of the Commonwealth of Independent States), Commonwealth of Independent States, Economic Cooperation Organization, Eurasian Economic Community, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Development Association, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Organization for Migration, International Telecommunication Union, Islamic Development Bank, Nuclear Suppliers Group, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Partnership for Peace (of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Shanghai Cooperation Organization, United Nations, United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, and World Trade Organization (observer status).

Major International Treaties: Between 1994 and 1997, Kazakhstan signed a series of bilateral treaties with the United States covering the peaceful use of nuclear technology and the conversion of military technology to civilian purposes. Among the multilateral treaties to which Kazakhstan is a signatory are the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution; Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction (but not the companion treaty on biological and toxin weapons); Geneva Conventions (1949); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer; Protocol of 1978 Relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.


Armed Forces Overview: When the Soviet Union dissolved, Kazakhstan inherited a large but antiquated military technical base, including nuclear weapons that remained the property of Russia after 1991. However, development of an officer corps and a national military policy has been a slow process that has suffered from inadequate funding. Only in 2001 did military spending reach 1 percent of gross domestic product. Since the late 1990s, the number of active military personnel has grown considerably, from about 40,000 in 1995 to about 66,000 in 2005. In 2005 the army had 46,800 active personnel and the air force, 19,000 active personnel. The maritime border guard had 3,000 personnel. Paramilitary forces totaled 34,500. A naval force, announced in 2003 as protection for offshore drilling rigs, has developed very slowly. In 2005 much of Kazakhstan’s equipment still was of the late Soviet era; hence, it required significant upgrading or replacement. The National Security Committee (KNB), successor to the Soviet-era KGB, is responsible for national security, law enforcement at the national level, and counterintelligence. It includes the Internal Security Service, Military Counterintelligence, Border Guard Service, and Foreign Intelligence Service. Little is known about the secretive Foreign Intelligence Service. The KNB has several commando units.

Foreign Military Relations: The critical foreign military link remains Russia, which is the main source of military equipment and personnel training. Kazakhstan is a signatory of the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States with Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Membership in that group, which conducted some joint military exercises in 2005, precludes joining another military alliance. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan also has cultivated military links with the United States. Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Partnership for Peace program, U.S. and Kazakhstani troops have engaged in regular joint training exercises since 1997. In 2003 Kazakhstan signed a five-year cooperation program supplying small amounts of U.S. military equipment and expertise. Some U.S. assistance also has gone to the naval forces at Aqtau on the Caspian Sea.

External Threat: In 2006 Kazakhstan faced no threat of involvement in armed conflict with any neighbor.

Defense Budget: After resisting increases in the 1990s, the Nazarbayev government has raised the defense budget annually since 2000. Between 2001 and 2005, the amount increased from US$180 million to US$419 million.

Major Military Units: The army has four mechanized rifle brigades, two artillery brigades, one mechanized rifle division, one engineer brigade, one mechanized division, one multiple rocket launcher brigade, one air assault brigade, and one surface-to-surface missile brigade. The army is administered from four district headquarters. The air force consists of one division, including one fighter regiment, three ground-attack fighter regiments, and one reconnaissance regiment. The maritime border guard forces are stationed at the Caspian ports of Aqtau and Atyrau.

Major Military Equipment: The army has 930 main battle tanks, 140 reconnaissance vehicles, 573 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 770 armored personnel carriers, 505 pieces of towed artillery, 163 pieces of self-propelled artillery, 171 mortars, 147 multiple rocket launchers, 12 surface-to-surface missiles, and 68 antitank guns. Most of that equipment is of the Soviet era and not reliable. The air force has 40 MiG–29, 43 MiG–31, and 16 MiG–25 fighter aircraft; 53 Sukhoi ground attack fighter aircraft; several regiments with 14 attack helicopters each; and 12 Sukhoi–24 reconnaissance aircraft. South Korea and other partners have delivered Kazakhstan about 13 small patrol craft for use in the Caspian Sea.

Military Service: The term of active service is 24 months. Males become eligible for conscription at age 18. The hazing of conscripts is a common practice.

Paramilitary Forces: In 2005 Kazakhstan had a total of 34,500 paramilitary personnel, 12,000 of whom were in the state border protection forces (under the Ministry of Interior), 20,000 in the internal security troops (police, under the Ministry of Interior), 2,000 in the presidential guard, and 500 in the government guard.

Foreign Military Forces: Since 2001 Kazakhstan has provided overflight and overland supply shipment rights to U.S. forces based in Kyrgyzstan.

Military Forces Abroad: In mid-2006, 29 Kazakhstani medical troops were attached to Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq.

Police: The police, numbering 20,000 in 2005, are supervised by the Ministry of Interior, which traditionally has been run by a military official. The first civilian minister of interior was appointed in 2003, placing all of Kazakhstan’s security forces under civilian control. The government has used police to harass and incarcerate opposition journalists, political figures, and demonstrators. Human rights organizations have reported frequent incidents of police brutality. The secret police have been effective in discouraging opposition organizations, but the regular police, who are poorly paid, are ineffective and often corrupt. In 2005 the Ministry of Interior reported more than 2,000 complaints of police corruption. In the early 2000s, the government has taken some measures to improve police practices. An independent Financial Police Agency, responsible to the prime minister, investigates money laundering and other financial crimes.

Internal Threat: The government has successfully discouraged civil unrest except for demonstrations on specific issues such as pension arrears. Crime figures on Kazakhstan are not available, but organized narcotics smuggling and human trafficking have prospered in recent years because of Kazakhstan’s location between source countries and Russia and the ineffectiveness of border controls. Seizures of smuggled narcotics from Afghanistan increased substantially in 2006.

Terrorism: In 1995 Kazakhstan joined what later became the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group also including China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, aimed at regional prevention of Islamist and separatist activities. However, Kazakhstan’s involvement with terrorism, either as a victim or as a supporter, is not considered likely. Although Islamic fundamentalism has no attraction for Kazakhstan’s Muslims, the government poses the terrorist threat as a pretext for domestic repression. In 2005 the Majlis banned the pan-Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organization because of the group’s calls for an international Islamic government.

Human Rights: Government control of the media has increased in the early 2000s. Newspaper and broadcast reporters have been beaten and imprisoned when government corruption became a major focus of reporting. As an additional control, the government has restricted access to printing and distribution facilities. In 2004 President Nazarbayev approved a law restricting press coverage of elections, and media coverage of the Majlis elections of September 2004 was severely restricted. Monitors noted some improvement in press coverage of the 2005 presidential election. In 2005 incidents of harassment and violence toward the press remained common, however. Expression of political opposition is limited by improper electoral procedures (as noted by international monitors in each of the most recent four national elections) and restrictions on party registration. Prosecutors have very broad authority that negates the constitutional guarantee of a fair trial and has resulted in reversal of some trial verdicts. Police brutality is reported in prisons and in dealing with suspects. Prison conditions are very harsh. The constitution guarantees the right of assembly, but the Law on National Security has been used widely to label demonstrations and meetings as security threats. All public organizations must register with the Ministry of Justice. The vagueness of laws on nongovernmental organizations has been used to restrict the activity of such groups, and police harassment has been frequent. Kazakhstan has been the source, destination, and transit country for trafficking in people. According to estimates, in 2005 such incidents involved several thousand victims, mainly young women. Convictions for trafficking have been rare, and some involvement by corrupt law enforcement officials is assumed. Some 20,000 crimes against women, mainly in rural areas, were reported in 2005. Freedom of religion generally is protected, and religious organizations are not required to register. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna members have met local persecution, however.

Index for Kazakhstan:
Overview | Government


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