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Republic of Kazakhstan

Republic of Kazakhstan

Type of Government

The Republic of Kazakhstan is a constitutional republic and, in theory, a multiparty democracy, but the former Communist Party elite from its Soviet era continue to exert an unusual degree of control. President Nursultan Nazarbayev (1940–) and his Otan (Fatherland Party) have maintained firm control of the government and political sphere since 1991, when the country resurrected its first independent state of 1917 to 1920.


In total square area, Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country and roughly equal to the size of western Europe. It shares borders with Russia, Uzbekistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. About 63 percent of its population of 15 million are of Kazakh ethnicity, with a remaining 30 percent or so of Russian or Ukrainian heritage; there are also other Central Asian groups represented as well as the so-called Volga Germans, who began settling in the area in the 1760s at the invitation of the German-born Russian Empress Catherine II (1729–1796).

The Kazakhs are a Turkic people who were part of a wave of migration of nomadic groups from Mongolia into Central Asia in ancient times. A national identity emerged after AD 400, but for the next fourteen centuries they were ruled by a succession of invaders, beginning with Arab conquerors in the 700s who brought Islam with them. Mongols arrived five centuries later, and established the Kazakh Khanate in 1456. From 1884 to 1918 the Kazakhs were unwilling subjects of imperial Russia. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the end of Czarist Russia, Kazakh nationalist elements established a secular, independent government called Alash Orda, or Horde of Alash, which borrowed its name from a legendary figure in Kazakh history.

Alash Orda lasted from December 1917 to May 1920, when it was incorporated into the Soviet Union after losing a series of skirmishes against the Bolsheviks. It became the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, and Moscow encouraged internal emigration policies that resulted in a large number of ethnic Russians settling in the region. When the Soviet Union collapsed in August 1991 after an attempted coup in Moscow, Kazakhstan was one of several constituent republics of the Soviet Union to declare their independence. In December 1991, the newly created Republic of Kazakhstan joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, an alliance of eleven former Soviet republics.

Government Structure

Kazakhstan’s first constitution went into effect in January 1993, and was replaced by a new one in 1995. It provides for a strong executive branch, headed by a president elected by direct popular vote for a seven-year term. The president is the head of state, and appoints the prime minister, who serves as both the head of government and presiding official of the cabinet. Presidential powers include the right to dissolve parliament, veto of bills passed by the legislature, and the sole initiator of amendments to the constitution.

The legislative branch of Kazakhstan’s government is the Kenges, a bicameral parliament. Its upper house is the Senat, with forty-seven members. A total of forty Senat deputies are elected by regional assemblies, with a remaining seven appointed by the president. The lower house is the Majilis, or Assembly, which consists of seventy-seven deputies. They are elected by direct vote from sixty-seven single-seat constituencies, and another ten are chosen from national party lists and allocated by proportional representation. Both the Senat and Assembly deputies serve six-year terms. Suffrage in Kazakhstan is universal at the age of eighteen.

Kazakhstan does not have an independent judiciary. The decisions of its courts are subject to review by the president. A Constitutional Council evaluates laws approved by the Kenges for compliance with the constitution, and the Supreme Court serves as the highest court. A Supreme Judicial Council, whose chief is appointed by the president, makes recommendations for judicial vacancies in the regional courts. Though Kazakhstan’s constitution allows for public trials, hearings involving opponents of the regime have not been disclosed. Bribery and corruption is believed to be endemic among the country’s judges.

The Kazakhstan Constitution exists in name only, with many of its tenets ignored by the political elite who have dominated the government during the post-Soviet era, or modified to ensure their continued control. One 1998 change, for example, eliminated the constitutional requirement that at least 50 percent of the population must cast ballots in national elections for the vote to be considered a valid one. Though civil liberties are enumerated in the constitution, they do not exist in practice. Kazakhstan’s media remain under firm government control, and journalists and others who voice opposition to the government or the president have reported being harassed by state security forces. Parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2004 were deemed short of compliance with international standards.

Kazakhstan is divided into seventeen administrative regions, with fourteen of them known as oblasts , a Slavic-language term for province or zone. There are two urban districts, Alma-Ata and Astana. Alma-Ata was the nation’s capital until 1998, when it was relocated to the more centrally located city of Astana. A final administrative region is the area around Baykonur, a space-launch center built during the Soviet era.

Political Parties and Factions

Kazakhstan’s political life is dominated by one party, Nur-Otan, or Fatherland’s Ray of Light. Originally formed as Otan (Fatherland Party) in 1999, it is the party of Kazakhstan’s longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. By 2006 it had merged with several other parties that posed no genuine political opposition to either Otan or Nazarbayev, among them Asar (Mutual Help), which was founded by the president’s daughter in 2003.

Opposition political parties in Kazakhstan are hampered by a 2002 law that made it extremely difficult for parties to officially register and win a place on the ballot. The new law specified that a party needed to have branches in every oblast, with at least seven hundred members in each. In February 2006, the former mayor of Alma-Ata and a founder of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) party, Altynbek Sarsenbayev (1962–2006), was murdered. Sarsenbayev had been a leading critic of Nazarbayev and a champion of democratic reform in Kazakhstan. Before his death Sarsenbayev had established the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, which was a political alliance of Communist Party members and those involved in the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. In August 2006 ten co-conspirators, including the leader of the senate administration and members of Kazakhstan’s elite national security squad, were convicted of his murder.

Major Events

In 1986 the ruling body of the Soviet Union, the Politburo, replaced Kazakhstan’s longtime secretary-general, an ethnic Kazakh named Dinmohammed Kunayev (1912–1993), with a non-Kazakh politician, ostensibly because of corruption on Kunayev’s part. The move prompted widespread student demonstrations in December of that year, which were met with harsh reprisals from Moscow.

In the post-independence era, Kazakhstan’s first presidential elections were held in 1991, and Nazarbayev won. He remained in office following a national referendum in 1995, but the victory was marred by accusations of election tampering. He stood for election again in January 1999 and received 80 percent of the vote; once more critics cited the results as suspiciously one-sided. A 1998 constitutional amendment specified that the presidential term was seven years, but in 2000 a new law essentially gave him status as president for life. In December 2005 Nazarbayev was reelected with 90 percent of the vote.

Twenty-First Century

Dissatisfaction with Nazarbayev and the one-party domination is said to be rife in Kazakhstan, but constricted by the authoritarian regime and corresponding climate of fear. Nazarbayev controls the state-owned oil company of Kazakhstan, and his government has encouraged foreign investment, especially in joint deals with the state-owned oil and gas companies; he also supports a free-market economy. The Nazarbayev government enjoys cordial relations with the United States, despite its violations of democratic principles. Kazakhstan reacted strenuously to the portrayal of the nation as a backward, anti-Semitic place in the 2006 feature film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan which starred a British comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, as the fictional Kazakh journalist of the title. The government launched an expensive public-relations campaign against both Cohen and Borat that trumpeted Kazakhstan as “the Heart of Eurasia,” and successfully petitioned the film’s distributor, 20th Century-Fox, not to release it in Kazakhstan.

Cummings, Sally N. Kazakhstan: Power and the Elite . London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Fergus, Michael, and Janar Jandosova. Kazakhstan: Coming of Age . London: Stacey International, 2003.

Olcott, Martha. Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise . Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2002.

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