Presidential elections in Kazakhstan: a simulated handover of power in a void of political competition

  • 04.06.2019
  • Author: Andriy Osavoliyk, Igor Savchenko, Botagoz Jardemalie

1. Summary

On 19 March 2019, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who served as President for 30 years, resigned. According to the law, his position was taken by the head of the upper house of parliament – the Senate – Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev. On 9 April 2019, it was announced that on 9 June 2019 an extraordinary presidential election will be held in Kazakhstan. The upcoming elections will be the sixth consecutive national elections in Kazakhstan to be held early.

Following his resignation from the post of President, Nursultan Nazarbayev has remained a key figure in the power system in Kazakhstan. Assessing the experience of other states in the region, where a change of leader was accompanied by a sharp political crisis and a war between elites, Kazakhstan tried to minimise the risks of the transitional period. Over the past few years, the configuration of power in the state has been changed in such a way that for some time, the new President will be only the second most influential figure in the state. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been ensured a lifelong right to govern the country as Chairman of the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

At the same time, it is important to the ruling elites that the person elected as President be someone from within the system who will guarantee the preservation of the status quo. The former head of the Senate, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, has become such a person.

In his inaugural speech, Tokayev proposed to rename the capital of the state Astana to Nur-Sultan in order to “immortalise” the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev. On the same day, both houses of parliament supported his proposal. The very first initiative of the new President demonstrated his loyalty to Nursultan Nazarbayev and his readiness to continue his policy in the domestic and foreign arena.

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, became the head of the Senate, thus replacing Tokayev. Her candidacy was unanimously supported by all members of the Senate.

Following Nazarbayev’s resignation, mass anti-government rallies attended by several thousand people were held in different cities and towns of Kazakhstan. The protesters criticised the authorities and, in particular, demanded fair elections or called for a boycott of the elections. The police detained several hundred peaceful protesters with the use of excessive force.

Even now, the analysis of the pre-election situation in Kazakhstan shows that the upcoming elections will not meet democratic standards:

  • There is no political pluralism in Kazakhstan: opposition parties and real opposition candidates do not participate in the political process.
  • Tough electoral legislation rules out the possibility of nominating independent candidates for the presidency.
  • On the eve of the elections, mass anti-government protests were held in the country; they were dispersed by the authorities. Activists who criticise the authorities on social networks and express their attitude towards the upcoming elections have been subjected to gross arbitrary detentions, arrests, pressure and criminal prosecution.
  • Almost all independent media outlets are banned, which makes it impossible to distribute alternative information. Government officials, including pro-government candidates, have monopoly access to state-run media.
  • The authorities have resorted to blocking social networks and communicators in order to prevent the spread of protest sentiments.
  • The election campaign is regulated by the authorities: candidates can hold public events only with the consent of the authorities.
  • The actual prohibition of independent sociological research on election issues does not allow the real political ranking of candidates to be investigated, and creates an opportunity for fraud.
  • The president and parliament have levers of influence over the Central Election Commission, which makes it dependent on the authorities.

2. Nursultan Nazarbayev: Governor of Kazakhstan for life

By the Special Constitutional Law, which was adopted in 2000, Nursultan Nazarbayev was given the title “First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Leader of the Nation” (Elbasy):

  • Nazarbayev (Elbasy) heads the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (a consultative and advisory body subordinate to the President), the Security Council of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and is also a member of the Constitutional Council.
  • According to the Constitutional Law, initiatives on the main directions of foreign and domestic policy are coordinated with Nazarbayev.
  • The law exempts Nazarbayev from criminal liability, determines the inviolability of his family’s property, gives instructions to erect monuments in his honour and imposes severe punishment for insulting his honour. It is not allowed to obstruct the lawful activities of the First President.

The key position occupied by Nursultan Nazarbayev following his resignation from the post of President is the position of the President of the Security Council. The Security Council coordinates the implementation of a unified state policy in the field of national security and defence “in order to preserve domestic political stability and protect the constitutional system”. Until 2018, the Security Council had a consultative and advisory role. However, in June 2018, the Security Council Act was adopted, which significantly empowered this body. Recently, the Council has been granted the status of a constitutional body, and Nursultan Nazarbayev officially received the right to be its Chairman for life. The composition of the Council is decided by the President of Kazakhstan in coordination with the Chairman of the Council.

The Security Council has been given broad control over the activities of all state bodies:

  • The Council coordinates the activities of state security agencies and central and local executive bodies, as well as analysing draft laws and controlling the implementation of regulatory documents.
  • The Council is engaged in the discussion of candidates recommended for appointment as heads of state bodies subordinate and accountable to the President.
  • The Council hears annual reports of the Government and the heads of state bodies.
  • Government bodies and officials of Kazakhstan are legally obligated to execute decisions taken by the Security Council or by the Chairman of the Security Council.

The post of Chairman of the Security Council allows Nursultan Nazarbayev to act as an éminence grise in Kazakhstan’s politics. Not being a representative of the executive or legislative power, he has the levers of influence and control over the activities of all key government bodies.

In addition to the Security Council, Nazarbayev also continues to lead the Nur Otan party, which has an absolute majority of seats in the lower house of parliament – the Majilis (84 of 107). Moreover, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, which Nazarbayev heads for life, elects 9 deputies of the Majilis.

Also, as a former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev is a life-long member of the Constitutional Council of Kazakhstan. The Council has the right to review laws and resolutions adopted by the Parliament, and international treaties, prior to their ratification by Kazakhstan in order to verify their compliance with the Constitution, and gives an official interpretation of the norms of the Constitution. In the case of a dispute, it decides the issue of the correctness of the election of the President and members of parliament. In order to ensure the activities of the First President, the Office of the First President was established. On 3 April 2019, Nazarbayev took up the duties of the First President.

3. Early presidential elections

The Constitution vests the President of Kazakhstan with extremely broad powers. In fact, Kazakhstan is a superpresidential republic.

The president is elected for a term of five years. He is the head of the state – its highest official, who defines the main directions of the state’s domestic and foreign policy.

The President appoints the Prime Minister, and also, on the proposal of the Prime Minister, appoints members of the government and dismisses them from their posts. The President independently appoints the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of the Interior, the Governor of the National Bank, the General Prosecutor, the Chairman of the National Security Committee, the chairmen and judges of local and other courts, the Chairman and two members (of six) of the Central Election Commission. The President appoints akims [Akim is the head of the local executive authority - editorial note] of regions, cities of republican significance and the capital.

The president appoints 15 members (of 47) of the upper house of parliament – the Senate. This allows him to actually control the legislative process in the country, as laws adopted in the lower house – the Majilis – are passed to the Senate, which by a majority vote of the constitutional composition decides whether to accept or reject the bill.

Stages of the early presidential elections in 2019

  • 10 April 2019 – 28 April 2019: nomination of candidates;
  • 10 April 2019 – 11 May 2019: collection of signatures in support of candidates and registration with the CEC;
  • 11 May 2019 – 7 June 2019: election campaign;
  • 8 June 2019: election silence day;
  • 9 June 2019: voting day;
  • 10 June 2019 – 11 June 2019: preliminary election results.

Strict requirements on candidates as a tool to eliminate those held to be inconvenient 

In 2017, a constitutional reform was implemented in Kazakhstan. Also, amendments were made to the legislation on elections. At the legislative level, there are very strict requirements on presidential candidates that reduce the possibility of nominating independent candidates to zero. Thus, according to the Constitutional Law “On Elections”:

  • Art. 54: the candidate must have at least five years’ experience working in the public service or in elected government positions. This provision was introduced in 2017 and limits the opportunity for people from outside the system to participate in elections.
  • Art. 54: the candidate must confirm the fact of residence in Kazakhstan for the last 15 years. Due to a large number of politically motivated criminal prosecutions, opposition leaders have been forced to stay outside of Kazakhstan. The current President and presidential candidate Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev hasn’t lived continuously in Kazakhstan for the past 15 years. From 11 March 2011 to October 2013, he lived in Switzerland, where he served as Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. According to available information, in this position, Tokayev was not a representative of Kazakhstan and was a resident of Switzerland. On Tokayev’s request, the Constitutional Council of Kazakhstan issued a special explanation that he has the right to stand for election at the presidential election, as the 15-year period of uninterrupted residence in Kazakhstan “also includes residence outside the Republic of Kazakhstan for citizens belonging to the staff of the diplomatic service and persons equal to them appointed (elected) to positions with international organisations in which Kazakhstan has membership”.
  • Art. 54: the candidate must be fluent in the state Kazakh language, which is determined by the decision of the Central Election Commission. The requirement can be regarded as discriminatory towards Russian-speaking citizens of Kazakhstan who do not speak fluent Kazakh. According to Art. 7 paragraph 2 of the Constitution, along with Kazakh, Russian is officially used in state organisations and bodies of local self-government.
    The exam in the Kazakh language is non-public and consists of an essay, reading and public speaking. At the same time, there are no clear criteria for evaluation. The decision to take the exam is made on the basis of an open vote of members of the linguistic commission. Open voting is an element of pressure on members of the commission.
    It is noteworthy that the requirement to pass the examination in the Kazakh language does not apply to the current President, who repeatedly nominates his candidacy for the next term in office. Thus, new presidential candidates are initially discriminated against in comparison with the current president.
  • Art. 56: the presidential candidate must be supported by at least one percent of the total number of voters, equally representing at least two thirds of the regions, cities of republican significance and the capital of the republic. At the moment, 1% of the total number of voters in Kazakhstan is at least 118,000 signatures.
    Individuals who sign a candidate’s support must provide complete personal information (name, surname, passport details, address of a permanent or temporary place of registration). Thus, there is a danger of forming a list of “unreliable persons” who are ready to support opposition candidates. In addition, the legislation of Kazakhstan does not clearly regulate the procedure for verifying the authenticity of signatures. It also creates an opportunity for eliminating undesirable candidates.
  • Art. 55: only registered republican public associations and political parties have the right to nominate presidential candidates. The republican public associations include associations that have branches and representative offices in more than half of the regions of Kazakhstan [Article 7 of the Law on Public Associations]. As for political parties, only seven are registered in Kazakhstan. Only two of those, Ak Zhol and the National Social Democratic Party, position themselves as representatives of the moderate opposition. In fact, real opposition parties are banned or marginalised through laws against “extremism” and trumped-up criminal charges against their leaders. For example, in 2005, a Kazakhstan court banned the opposition party DCK, having found it guilty of “extremism” and “incitement of social discord”. The successor to the DCK, the unregistered party “Alga!” was banned in 2012, having faced the same charges.
    In 2017, the institution of self-nomination of candidates was cancelled in Kazakhstan. The election law also provides that the supreme body of the republican public association may cancel the decision to nominate a candidate for president even after the candidate has been officially registered.

At the extraordinary presidential elections in 2015, of 27 candidates, only three were able to pass a complicated registration procedure – to pass an exam on knowledge of the Kazakh state language, collect 93,000 signatures (1% of all voters) and pay a deposit.

Candidates

The authorities of Kazakhstan are striving to create the appearance that the elections of 2019 will be democratic and competitive. For this purpose, seven candidates for President were registered – an unprecedentedly large number for Kazakhstan. For the first time, a female candidate, Daniya Espayeva, was registered for the presidential election. Also, among the candidates, there is a nominally opposition politician – Amirzhan Kosanov.

Initially, nine people nominated their candidacy, but in the process of registration, one of them withdrew his candidacy and another did not pass the language exam. The list of candidates is as follows:

  • Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev from the Nur Otan party;
  • Daniya Espayeva from the Ak Zhol party;
  • Zhambyl Akhmetbekov from the Communist People’s Party;
  • Toleutay Rakhimbekov from the Auyl party;
  • Sadi-Bek Tughel from the public association “Uly Dala Kyrandary” [Eagles of the Great Steppe];
  • Amangeldy Taspikhov from the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan;
  • Amirzhan Kosanov from the National Patriotic Movement “Ult Tagdyry” [Fate of the Nation].

The Central Election Commission announced that the collection of signatures in support of candidates would last one month, from 10 April to 11 May. However, in fact, the collection of signatures for candidates began in the last days of April and was completed within just a few days. For example, Toleutay Rakhimbekov began collecting signatures on 29 April 2019 and finished on 4 May 2019. Daniya Espayeva and Amangeldy Taspikhov were also registered as candidates on 4 May 2019, although they only started collecting signatures on 27 April 2019. At the same time, 1 May 2019 was a public holiday in Kazakhstan. In this regard, there is reason to doubt that candidates could so quickly collect more than 118,000 signatures and, at the same time, comply with all the requirements of the law.

According to the CEC:

Open sources (the CEC website, mass media, social networks of candidates) contain very little information about how exactly the process of collecting signatures in support of candidates was carried out. It is known that signatures in support of the incumbent President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev were collected in an organised manner among employees of state enterprises and organisations. Also, there was a case where students of one of the universities were asked to put their signatures on signature sheets that did not indicate the name of a candidate. This incident gained wide publicity in the media. The students were told that “the name of the candidate would be filled in later”. The CEC stated that the signature sheets were issued to candidate Toleutay Rakhimbekov. At the same time, students noted that they had been persuaded to vote for a completely different candidate. On his Facebook page, the head of Amirzhat Kosanov’s campain headquarters, Dauren Babamuratov published a post with photos of people signing sheets of paper. However, it is not clearly visible what kind of document they constitute.

Is Amirzhan Kosanov a real opposition candidate?

Presidential candidate Amirzhan Kosanov declared himself as the next representative of the opposition to participate in the presidential elections after Serikbolsin Abdildin (who participated in the election of 1999) and Zharmakhan Tuyakbay (2005).

However, not all opposition leaders and activists have expressed their support for Kosanov. For example, the leader of the opposition movement DCK Mukhtar Ablyazov called for a boycott of the election.

Some civil society activists and opposition activists have called Kosanov a project of the authorities to legitimise the election in the eyes of Kazakhstan and the international community. Kosanov is being accused of.

  • Not engaging in an open confrontation with the authorities and not taking part in protests [1], [2].
  • Doesn't have his own political power. Kosanov's candidacy in the presidential election was put forward by the national-patriotic public association “Ult Tagdyry” (Fate of the Nation), of which he is not a member. The leader of the association, Dosmakhanbet Koshim, was a member of the council of the Public Chamber under the Mazhilis of the Parliament of Kazakhstan and a member of the Land Reform Commission.
    It is noteworthy that on 23 May 2019, Omirbay Sabyrov, the Chairman of the Zhambyl regional branch of “Ult Tagdyry”, submitted an appeal to the Chairman of the Central Election Commission and the Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan. The appeal states that the Zhambyl branch of “Ult Tagdyry” did not participate in the general meeting of the organisation, during which it was decided to nominate Kosanov as a candidate for the post of President. According to Sabyrov, the organisation's leadership falsified the documents of its Zhambyl regional branch. The Zhambyl regional branch called to declare illegal the minutes of the general meeting of “Ult Tagdyry”, where it was decided to nominate Amirzhan Kosanov as a presidential candidate, and to exclude him from the lists of candidates
  • Kosanov's election campaign manager is Dauren Babamuratov – a member of the Almaty Public Council and a member of the Ak Zhol party. He is known for his positive assessment of Nursultan Nazarbayev's performance as President. In particular, according to Babamuratov, thanks to Nazarbayev, the whole world began to talk about the “phenomenon of the ‘Kazakhstani model of development’”.
    Activists also drew attention to the fact that Kosanov advertised trainings for observers from the civil platform “Amanat” on his Instagram page. Representatives of this organisation in Almaty and Nur-Sultan (Astana) are Kazybek Shaikh and Arman Nurgazin, respectively. Shaikh is a member of the Almaty Public Council, and Arman Nurgazin is deputy chairman of the Saryarka branch of the Nur Otan party.
  • Like other participants in the presidential race, Amirzhan Kosanov was able to collect the necessary 118,000 signatures in his support in a short time. At the same time, Kosanov does not have a political party, whose resources could be used to collect signatures. Kosanov announced the beginning of signature collection on 1 May 2019, and already on 4 May 2019 his headquarters reported that all signatures had been collected. On 6 May 2019, Kosanov was officially registered as a presidential candidate.

Financing of the candidates' election campaigns

According to Article 34 of the Law “On Elections”, in Kazakhstan the election fund of candidates consists of:

  • Personal funds of the candidate and funds of political parties, which should not exceed 510 million tenge (about 1.2 million euros) in the 2019 election.
  • Funds allocated to the candidate by the public association that nominated him, which should not exceed 638 million tenge (about 1.5 million euros) in the 2019 election.
  • Voluntary donations from citizens and legal entities. At the same time, the law prohibitsdonations fromstate bodies and organisations, local self-government bodies, and charitable and religious organisations. Anonymous donations are also prohibited.

The law also provides for the financing of election campaigns of candidates from the state budget. For the upcoming presidential election, 7.5 million tenge (about 18,000 euros) was allocated to each candidate.

According to Article 34 of the Law “On Elections”, violation of the rules for financing of the election campaign by the candidate leads to the cancellation of their registration, and in the event of winning the election, the cancellation of the election results.

According to the official data of the CEC, as of 29 May 2019, the following amounts of money had been received by the candidates' election funds:

  • Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev– 624,824,570 tenge (about 1.5 million euros) in voluntary contributions and 510,000,000 tenge (about 1.2 million euros) from the Nur Otan party.
  • Sadi-Bek Tugel – 102,272,000 tenge (about 240,000 euros) in voluntary contributions and 20,200,000 tenge (about 47,000 euros) from the public association “Uly Dala Kyrandary”.
  • Zhambyl Akhmetbekov– 128,000,480 tenge (about 300,000 euros) in voluntary contributions and 310,000,000 tenge (about 724,000 euros) from personal and party funds.
  • Daniya Espaeva– 250,865,000 tenge (about 586,000 euros) in voluntary contributions; personal and party funds were not received.
  • Amangeldy Taspikhov– 272,856,000 tenge (about 637,000 euros) in voluntary contributions, 3,200,000 tenge (about 7,500 euros) of personal funds and funds from the Federation of Trade Unions of Kazakhstan.
  • Toleutai Rahimbekov – 94,290,300 tenge (about 220,000 euros) in voluntary contributions, 124,046,818 tenge (about 290,000 euros) from personal and party funds.
  • Amirzhan Kosanov– 35,974,855 tenge (about 84,000 euros) in voluntary contributions and 76,000,000 tenge (about 180,000 euros) from personal funds and funds of the public association Ult Tagdyry.

Of all the candidates, Amirzhan Kosanov can be considered the most public person after President Kasim-Zhomart Tokayev. Kosanov's election headquarters has an official website, and Kosanov himself has social media pages, where he informs the public about meetings with voters. However, his campaign received about 84 thousand euros in voluntary contributions. This is several times less than the amount of voluntary contributions to the accounts of other candidates. The CEC website reports that all candidates submitted income and property declarations. However, the declarations have not been published, which raises the question of the transparency of the sources of funding.

Campaigning

The election campaigns of candidates are limited by the legislation on peaceful assemblies. Candidates may hold public campaign events (meetings with voters, debates, rallies, marches and demonstrations) only with the permission of local authorities. An application for holding a public event must be submitted 10 days before the planned event.

Authorities are trying to increase interest in the election

Thanks to the inclusion of a nominally opposition politician and a woman in the list of candidates, the authorities of Kazakhstan were able to draw the attention of citizens to the topic of the election. This can also increase the turnout in the upcoming election and, therefore, its legitimacy. Google Trends statistics show that in May 2019, among all presidential candidates, Internet users were most often interested in the person of the incumbent President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev and the nominally opposition candidate Amirzhan Kosanov. In some periods of the time studied, there was a surge of interest in the person of Daniya Espaeva. Interest in other candidates was minimal.

Graph of the dynamics of references to candidates for the President of Kazakhstan in Google search queries

This indicates that there is a demand for new politicians in Kazakhstani society. After all, before Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned from his position as President and announced early elections, the dynamics of Internet searches queries with the mention of all candidates, including Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, were practically at zero level.

Dynamics of the references to Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev and Amirzhan Kosanov in Google search queries during the year before the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev. The number of queries mentioning Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev (blue line) increased sharply in March 2019

The ban on opinion polls

Sociological studies of citizens' electoral attitudes are regulated by the election legislation. In fact, such research can only be conducted by organisations loyal to the authorities. Thus, the authorities of Kazakhstan are trying to prevent the dissemination of information about the real rating of candidates for the post of President and the potential turnout in the election.

On 8 May 2019, the General Prosecutor's Office of Kazakhstan issued a press release explaining the procedure for conducting “election polls”. The Prosecutor's Office reported that they had identified facts about online public opinion polls conducted on the Internet. One legal entity (Internet portal Nur.kz) and one individual (Talgat Salykov) were brought to administrative responsibility. Salykov conducted a survey on the upcoming elections among his friends in the social network platform VKontakte.

There are at least two other cases of administrative responsibility for conducting social network surveys. Civic activist Nur Itzhanov from Taldykorgan conducted a public opinion poll about the election on his Facebook page. As a result, he was fined 37875 tenge (about 90 euros). Almaty resident Marat Shibutov was summoned to the court after he conducted a survey on his Facebook page entitled “Will you go to the June 9 presidential election?”.

The Prosecutor General's Office reported that according to paragraph 9, Article 28 of the Law “On Elections”, only legal entities having at least 5 years of experience in conducting public opinion polls are entitled to conduct such polls, having notified the Central Election Commission in writing in advance. In fact, however, the law referred to by the Prosecutor's Office does not contain a categorical provision that only legal persons may conduct polls. The law says that “public opinion polling may be conducted by legal entities”, i.e. there is no direct ban on conducting of such polls by individuals.

In fact, the Prosecutor General's Office, through its own interpretation of the law, has outlawed the conduct of independent opinion polls on the topic elections in Kazakhstan. Even for legal entities, it will be problematic to meet all the required criteria. Only a handful of organisations that have shown a high percentage of support for Nursultan Nazarbayev and Nur Otan in previous presidential and parliamentary elections will be able to conduct sociological research.

Dependence of election commissions

According to the Law “On Elections”, the President and every chamber of parliament each appoint two members of the Central Election Commission (CEC). The President appoints the head of the CEC independently. In 2016, Nursultan Nazarbayev appointed Berik Imashev as head of the CEC. Imashev's daughter, Aida Imasheva, is the wife of Nurali Nazarbayev, son of Nursultan Nazarbayev's daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva.

Also, 232 territorial election commissions and 9970 precinct election commissions participate in the organisation the election. The composition of territorial and precinct election commissions is determined by maslikhats (local councils) on the basis of proposals of political parties, which may nominate individuals who are not their members.

Currently, there are 7 political parties officially registered in Kazakhstan, of which only 6 are actually active. Opposition political forces are not able to pass the registration procedure or are banned at all, as in the case of, for example, the opposition movement DCK and the Alga party. Thus, election commissions are fully composed of representatives of pro-governmental parties or parties loyal to the authorities.

Mass media

Over the past few years, almost all independent media outlets in Kazakhstan have been eliminated. At the same time, the authorities continue to limit the space for free media activities.

On 1 January 2016, amendments to the Law “on Mass Media” entered into force. The Law provides that the online media infrastructure should be located exclusively in Kazakhstan. On 1 January 2017, new amendments to the Law “on Communications” came into force in Kazakhstan, which allow special services to block the work of social networks and access to Internet resources without a court decision. On 25 October 2018, the government of Kazakhstan adopted a resolution that provides law enforcement agencies with the right to block the Internet “in the event of a potential or actual social, natural or technical emergency”.

In Kazakhstan, defamation, dissemination of false information, insult and incitement to social, national and racial discord have been criminalised. These charges are systematically used against political opponents and critics of the authorities.

Internet blockages

On 9 May 2019, the NetBlocks group, which monitors the global freedom of the Internet, noted the massive blocking of access to some social networks, messengers and news sites by Internet providers in Kazakhstan. Access was completely blocked or significantly restricted on 9 May between 7 A.M. and 2 P.M. On the same day, Internet blockage in Venezuela was not as widespread as in Kazakhstan.

NetBlocks suggested that the blockages were linked to calls by opposition groups to protest on 9 May, and noted that the authorities had previously resorted to blocking social networks and messengers in order to limit access to online broadcasts of opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov. Blockages of access to social media in Kazakhstan during live broadcasts by Mukhtar Ablyazov were also noted in the Freedom House report “Freedom of the Net 2018”.

Information Minister Dauren Abaev explained that the reason for unavailability of the Internet on 9 May was “technical problems in the work of providers”. The authorities do not officially confirm that blockages of the Internet are linked to the activities of Mukhtar Ablyazov. However, in February 2019, KaR-Tel, which provides cellular communication and Internet services in Kazakhstan, reported that access to YouTube in Kazakhstan was blocked at the time of activities of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan”. The leader of the DCK opposition movement is Mukhtar Ablyazov.

On 17 May 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur Ní Aoláin expressed her concern about the widespread blockages of the Internet in Kazakhstan. According to her, security considerations should not be used as a pretext to limit the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

4. Mass peaceful rallies were held in the run-up to the elections, with participants subjected to harsh detention, pressure and criminal prosecution

Nursultan Nazarbayev's formal resignation from the post of President provoked another wave of anti-government rallies. Several thousand citizens took part in peaceful protests, criticising the actions of the authorities and, in particular, demanding a fair election or calling for a boycott of the election.

The last time such a number of Kazakhstanis took to the streets was in 2016 during social protests against the Land Reform. However, a significant difference is that the March-May 2019 protests were initially based on political demands and became the most widespread protests in recent years.

The opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) called for peaceful protests. In March 2018, at the request of the Prosecutor's Office, the Kazakhstani court recognised the DCK as an ‘extremist’ organisation. The decision states that the DCK “incites social discord”, “forms a negative image of power” and “encourages political disobedience”. Referring to the court's decision, the General Prosecutor's Office of Kazakhstan criminalised “positive approval” of the ideas of the DCK and its leader Mukhtar Ablyazov, in particular their support in social networks and participation in rallies.

Based on the decision to ban the DCK, from March 2018 to June 2019, more than 1,000 people were arbitrarily detained for participating in peaceful rallies. More than 30 people were prosecuted for participating in rallies and criticising the authorities in social networks (four of them – Ablovas Dzhumayev, Aset Abishev, Almat Zhumagulov and Kenzhebek Abishev – were sentenced to prison terms). As of November 2018, 129 citizens of Kazakhstan, who were victims of these persecutions, had provided the Open Dialogue Foundation with powers of attorney and documents on their cases. Based on these documents, the Foundation prepared a collective complaint to the EU, UN, Council of Europe and OSCE bodies.

In the run-up to the presidential election, mass detentions, as well as pressure and criminal prosecutions, increased again. The victims of these persecutions are sending the Open Dialogue Foundation their appeals and powers of attorney with the request to protect their rights. In the period from 21 March to 3 June 2019, we received documents from more than 80 people, and appeals continue to be received. In addition, we created the Facebook group #IHaveAChoiсe #ActivistsNotExtremists, in which more than 700 activists from different regions of Kazakhstan are reporting on current facts of persecution for participating in peaceful rallies.

In March-May 2019, three large rallies were held in Kazakhstan, where peaceful protesters raised, among others, questions about the following incidents related to the upcoming election:

  • Peaceful protests on 21-22 March 2019. On these days, in Nur-Sultan (Astana), Almaty, Shymkent, Aktobe, Aktau and Uralsk, hundreds of people protested against the renaming of Astana to Nur-Sultan (in honour of Nazarbayev) and demanded improvement in social security. According to journalists and observers, more than 140 people, including minors, were detained in Nur-Sultan (Astana) and Almaty [1], [2], [3].
    Following the rallies on March 21-22, calls for anti-government protests across Kazakhstan began to spread across social networks on May 1. Due to this fact, on 29 April 2019, the Prosecutor General's Office issued a press release warning about administrative and criminal responsibility for participation in unsanctioned rallies.
  • Peaceful protests on 1 May 2019. According to various estimates,from one thousand to three thousand people took part in the protests in the major cities of Kazakhstan – Almaty, Nur-Sultan (Astana), Aktobe, Semey, Karaganda and Shymkent. They expressed their dissatisfaction with the actions of the authorities, opposed the renaming of Astana, and demanded the improvement of social security and the cessation of political persecution. Slogans were used in support of a fair election or calling for an election boycott: “We have a choice”, “Tokayev is not my President”, “Boycott the election”, “No to the dictatorship”.
    Police detained peaceful protesters with brute force. The video recordings show police beating protesters with rubber truncheons in Nur-Sultan (Astana). A local resident, Yermekbol Tleuhan, confirmed that he had been hit with a baton on his legs and stomach.
    The Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that in Nur-Sultan (Astana) and Almaty, 80 people were brought to the police stations for “shouting the slogans of the banned extremist organisation DCK”. According to journalists and observers, about 200 protesters were detained in Almaty and Nur-Sultan (Astana). Several protesters were also detained in Karaganda. In other cities, protesters were watched by police and intelligence agencies.
    We managed to gather information about 23 individuals (13 in Nur-Sultan and 10 in Almaty) who were sentenced to 10-15-day administrative arrests for their participation in the rally on 1 May. Administrative fines ranging from 120 to 200 euros were imposed on 5 people in Nur-Sultan and 5 people in Almaty.
  • Detentions of peaceful protesters on 9 May 2019. After the protests on 1 May 2019, appeals to hold another rally on 9 May 2019, when Kazakhstan celebrates Day of Victory In World War II, began to spread in social networks. On 8 May 2019, the Prosecutor General's Office once again warned about the responsibility for participation in unsanctioned rallies. On 9 May 2019, activists were arbitrarily detained in Nur-Sultan (Astana), Aktau, Semey, Uralsk, Shymkent, Kyzylorda, Karaganda and Aktobe. Based on information gathered from the regions, we know that on 9 May 2019, at least 41 people across the country were detained and taken to police stations. Almost all of them were released after interrogation.
    During interrogations, detainees were asked what their political beliefs were, what their attitude towards the authorities was, whether they supported the DCK, and whether they subscribed to the DCK pages on social networks. Law enforcement officers took their phones from them and checked their correspondence on social networks.

In all the cities where the rallies were held, law enforcement agencies carried out preventive detentions. Before the planned meetings, the police conducted surveillance over the houses of activists and detained them near their homes for the intentionto participate in the rallies.

In Almaty, several activists (in particular, Madina Kuketova, Saule Seydahmetova and 75-year-old Raisa Dyusembaeva) showed injuries and hematomas resulting from the detention on 1 May 2019. Zhanbota Alzhanova, detained on 9 May 2019 in Nur-Sultan (Astana), is now trying to bring to justice the police officers who caused her hematomas. Alzhanova was detained after she posted a picture on social networks in which she “held” an imaginary poster.

On 17 May 2019 in Nur-Sultan (Astana), Darkhan Umirbayev shouted “boycott the unfair election” from the balcony of his apartment. 15 minutes later, the police arrived and detained him. The police used a stun gun and choked him in the presence of his young children. His wife, Dinara Abisheva, reported that she was also paralysed with a stun gun. Darkhan Umirbayev was sentenced to 2 days of administrative arrest for “disobedience to police officers”.

Criminal prosecutions

Several participants in the March-May 2019 protests were prosecuted on charges of “participation in the activities of the organisation after its recognition as extremist” (Part 2 of Article 405 of the Criminal Code):

  • Oksana Shevchuk – participant of the rallies on 22 March and 1 May 2019. On 9 May 2019, Shevchuk and her 7-month-old baby were put in a prisoner transport vehicle and taken to the police station at 1 P.M., where they were held for 12 hours. The personal search report search states that “E.M. Shevchuk, born in 2018,”was present at the investigative actions. At 9 P.M., Shevchuk and her baby were placed in a temporary detention facility. Shevchuk stresses that she was not allowed to change her baby's diaper and that the baby did not have warm clothes. At midnight, they were released from temporary detention and allowed to go home. Ombudsman for Children's Rights in the Republic of Kazakhstan, Saule Aitpayeva, said she had “not heard” about this case. Minister of Internal Affairs Yerlan Turgumbayev told the journalists: “She wasn't held there with an infant, I repeat”.
    Shevchuk was accused under Part 2 of Article 405 (“participation in an extremist organisation”). The notification on suspicion of committing a crime states that she “actively supported the ideas of the DCK and Ablyazov”, who “called on the public to participate in unsanctioned rallies on 22 March and 1 May 2019”. Investigators noted that at the rallies, Shevchuk shouted out ideas “forming a negative image of the current government”. On 31 May 2019, Shevchuk was summoned to a court session to elect a preventive measure. She was forced to stay outside the court building with her baby from 7 P.M. to 11 P.M. At night, the judge only started the hearing and immediately postponed the trial the next day. On Saturday, 1 June 2019, Shevchuk was placed under house arrest for 2 months. In addition to the infant, she has three other young children. She can visit a hospital with her children only with the permission of the police.
  • Participants of the May 1 rallies from Almaty, Zhazira Demeuova, Gulzipa Dzhaukerova and Sabyrzhan Kasenov, have also become suspects under Part 2 of Article 405 of the Criminal Code. They were repeatedly detained and taken to the police for questioning. On Saturday, 1 June 2019, Dzhaukerova and Demeuova were preventive measure in the form of house arrest for a period of 2 months. As in the case of Oksana Shevchuk, the night before 31 May 2019, Zhazira Demeuova had to stay with her children in the courtyard until 11 P.M. waiting for the trial. Because of her house arrest, Gulzipa Dzhaukerova is unable to provide her younger 9-year-old child with proper special care, as he is sick and needs to take walks in the fresh air and be supervised by doctors. Zhazira Demeuova, mother of three children, is deprived of the opportunity to feed her family while under house arrest. Previously, she worked in the insurance industry, but now the police have taken away her computers, phones and even children's tablets.
  • On the day of the rally on 22 March 2019, Yerkin Kaziev (Almaty) was detained by police officers, after which they began to search his house in the absence of a lawyer. According to Kaziev, about 20 people took part in the search and detention. He was dragged along the asphalt, face down and handcuffed. Late in the evening of 30 April 2019, on the eve of the rally on May 1, police came to Kaziev's house and detained him with brute force. Kaziev reported that as a result of police brutality, he suffered a serious leg injury (doctors suspect a bone fracture and put a plaster cast) and a dislocated shoulder. Like other activists, Kaziev is suspected under Part 2 of Article 405 of the Criminal Code. He was placed under house arrest for two months.
  • On 27 February 2019 in Semey, near the office of the presidential party “Nur Otan”, Timur Irzhanuly displayed a children's diaper with an inscription: “Presidents should be changed more often, like diapers”. For this he was accused of extremism (under Part 2 of Article 405 of the Criminal Code). According to him, the police promised to stop the prosecution if he “publicly repents on social networks”. On 29 May 2019, Irzhanuly was sentenced to 1 year suspended sentence and 100 hours of community service. In addition, the court forbade him to use social networks.

Activists summoned to military service

The authorities of Kazakhstan began to apply a new way to get rid of undesirable activists – calling them to military service. Kazakhstan has a general military service, and all men who are not entitled to a postponement or exemption have to undergo conscription. Thus, the authorities are trying to isolate social activists, because in the army conditions they will have limited opportunities to communicate with the outside world. In addition, military personnel in Kazakhstan are prohibited from supporting any political party or participating in protest actions. Cases of the use of military registration and enlistment offices to intimidate activists have already been recorded in 4 cities of Kazakhstan:

  • On 21 April 2019 during a marathon in Almaty, Beibarys Tolymbekov and Asya Tulesova hung a banner with the inscriptions: “You can't run away from the truth” and “I have a choice”. For this, they were sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest. Amnesty International recognized Tolymbekov and Tulesova as prisoners of conscience. On 17 May 2019, Beibarys Tolymbekov was taken to the army. Fearing for his safety, he requested a deferral, but the authorities ignored his appeal. Human rights activists fear that in the army he will face retaliation for his public activism.
  • On 6 May 2019, Aslan Sagutdinov was standing in the centre of Uralsk, holding an empty sheet of paper. For this, he was detained by the police. According to the police, the reason for the detention was “statements about the lack of democracy and freedom of speech in Kazakhstan”. On 15 May 2019, the military registration and enlistment office handed Sagutdinov a summons, although in 2016 he was declared unfit for service. Sagutdinov's case received wide publicity, including in foreign media. After that, on 18 May 2019, the press service of the Ministry of Defence stated that the “second medical commission” “recognised Sagutdinov unfit” for military service. The high-level response from the Ministry of Defence was another confirmation of the political background of the case.
  • In March-May 2019, an activist from Almaty, Daniyar Khasenov received 3 summons from the military registration and enlistment office, despite the fact that he is a student and cannot be drafted into the army. Khasenov attends politically motivated trials as an observer from the Italian Federation for Human Rights and the member of the European Parliament Julie Ward. Khasenov said that a local administration official warned his relatives that he and his family might face criminal liability for his social activities.
    Daniyar Khasenov published a letter to the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who visited Kazakhstan on 31 May 2019. Daniyar is one of the co-authors of the letter, which has already been signed by more than 1000 people. In the letter, the activists, referring to the resolution of the European Parliament on Kazakhstan of 14 March 2019, asked Donald Tusk to raise the issue of human rights in the country. The activists reported on mass detentions of peaceful protesters, blockages of the Internet, the presence of political prisoners and criminal prosecutions of political opponents, and also expressed their position on the illegitimacy of the upcoming election and its uncompetitive nature. The letter received wide publicity in Kazakhstan, after which, according to Khasenov, the NSC began to pressure his family members, threatening them with dismissal from their jobs. Daniyar was also expelled from the university and criminally prosecuted.
  • Alimzhan Izbasarov (Nur-Sultan) and Berikbol Sadybai (Almaty), who were subjected to administrative arrest for their participation in the May 1 rally, received summons from the military registration and enlistment office. Izbasarov covered the May 1 rally live and also tried to negotiate with the police requesting the release of detainees. As a result, under pressure from the protesters, the police released the detained activists from two buses, but subsequently detained Izbasarov himself. Izbassarov is also known for his video messages on social networks, in which he expresses his support for the protesters, voices his opinion on the upcoming election and calls on the police not to follow illegal orders. On 3 June 2019, said that he was being drafted into the army on 5 June 2019.
  • On 22 May 2019 in Aktau, the activist Marat Oskenali received a summons from the military registration and enlistment office. It is noteworthy that in 2013 he was declared unfit for military service. Oskenali attributes the use of the military registration and enlistment office to his participation in the Facebook challenges “I never voted for Nazarbayev” and “Nur-Sultan is not my capital. Tokayev is not my President. Dariga is not my Senate Speaker”.

5. Conclusions and recommendations

In 2011 and 2015, Nazarbayev won, respectively, 95% and 97% of the vote, but none of the elections were recognised as free and fair by international observers. The OSCE and the United States called the previous elections non-compliant with standards, noting the lack of competition and the widespread use of administrative resources.

The upcoming extraordinary election of the President of Kazakhstan will be held for the first time without the participation of Nursultan Nazarbayev. The authorities turned the election process into an imitation in order to create the appearance of democratic processes in a situation where the winner is known in advance.

The situation in the country is becoming more and more destabilised due to the absurdly repressive policy and lack of dialogue with society. Protest moods in the society are growing rapidly. At the same time, the authorities persecute all those who demand fair and independent election and protest peacefully.

Strict electoral legislation almost entirely excludes the possibility for independent candidates to participate in elections. Thus, Kazakhstan violates the requirements of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which does not allow the restriction of passive suffrage on the grounds of language and political opinion.

The Open Dialogue Foundation calls on the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission, the European Union Delegation to Kazakhstan, and the diplomatic missions of foreign countries to:

  • Draw attention to factors that make it impossible to hold credible elections and that seriously question their legitimacy, namely: lack of political pluralism and competition, electoral legislation that is not in line with international standards, discriminatory policies against opposition political forces, mass arbitrary detentions of peaceful protesters seeking fair elections, criminal prosecutions of critics of the authorities, bias of the Central Election Commission and lower-level commissions, lack of transparency in the financing of candidates’ election campaigns, lack of space for independent media and the actual ban on independent opinion polls on the topic of elections.
  • Require the Kazakhstani authorities to bring the election legislation in line with international standards for fair elections.
  • Demand that the Kazakhstani authorities cease discriminatory policies used against opposition political forces and politicians.
  • Pay attention to the facts of persecution of civil society representatives during the pre-election period and publicly condemn the actions of the authorities.
  • Demand that the Kazakhstani authorities immediately cease harassment and pressure on activists who support fair elections.
  • Demand that the authorities of Kazakhstan comply with their human rights obligations, as well as immediately release all political prisoners and stop politically motivated persecution in the country.

See also:

  1. The rigged June 2019 presidential elections in Kazakhstan: a simulated handover of power in the state
  2. Recommendations on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan in view of upcoming Presidential election on June 9