Party politics is not very developed in Kazakhstan. Loyalty to family, region, clan and ethnic group are often more important. Politics in an all the Central Asian states has been described as secretive and clannish. In many ways politics in Kazakhstan is still rooted in traditional Kazakh society; principals has revolved around herding animals and allegiances to clans and tribes.

Political power is in the hands of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his family and close advisors (See History, Executive Branch under Government). But close government control of legal political parties has not prevented numerous groups from forming. Participation in 1994 and 1995 parliamentary elections limited to approved parties, but 1994 parliament strongly opposed many of Nazarbayev's programs. Election of 1994 declared invalid, and parliament dissolved in early 1995. Nazarbayev's People's Unity Party retained plurality in 1995 elections. Several Kazakh and Russian nationalist parties with small representation in government. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Since the mid 1990s the political scene in Kazakhstan has been pretty quite as Nazarbayev has clamped down on opposition and made it difficult for political parties to organize. Intermedia Survey Institute, a group that has conducted several polls in Kazakhstan, said that its results may represent reality because the responses it gets “may reflect some wariness by respondents to express their true attitudes.”

Party politics in Kazakhstan have not worked well, although a substantial opposition movement exists. In the 1990s, despite efforts by the ruling People's Unity Party (SNEK) to minimize opposition activity, the top three opposition parties gained twenty-two of sixty-seven seats in the lower house (Majilis) of parliament in the December 1995 elections, and another fourteen seats went to independent candidates. Indicating the inferior role of parliament in the Kazakhstani government, however, was the lack of competition in those elections; only forty-nine candidates vied for the forty Senate (upper-house) seats being contested. In both houses, Kazakhs outnumbered Russians, by forty-two to nineteen in the Majilis and by twenty-nine to fifteen in the Senate (the president appoints seven senators). [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Traditional attitudes sometimes hindered women from holding high office or playing active roles in political life, although there were no legal restrictions on the participation of women or minorities in politics. As of September there were one female deputy prime minister, two female ministers, 28 female members of the Mazhilis (lower house of parliament), and three female senators. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Political Parties and Organizations in Kazakhstan

There are a lot of political parties in Kazakhstan but they don’t really have any power or influence. The 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. 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. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

Economic and ethnic differentiation in Kazakhstan has led to the appearance of more than 2,000 social organizations, movements, political parties, and social action funds across a broad political spectrum in the 1990s. Although Nazarbayev prevented electoral participation by many opposition parties, the formation and reformation of parties and coalitions have occurred at a rapid pace in the postindependence years. In the parliamentary election of December 1995, thirty parties and other organizations registered candidates. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Political Parties and Leaders in Kazakhstan: 1) Ak Zhol Party (Bright Path) led by Azat Peruashev; 2) Alga led by Vladimir Kozlov (Unregistered and Banned as Extremist in November 2012); 3) Auyl (Village) led by Gani Kaliyev; 4) Azat (Freedom) Party led by Bolat Abilov (Formerly True Ak Zhol Party); 5) Birlik (Unity) led by Seril Sultangali (Birlik Is an April 2013 Merger of Adilet (Justice; Formerly Democratic Party of Kazakhstan) and Rukhaniyat (Spirituality)); 6) Communist Party of Kazakhstan or KPK led by Serikbolsyn Abdildin (suspended by court decision); 7) Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan led by Vladislav Kosarev; 8) National Social Democratic Party or NSDP led by Zharmakhan Tuyakbay; 9)Nur Otan (Fatherland's Ray of Light) led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, Nurlan Nigmatulin (The Agrarian, Asar, and Civic Parties Merged with Otan); 10) Patriots' Party led by Gani Kasymov.

Political Pressure Groups and Leaders: 1) Adil-soz led by Tamara Kaleyeva; 2) Almaty Helsinki Committee led by Ninel Fokina; 3) Confederation of Free Trade Unions led by Sergei Belkin; 4) For Fair Elections led by Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Sabit Zhusupov, Sergey Duvanov, Ibrash Nusupbayev; 5) Kazakhstan International Bureau on Human Rights led by Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Chairman of Bureau's Council, Roza Akylbekova, director; 6) Khalyk Maidany (Peoples' Front) — an informal union between the unregistered Alga Party, the unregistered Communist Party of Kazakhstan, and several opposition-oriented civil society groups, banned in November 2012 led by no formal leader; 7) Pan-National Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan led by Zharmakhan Tuyakbay; 8) Pensioners Movement or Pokoleniye led by Irina Savostina, chairwoman; 9) Republican Network of International Monitors led by Daniyar Livazov; 10) Transparency International led by Sergey Zlotnikov.

Restrictions on Political Parties in Kazakhstan

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. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ Political parties must register members’ personal information, including date and place of birth, address, and place of employment. This requirement discouraged many citizens from joining political parties. There were credible allegations authorities pressured persons entering government service to join the Nur Otan Party. There are nine political parties registered, including Ak Zhol, Birlik, and Auyl. One party remained registered even though it was defunct, leaving eight functioning parties. These parties generally did not oppose President Nazarbayev’s policies.[Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

In order to register, a political party must hold a founding congress with minimum attendance of 1,000 delegates, including representatives from two-thirds of the oblasts and the cities of Astana and Almaty. Parties must obtain at least 700 signatures from each oblast and the cities of Astana and Almaty, registration from the CEC, and registration from each oblast-level election commission. Opposition parties have not been able to register. *\

The government makes it hard for the opposition to campaign. They are not given access to the media and laws prohibit their ability to stage rallies. Opposition candidates complain that campaign materials have been stolen, newspapers supporting them have been seized and they places they have been allowed to hold rallies has been less than ideal.

Political Parties Loyal to President Nazarbayev

Nur Otan (Fatherland's Ray of Light) is the party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 1999, two of the main pro-Nazarbayev parties—the Party of People's Unity (the former Communist Party) and the Democratic Party—merged to form the Otan (“Fatherland”) party.

In the 1990s, one type of party that failed to thrive in Kazakhstan was a "presidential party" that would serve as a training ground for future officials, as well as a conduit for their advancement. Nazarbayev lost control of his first two attempts at forming parties, the Socialists and the People's Congress Party (NKK). The latter particularly, under the leadership of former Nazarbayev ally Olzhas Suleymenov, became a center of parliamentary opposition. Nazarbayev's third party, the People's Unity Party (SNEK), remained loyal to the president, although it was unable, even with considerable government help, to elect enough deputies to give Nazarbayev control of the 1994-95 parliament. SNEK formally incorporated itself as a political party in February 1995. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

There are a handful of parties authorized by Nazarbayev. In the 1990s, the Asar Party adopted rhetoric of the opposition but was essentially loyal to the President. It eventually merged with Nur Otan. See Elections, President’s Family

Political Parties in the 1990s

In September 1991, when Kazakhstan became independent, the Communist Party of Kazakhstan was renamed the Socialist Party.. Other parties—such as the Republican Party, the Social Democratic Party and the Alash Party of National Independence—were launched. By 2003 there were seven political parties, of which four had seats in the Parliament.

With the exception of SNEK and some smaller entities, such as the Republican Party and an entrepreneurial association known as For Kazakhstan's Future, most of Kazakhstan's parties and organizations had little or no influence on presidential decision making. Because privatization and the deteriorating economy left most citizens much worse off than they were in the early 1990s, most of the republic's organizations and parties had an oppositional or antipresidential character. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Communist Party of Kazakhstan, declared illegal in 1991, was allowed to re-register in 1993. The Socialist Democratic Party was small. Both parties made poor showings in the 1994 election, but two former communist organizations, the State Labor Union (Profsoyuz) and the Peasants' Union, managed to take eleven and four seats, respectively. *

Nationalist Groups in Kazakhstan

At least four large Kazakh nationalist movements were active in the mid-1990s. Three of them — Azat (Freedom), the Republican Party, and Zheltoksan (December) — attempted to form a single party under the name Azat, with the aim of removing "colonialist" foreign influences from Kazakhstan. The fourth movement, Alash (named for the legendary founder of the Kazakh nation, as well as for the pre-Soviet nationalist party of the same name), refused to join such a coalition because it advocated a more actively nationalist and pro-Muslim line than did the other three parties. In the March 1994 election, Azat and the Republicans were the only nationalist parties to run candidates. They elected just one deputy between them. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Four exclusively Russian political organizations in Kazakhstan have nationalist or federative agendas. These are Yedinstvo (Unity), Civic Contract, Democratic Progress, and Lad (Harmony). Party registration procedures for the 1994 election made places on the ballot very difficult to obtain for the Russian nationalist groups. Although Lad was forced to run its candidates without party identification, four deputies were elected with ties to that party.

The Russian group most unsettling to the Nazarbayev government was the Cossacks, who were denied official registration, as well as recognition of their claimed status as a distinct ethnic group in the northeast and northwest. Not permitted to drill, carry weapons, or engage in their traditional military activities, Kazakhstan's Cossacks have, in increasing numbers, crossed the border into Russia, where restrictions are not as tight.

Opposition in Kazakhstan

The opposition is tolerated but closely monitored and reigned in when deemed necessary. The election law of 2002 made it nearly impossible for new political parties to form. According to the law a party can only be registered if it has 50,000 members spread across the country. Of the 19 parties that existed at the time the law was ennacted only three-pro-presidential ones were expected to survive.

In the early 2000s, Ak Zhol, the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, was the main tolerated opposition party. It was headed by Bulat Abilov. Members included young politicians once regarded as proteges of Nazarbayev.

The Democratic Choice party was formed in November 2001 with the aim of democratizing Kazakhstan. Its founderd include a deputy prime minister and several government ministers. All were fired from the government after the party was formed. Its leaders were imprisoned and charged with corrupt abuse of power. When the Democratic Choice Party was headed by Gulzhan Ergaliyeva it had formed a bloc with the Communist Party.

In 1994 parliament's success at countering presidential power encouraged the legislators, many of whom were connected with the former Soviet ruling elite, to use their training in the political infighting of Soviet bureaucracy to form effective antipresidential coalitions. Ironically, these coalitions were the only political groupings in the republic that transcended ethnic differences. The Respublika group was elastic enough to contain both Kazakh and Russian nationalists, and the Otan-Otechestvo organization forged a coalition of Kazakhs, Russians, and even Cossacks who desired a return to Soviet-style political and social structures. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

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. [Source: Library of Congress, December, 2006 **]

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. **

One major opposition figure, Mukhtar Ablyazov, a media baron and former energy minister, was imprisoned for more than six years. Another opposition figure, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov suffered from health problems while he was detained In 2004, the only political prisoner was allowed to leave prison and run the main opposition from house arrest. In 2005 a opposition party and newspaper was banned.

Political Advantages of Kazakhs

Anatoly M. Khazanov of the University of Wisconsin wrote: “At the same time, opportunities for social advancement in the political sphere are better for the Kazakhs than for other ethnic groups in the republic. Through various kinds of official and unofficial affirmative actions, they are over-represented in virtually all republican foci of power. The number of Kazakh humanitarian intelligentsia and students also exceeds the ratio between Kazakhs and other ethnic groups. The reasons for this situation are quite obvious. [Source: Anatoly M. Khazanov, University of Wisconsin, August 2, 1994 ^|^]

“The successful implementation of colonial rule often depended on the participation of some of the indigenous population, and the Soviet policy towards Kazakhstan was no exception. The Soviets created in Kazakhstan completely new political and cultural elites. In these elites, ethnic Kazakhs outnumbered members of all other ethnic groups because the recruitmentto these elites was based, to a significant extent, on ethnic affiliation. An exception was made only for the most important position of the First Secretary of the Communist party of Kazakhstan. During the whole Soviet period only four of twenty-two of these secretaries were ethnic Kazakhs. ^|^

“The Kazakh political elite's privileged positions in the local power structures depended on their compliance with all of Moscow's demands and goals, and with their capabilities to implement policies dictated by the Center. In addition, they had to embrace the Russian language and—at least in public— some of Russian culture and life-style. In return Moscow gave them the right to run internal affairs in Kazakhstan and to distribute preferential treatment and high level jobs. In order to secure their support the Soviet regime reserved a significant percentage of these jobs for Kazakhs. ^|^

Politics, Nationalism and Ethnicity in Kazakhstan

Anatoly M. Khazanov of the University of Wisconsin wrote: “With the exception of the former Communist party, which was renamed the Socialist party at the end of 1991, all other political organizations, parties , and movements in Kazakhstan in 1988-1992 have been organized, or have split along ethnic lines. The paramount motivation behind the Kazakh organizations is to provide Kazakhs the privileged position in the country and to preserve its territorial integrity. Solzhenitsyn's proposal to annex Northern Kazakhstan, published in "How We Should Build Russia," led to the protests from a wide spectrum of Kazakh intelligentsia and youth and to the demonstrations in Alma Ata on September 21-23, 1990. These Kazakhs put forward counter demands that reminded the Russians that the Omsk oblast' in the Russian Federation was once Kazakh territory. Recently, the radical nationalist Kazakh organizations have issued the warning that if Solzhenitsyn on his current way from Vladivostok to Moscow dares to cross Kazakhstan's border, this will result in violent protest demonstrations and other actions. [Source: Anatoly M. Khazanov, University of Wisconsin, August 2, 1994 ^|^]

Beginning in 1988, the most outspoken champions of Kazakh nationalism started to call for a complete halt to in-migration of Russians into Kazakhstan. Significant numbers of Kazakhs do not hide their desire for Russians , Ukrainians, Germans, and other non-Kazakhs to leave Kazakhstan. The saying "We bid farewell to Germans [voluntary emigrating to Germany] and shake hands with them: we turn Russians out by kicking their backs" is rather popular nowadays in nationalistic circles. In 1992, a total of 370,000 non-Kazakhs, including about 250,000 Russians, left Kazakhstan. In the near future the situation may become even worse because it is expected that by the year 2000 at least I million more Kazakh youth will move from the rural areas to the cities. All political arguments ultimately boil down to whether the republic should evolve into a Kazakh ethnic state or a multiethnic national state. Kazakh nationalists use the "indigenous" question (and in addition, the consequences of Russian and Soviet colonialism) as an argument for providing them priority and special political status. In the political arena, Russians are already at a disadvantage. In the parliamentary elections of March 1994, which in the opinion of international observers were not free of the government's pressure and manipulation, Kazakhs won 103 of 177 seats (58 percent of the total number), Russians 49 seats, Ukrainians 10 seats, and the rest of the seats were won by members of other ethnic minorities. ^|^

“Many Kazakhs also worry that radical economic privatization and the transition to a market economy will hurt the descendants of pastoral nomads who do not have any tradition of commerce and free enterprise and will inhibit, rather than facilitate, the emergence of a strong Kazakh middle class. Remarkably enough, President Nazarbaev explained his antipathy to outright ownership of land by pointing out that to permit such ownership would be alien to the heritage and mentality of the former nomads. The last decree on the state farms' sale implies only short-term and long-term lease, but still not the private ownership of land. It is assumed that the Russian population should benefit more from the transition to the market economy. On the contrary, the Kazakh middle- and low-level bureaucracy and the strata with low income are more vulnerable, since they are more dependent on the state's control of the economy or on the state's support through budget allocations. ^|^

“The fight for a wider use of the Kazakh language in education, culture, and administrative practice relates not only to the growth of ethnic consciousness and the desire to prevent acculturation, but also to the mundane motivationto place the Kazakhs in more advantageous positions with respect to other ethnic groups. Not without reason, the Slays in the republic are afraid of the policy of "Kazakhization," which they consider an "infringement on other people's rights." While 62.8 percent of the Kazakhs know the Russian language, only 0.9 percent of the Russians and 0.6 percent of the Ukrainians in Kazakhstan can communicate in Kazakh. The language law of September 1989 that declared Kazakh to be the state language of Kazakhstan and required its eventual widespread use in public life, led to protests from the Russian-speaking population. ^|^

Politics and Russians in Kazakhstan

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “Kazakhstan is the only country in the region in which the Russian minority had a true political life in the 1990s. From independence, Russian activists took part in the democratization process, principally within the political party Lad and the association Russkaia Obshchina. In the 1994 regional elections, Lad won up to 80 percent of the local positions in cities demographically dominated by Russians, such as Temirtau, Aksu, Stepnoi gorod, Rudny, and Ust-Kamenogorsk. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“Yet with the passing of time, the growing repressiveness of the regime led the Russian minority to lose its representation in parliament. In the second half of the 1990s, Lad was content to participate in the various democratic platforms against President Nazarbayev, and suffered strong administrative, political, and legal pressures. Several leaders, forced by threats of violence, have immigrated to Russia. At the beginning of 2000s Lad ceased to exist as an independent political party, while, in the Peoples’ Assembly, the authorities have increasingly co-opted the second most prominent Russian association, the Russkaia Obshchina led by Yuri Bunakov. ^^

“Indeed, the authorities seek to widen the schisms within the representation of the Russians by supporting groups that favor rapprochement with the regime. Thus, in 2004 Lad divided into two movements. The first group, led by Ivan Klimoshenko, remains in the political opposition and supported the “For a Fair Kazakhstan” bloc during the presidential election in December 2005. The other group, led by Sergei Tereshchenko, prefers to pursue a strategy of collaboration with Nazarbayev. In addition, illegal commercial activities, personality clashes between leaders, and political radicalism have discredited the associations in the eyes of the Russian population. Ethnic agendas seemed to play no role in the 2005 presidential election. Nazarbayev received a large proportion of the vote, nearly 95 percent, in North Kazakhstan Region in spite of the numerical significance of Russians there. The “Russian question,” which agitated the republic in the first half of the 1990s, has dropped off the political radar and no longer poses a threat to stability. ^^

Civil Unrest in Kazakhstan

The government has successfully discouraged civil unrest except for demonstrations on specific issues such as pension arrears. According to the OSAC: “ Civil unrest and protests are rare. There have been a few clashes between foreign construction workers and their Kazakhstani counterparts in a few cities. In these cases, Kazakhstani construction workers publicly complained that their wages were less than those paid to the foreign workers. In December 2011, there were riots in the Mangistau Region in the west, where there was rampant destruction, and protestors were shot and killed by authorities. [Source: “Kazakhstan 2016 Crime and Safety Report,” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), Bureau of Diplomatic Security, U.S. Department of State]

In order to hold a demonstration, organizers must file a petition with the city and receive a permit. In general, most demonstrations involve usually less than 20 participants. Occasionally, groups organize demonstrations without permits; police generally disperse the participants quickly and peacefully. The best practice is to avoid demonstrations. If you see a demonstration, go in the opposite direction and report it up your chain-of-command so other people can avoid it. If the demonstrations turn into riots, stay inside and away from windows until the violence has died down.

Occasional clashes have erupted among ethnic Kazakhs, Chechens, and Uighurs in rural villages outside of Almaty, resulting from tensions over local issues and corruption.In 2011, Kazakhstan experienced a spike in terrorist-related activity during a six-month period, with the government as the primary target.

In 2008, when protest related to housing swept through Astana and Almaty, Irina Stupakova of the McClatchy-Tribune news service wrote: “Pressure groups focusing on a particular social issue are not a new phenomenon in Kazakhstan.“New movements issuing demands to the government and to financial and commercial institutions have appeared,” said Kurmanov. “Disputes over social issues are going to grow; that is obvious from the rising number of meetings, pickets and rallies.” Independent journalist Daur Dosybiev believes protests grounded in social concerns have taken on much more of a political colouring than they had a couple of years ago. This, he says, because people increasingly believe the problems they face are a direct consequence of “the alliance between money and power”. [Source: Irina Stupakova, McClatchy-Tribune news service, November, 2008]

Vladimir Yuritsin, a journalist who covered the protests, believes Kazakhstan is likely to see further social unrest stemming from a range of concerns. “The potential for protests is definitely growing, as can be seen by the rise in inter-ethnic tension and the confrontation between rich and poor, and between members of the public and the institutions of government,” he said.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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