Kazakhstan: the rise of a ‘smart’ authoritarianism

Updated: Feb 2

by Giusy Musarò

kazakistan polizia manifestanti
Source: La Repubblica

1. Introduction

Dozens of people were arrested in protests that broke out in Kazakhstan at the end of February in the cities of Almaty and Nur Sultan to demand the release of numerous political prisoners arbitrarily arrested during the parliamentary elections held on 10th January 2021, which saw yet another victory of the Nur Otan party with 71% of the vote. The European Parliament in its resolution 2021/2544 of 11 February 2021 on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan denounced the systematic deterioration of fundamental freedoms and rights of Kazakh citizens, calling on the government not only to respect the rights enshrined in the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (ARPC) concluded in 2015, but to immediately release all the arbitrarily detained political prisoners. At the end of January alone, 117 politically motivated prosecutions were launched against dissenting voices accused of 'extremism' and to date 29 political prisoners are still in Kazakh government prisons, including members of the 'Oyan Kazakhstan' and 'Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan' movements, founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker now in exile and among those accused of triggering the recent protests. According to the Italian Federation of Human Rights (FIDU), the number of political prisoners has sharply increased since the fall of 2020 and in the last year 5 cases of political murders have been recorded.

The February protests represent just one of the many demonstrations erupted in the last years against a corrupt system, based on the concentration of power in the hands of a single governing elite. The same elections were declared ‘not free’ by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as they were dominated by the current ruling party, Nur Otan, leaving the citizens with 'no genuine political alternative'. The other parties that participated in the elections, Adal, Auyl, Ak Zhol, and the People's Party of Kazakhstan’, are all parties loyal to the government. The main opposition party, the National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), announced in November that it would boycott the vote in sign of protest, while others such as 'Koshe Partiyasy' and 'Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan' were excluded due to their ‘extremist’ nature. However, the government's control of the opposition goes far beyond the exclusion and penalization of anti-government political parties, but extends to all of civil society. While formally the Kazakh constitution ensures freedom of expression, this is de facto limited by the continuous censorship of any kind of alternative information and by arbitrary detentions of journalists and activists.

2. Kazakhstan’s ‘smart’ authoritarianism

The latest elections have shown how an 'electoral authoritarianism' - i.e. a regime in which multi-party elections take place in the absence of a true rule of law - persists even in the post-Nazarbayev era. Nur Otan’s victory represents for many a de facto influence of ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev on the Kazakh political sphere. Nazarbayev led the country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has remained in power for 27 years. Globally regarded as a 'leader of the global anti-nuclear movement' for shutting down Soviet-remnant nuclear arsenals and signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons soon after independence, Nazarbayev has also helped nurture an authoritarian government marked by a gradual erosion of basic human rights throughout his tenure. In early 2019, Nazarbayev voluntarily resigned in favor of Lassym-Jomart Tokayev. The latter had been part of Nazarbayev's ruling elite first as prime minister and then as president of the Senate, in addition to serving as director general of the United Nations office in Geneva.

Not only was Tokayev's rise to power in 2019 followed by around 4,000 arrests and a nationwide internet shutdown, but continued control, censorship, and repression continue to this day, making Kazakhstan one of the most authoritarian states in Central Asia. The resurgence of some political activism and of a greater public debate in 2019 were soon cut short by both excessive use of force and continued control and censorship. Among the methods used, in addition to the excessive use of military forces and the National Guard, the so-called titushky - men in civilian clothes employed by the authorities to attack protesters - also made their appearance in the Kazakh political framework. It is therefore clear that Tokayev has not only failed to fulfill his promises of implementing gradual reforms to grant greater political participation to opposition parties and greater freedom of association and peaceful demonstration, but how he is contributing to feed what remains of the old autocratic regime.