In 2010 President Nazarbayev rejected a call from constituents to hold a referendum to keep him in office until 2020 and, instead, insisted on an election to be held in April 2011. President Nazarbayev received 95.54 percent of the vote with 89.9 percent of registered voters participating. Many independent observers affirm that Kazakhstan's Presidential election shows progress. The decision by President Nazarbayev to hold an election is evidence of the substantial progress toward Kazakhstan’s democracy.
Prior to the election in April 2011, President Nazarbayev affirmed in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that Kazakhstan’s “road to democracy is irreversible.” President Nazarbayev outlined his plan for continued prosperity, progress, freedom and stability for Kazakhstan in his 2011 inaugural address.
In February 2009, Kazakhstan signed into law new legislation regarding the media, elections, political parties, and local government. Through close cooperation and intensive discussions with NGOs, political parties and OSCE institutions, Kazakhstan incorporated many of their proposals into the final draft of the new legislation. The ODIHR and the Office of the Representative on the Freedom of the Media were very active and most helpful in bringing Kazakhstan’s laws in line with OSCE standards. As Chargé d'Affaires of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE Kyle Scott stated at the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna: “This legislation marks a step forward on Kazakhstan’s path to democracy.”
The law on elections. Twenty-nine amendments signed into the law on elections have further perfected the electoral process in Kazakhstan. Five of them were recommended by the ODIHR/OSCE. Eight of them were recommended by Kazakhstan’s human rights community, in close cooperation with U.S. human rights NGOs, including Freedom House. The law now: Guarantees representation of at least two parties in the Parliament even if one of them does not win enough votes (i.e., over a 7 percent threshold). It excludes the possibility to elect a one-party Parliament; Makes it mandatory for the media to equally cover the candidates and parties, including the period of nomination and registration; Cancels any requirements for thousands of foreign observers, who usually come to Kazakhstan during elections, to have any relevant experience to monitor electoral process; Decentralizes authority of the Central election commission in favor of local election commissions. Now local election commissions have greater authority in organizing the electoral process, such as determining their schedules to make them more convenient for the voters; Increases salaries for non-public servant members of election commissions at the election periods; Authorizes the Central Election Commission to strictly regulate the process of issuing absentee ballots.
The law on political parties. Seven amendments signed into the law on political parties partly reflect recommendations made by the OSCE and Kazakhstan’s human rights community, in close cooperation with U.S. human rights NGOs, including Freedom House. The original goal of the amendments is to further liberalize and expand the space for political debate. The law: Significantly reduces the number of requirements for registering a political party (in the new text of the law even a party that submits erroneous lists of its members cannot be denied registration on these grounds); Decreases required membership size for a party to be registered (now a party needs to have only 600 members in each of the country’s regions and 40,000 members nationwide to be registered as a national political party); Simplifies the registration process and the funding of political parties to strengthen their role in public life; Regulates the legal and technical process of establishing (merger, incorporation, split-up or split-off) a political party (the ODIHR recommendation); Provides public financing of political parties.
The law on mass media addressed the concerns that have been recently voiced by the media community. It has been amended to increase the rights of journalists and media to ensure greater self-regulation. The amendments reflect the recommendations of the ODIHR. The law: Removes administrative barriers and re-registration requirements for mass media; Extends the rights of journalists. For example media representatives are not required to ask for permission to use recording equipment when conducting interviews; Provides the right of a citizen to demand retraction of the published defamation or slander if a person who published this information cannot support the allegations with facts; Denies this right to citizens, thus upholding the adversarial principle in the court’s deliberations.
On January 28 2009, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, welcomed the adoption of a number of amendments to Kazakhstan's media law, and underscored the need for further democratization of media governance. "I welcome the easing of administrative burdens on the media, as well as the fact that civil society was involved in the discussion about the changes," Haraszti wrote in a letter to Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister, Marat Tazhin, and Culture and Information Minister, Mukhtar Kul Mukhammed. "However, the process of liberalization of Kazakhstan's media law should continue, because the current body of law, notwithstanding these useful amendments, still fails to meet several international standards," said Haraszti. He provided the authorities with a list of the most important reforms which still need to be carried out, including:
• The media market should be de-monopolized;
• Registration should be managed by an independent body, and should be declarative and not permissive;
• The use of closure or confiscation of circulation as a penalty should be abolished;
• Libel and insult should be decriminalized;
• Only officials should be in charge of protecting classified information; breach of secrecy by others, including journalists, should not be criminalized.
Haraszti offered his office's assistance to help the Kazakh government carry out further reforms in the field of media legislation.
The law on local self-government codifies local self-governance in the regions (oblast), districts, cities, districts within the cities, towns and villages; significantly increases the political role of Maslikhates (local elected legislatures) and improves effectiveness of a “checks and balances system” between maslikhates and akimates (local executives). The law reflects the experience of both France and Britain in providing local self-governance. It includes attributes of the European Charter on local self-government, is generally in line with the final document of the 1990 Copenhagen Meeting and reflects the vision of the United States on independence of local governance.
Members of Maslikhates are elected by people of a region. They approve regional development programs, claim the regional budget, and are accountable to voters. Voters have the right to request a report on the work of members of Maslikhates, as well as to recall them in case of duties’ breach. Heads of Akimats (akims) appointed by the President of Kazakhstan take the office only after approval by Maslikhate. They are accountable to Maslikhates on budget issues. The law also lowers the needed majority (to 51 percent) for Maslikhates to vote Akims out of office.
Kazakhstan has also signed and ratified 35 major international instruments aimed at upholding human rights and civil liberties. They include international treaties on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as conventions of the International Labor Organization, and has committed to the optional protocol to the International Treaty on Civil and Political Rights as well as the protocol to the Convention Against Torture.
Kazakhstan’s law on political parties prohibits parties based on ethnic origin, religion, or gender. There are 10 political parties in Kazakhstan as compared to 13 in 2006. Four parties representing supporters of the current Government merged by the end of 2006, and as a result “Nur-Otan” - a new pro-presidential pro-reform party able to effectively represent interests of its numerous supporters - emerged on the political stage of Kazakhstan. Also in 2006 a leftist Nationwide Social Democratic Party was registered joining the ranks of several other opposition parties. The beginning of 2007 has seen a robust process of mergers and consolidation of political parties, including opposition ones, particularly, in the run-up to 18 August, 2007 parliamentary elections.
Since its independence, Kazakhstan has been fully engaged in the transition from a Soviet political system to democracy. It charts its own destiny under a banner of increasing freedom and decided to follow a formula that has worked for other democracies and requires the involvement of all the stakeholders in the society. Therefore, in the mid-1990s, Kazakhstan decided to establish and maintain a strong and independent civil society since one had never existed. The third sector was entirely government-controlled.
In close cooperation with European and American partners, Kazakhstan has been creating a legal environment for NGO development and growth. Kazakhstan non-for-profit legislation has been internationally recognized as one of the best among the Commonwealth of Independent States. The first measure was adopted in the early 1990s and gave a powerful boost to the development of civic organizations in Kazakhstan. In mid of 1990s, the government separated NGOs from commercial entities, significantly simplified the process of state registration, separated theirs activity from government, and granted them special benefit status. In its “1998 NGO Sustainability Index in Kazakhstan” report, USAID underscored that, “…NGOs exercised tax benefits without undue difficulty”.
Kazakhstan also has been providing opportunities for foreign and international donors to provide financial support to the national non-for-profit sector through grants and other means. The peak period of foreign support for the Kazakh NGO sector was from 1996 to 1998. Today, 162 international organizations giving grants to Kazakhstan’s NGOs and implementing various programs in the country are entirely tax-exempt. Funds received by Kazakh NGOs under state contracts are exempt from corporate income and value-added taxes.
Since Kazakhstan’s independence, thousands of Kazakh NGOs have been trained by the UNDP, the USAID, the OSCE, and other foreign and international organizations to increase their role in society and participate in nearly all spheres of public life. Recently NGOs have become increasingly active in advocacy efforts. What is encouraging is the sustainability in this trend.
The United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) 2009 NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia scored Kazakhstan better than many Eastern European and Eurasian countries and identified Kazakhstan as having achieved one of the highest levels of NGO sector development among the Central Asian countries. The report also projected that the number of NGOs in Kazakhstan is expected to rise because of the “stable domestic policy climate laws that are favorable to NGOs.”
The dynamic of NGO growth in numbers. In early 1990s, about 400 NGOs were established as Kazakhstan experienced a rapid rate of reform. These NGOs were mainly involved in human rights issues and furthering democracy in the country. From 1994 to 1997, more than 1,600 NGOs have been registered. That growth continues even today. Last year, the number of NGOs has risen by 10 percent. Today, more than 25,000 nonprofit organizations are active in Kazakhstan, including 13,000 NGOs. More than 550,000 people are involved in the “third sector.”
Cooperation between government and NGOs. At the beginning of 2002, the government decided to expand its effort to develop the third sector. It approved the Concept of State Support for Non-Commercial Organizations, including support for socially significant projects of NGOs through the signing of social contracts with them. In 2006, Kazakhstan adopted the Concept of Civil Society Development for 2006-2011, a “road map” for improving relations between the government and not-for-profit sector. During the first and second phases of implementing the Concept, Kazakhstan reduced the registration fee for NGOs, signed and ratified the Optional Protocol to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, simplified long-criticized reporting requirements for NGOs receiving foreign aid, and lifted the ban on state financing of NGOs. A number of laws have improved and enacted, including those dealing with the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, local administration, political parties, election and mass media. These acts have encouraged active cooperation with civil society institutions and made a significant contribution to the process of introducing OSCE standards.
As the third phase of implementing the Concept gets under way in 2010, Kazakhstan will continue drafting an effective legal framework for NGOs. The original goal is to promote and secure stable development of civil institutions and improve the quality of dialogue between the government and NGO community. One of the most prominent platforms for this dialogue was established in 2003 with the creation of the so-called biannual “Civic Forum.”
Civic Forum. Years ago, President Nazarbayev called for the government to cooperate with the NGO sector, recognizing the power that partnerships with these organizations can play in developing and improving a civil society. As a result, Kazakhstan has initiated the Civil Forum to facilitate greater involvement of the NGO community in the government’s efforts for political reform nationwide. Civil Forum is a mechanism for engaging in meaningful dialogue, positive interaction, and results-driven collaboration with NGOs, giving these organizations direct access to decision-makers within government. This process promotes the kind of participation, synergy, and exchange that result in the formulation of beneficial policies and laws. What is most significant about the Civic Forum is that through dialogue and deliberations it has provided the opportunity for Kazakh NGOs to be participate in government policy discussions and formulation. Kazakhstan held three forums last year and a fourth forum this November.
At the time of the Civil Forum I, the nongovernmental sector of Kazakhstan was recognized as an important power within the democratic process. A new partnership among the government, business, and NGOs was announced during this initial forum. It is worth noting that the Civil Alliance of Kazakhstan was created during Civil Forum II. The Concept of Civil Sector Development was adopted and approved by the President then. The action plan for the concept implementation was developed and approved by the Prime Minister during this forum as well. Civil Forum III was devoted to further developing partnerships within the framework of the civil society democratization and realization of the Civil Sector Development Concept.
The 2009 Civic Forum IV held in Astana on November 23-24 hosted more than 700 participants from an array of countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. Representatives from trade unions, media, international and foreign NGOs, central and local executive bodies, and regionally elected representatives from various political parties attended. “The Civic Forum, which this year is the largest ever, proves that the partnership between Kazakh society and the Government is deepening,” said Program Director for Central Asia at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (American based NGO) Ms.Elizabeth Warner.
The forum was opened by 2010 OSCE Chairman-in-Office H.E. Kanat Saudabayev. He stressed that cooperation between NGOs and the government will only increase as Kazakhstan begins its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He called on NGOs to contribute to Kazakhstan’s success as chair of the OSCE, which he said is a “great honor and huge responsibility not only for state organs but for all the institutions of civil society, including NGOs.”
At the 2009 forum, the government reported to assembled NGOs that it had implemented 226 socially significant projects during the previous year—all in partnership with various NGOs. As a result, Kazakhstan was able to avoid social instability and, through this partnership, minimized the after-effects of the world economic recession. This partnership has had a defining effect as observed by Ms.Warner: “Since the first Civic Forum in 2003, we have seen many important developments in the partnership between the Government and civil society—simplified registration laws, the participation of NGOs in policymaking at the national and regional levels, and the beginning of more favorable tax laws that will promote private philanthropy.”
One of the main outcomes of Civil Forum IV is the agreement reached between the government and NGOs to continue working together on improving the quality of their cooperation, the role of NGOs in the social and political life of the country, social monitoring, social orders, among other important areas.
Setting the Course Together. One of the more telling signs of the “deepening” partnership on issues of political development of the country has been the government’s involvement of and partnership with NGOs in the drafting of two significant documents—the National Human Rights Action Plan of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2009-2012, outlining steps to strengthen the national system of human rights protection, and the Concept of Legal Policy for 2010-2020, which, among other things, sets a plan for improving state governance based on the principles of effectiveness and accountability, ensuring protection of human rights and freedoms, and protecting the interests of the state and society.
Eighty percent of the Action Plan was developed by Kazakhstan’s non-governmental organizations. It was preceded by a baseline study and report on human rights in Kazakhstan that analyzed the national legislation, law enforcement practices, and compliance with international law provisions in human rights protection. The Human Rights Commission and the group working on the plan closely studied the breath of international experiences. The Legal Concept was also prepared in close cooperation with Kazakhstan’s NGO community. It defines the main directions of legal policy and is intended as a foundation for the development of programs in the sphere of legal policy and is projected to bring Kazakhstan’s legal system closer to international standards in such areas as the constitution, administration, taxation, customs, as well as civil, financial, and criminal law. It envisages reforms in law enforcement, the judiciary, and the protection of human rights.
Unlike many nations that have recently developed their energy reserves, the rise in revenues from foreign energy sales has had a trickle-down effect in Kazakhstan, producing the embryo of a new middle class. Kazakhstan has made a cornerstone of its social policy to foster the development of an indigenous middle class, seeing it as a social and political guarantor of stability. Privatisation, housing, banking, education reforms, numerous initiatives on supporting small and medium businesses have helped emerging Kazakhstan’s middle class. Kazakhstan’s middle class began to use their disposable income to travel abroad, to acquire items essential for the Western lifestyle such as computers and cell-phones. According to Kazakhstan’s Statistics Agency, in mid-2008 there were more than 8 mln. cell phone users in Kazakhstan, representing more than half of the population. As the Kazakh middle class became increasingly visible, new political parties and the government itself began to vie for its support.
While estimates vary, some analysts put its numbers at 25 percent of the total population, representing people who consume 50-80 percent of the financial value of all goods sold in Kazakhstan. Analysts further divide this group into two sections, a lower middle class, with individual annual incomes of $6,000-9,000, (an estimated 70 percent of the stratum,) and the “upper” middle class, with annual individual incomes of $9,000-15,000, (30 percent of the total group.) According to official Kazakh statistics, salaries increased by 21 percent in 2001 and by 12 percent in 2002 and have consistently risen each year since (the principal criterion used by analysts to define Kazakhstan's middle class is not the nature of labour, professional association or property, but income level). Other Kazakh experts give figures on the extent of the group as ranging between 18 percent and 60 percent of the population.
The legal system of Kazakhstan owes its origin to the Continental (Roman-German) legal family. Since independence Kazakhstan has successfully reformed its legal and judicial sectors and constantly continues the modernization process by introducing the best world practices. Such reforms as the move of penitentiary system from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Justice, introduction of a moratorium on death penalty with a view of future total abolition, introduction of jury trials for the most serious crimes have all won international acclaim and praise.
There are local and oblast (regional) level courts, and a national-level Supreme Court and Constitutional Council. A special arbitration court hears disputes between state enterprises. There is also a military court system. Local level courts serve as courts of first instance for less serious crimes such as theft and vandalism. Oblast level courts hear more serious criminal cases and also hear cases in rural areas where no local courts have been established. A judgment by a local court may be appealed to the oblast level. The Supreme Court hears appeals from the oblast courts. The constitution establishes a seven member Constitutional Council to determine the constitutionality of laws adopted by the legislature. It also rules on challenges to elections and referendums and interprets the constitution. The president appoints three of its members, including the chair.
Under constitutional amendments of 1998, the president appoints a chairperson of a Supreme Judicial Council, which nominates judges for the Supreme Court. The Council consists of the chairperson of the Constitutional Council, the chairperson of the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General, the Minister of Justice, senators, judges, and other persons appointed by the president. The president recommends and the senate (upper legislative chamber) approves these nominees for the Supreme Court. Oblast judges (nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council) are appointed by the president. Lower level judges are appointed by the President from a list presented by the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry receives the list from a Qualification Collegiums of Justice, composed of deputies from the Majlis (lower legislative chamber), judges, prosecutors, and others appointed by the president). Under legislation approved in 1996, judges serve for life.
In accordance with 2008 Constitutional reform, the judicial-legal system was improved with the aim to strengthen the independence of courts in pronouncing judgments. The reform facilitated a near total abolishment of capital punishment in Kazakhstan, limiting its application exclusively to terrorist crimes involving the loss of human life, or wartime crimes. A system of judicial custody has been introduced and the Constitution prohibits investigation by the Office of Public Prosecutor. These reforms are directed towards further democratization of the institutions of the Government and society. In order to make the legislation activity more effective, the Kazakh Government is in the process of creating a system that would be modern in content and have regulations that vividly reflect all stages of legislation and law-enforcement activity.
Each Legal Act will and is being evaluated as per international standards to ensure that the interests of Kazakh citizens, society and the State are comprehensively and rationally taken into consideration. Efforts are on to evolve a system of legal expertise in accordance with the development of Kazakh society and the Kazakh State. Presently 17 branches of legislation have been identified which require legal codes for their regulation.