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Amid limited space for political campaigning, President Tokayev won landslide victory in snap election before reaffirming ties with Russia.
Re-election of Tokayev paves way for seven-year term. Kazakhs 20 Nov headed to polls to vote in snap presidential election, which incumbent President Tokayev won in landslide victory, securing over 80% of vote. Victory allows Tokayev to extend his presidential term by seven years under country’s new term limits. Tokayev’s Sept announcement to hold election gave his opponents little preparation time, raising concerns around lack of competition. Notably, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe observer mission 21 Nov said “early presidential election took place in a political environment lacking competitiveness, and while efficiently prepared, the election underlined the need for further reforms (…) to ensure genuine pluralism”.
Tokayev reaffirmed ties with Russia in first foreign visit since election. Tokayev 28 Nov met Russian President Putin in Moscow amid public disagreements over Ukraine; notably, Tokayev had declined to recognise Russia’s declared annexation of four Ukrainian regions. Still, Tokayev reaffirmed bilateral relations, saying “Russia is and has always been a strategic partner” while Putin hailed “special” relations between Moscow and Astana.
President announced snap presidential elections and changes to term limits for future incumbents; country welcomed almost 100,000 Russians fleeing President Putin’s mobilisation order.President declared early presidential elections and changes to presidential term. President Tokayev 1 Sept called for snap elections in coming months, when he will seek second term, and parliamentary elections early 2023, arguing that such measures would enable “fundamental and comprehensive reforms”. Tokayev also proposed changing presidential term from five to seven years, preventing future incumbents from seeking second term, in order to “reduce the risks of monopolisation of power”. Following approval from lower chamber of parliament on 16 Sept, Tokayev 17 Sept signed legislation enshrining one seven-year presidential term. He also approved change of capital name from Nur-Sultan back to Astana, in move likely aimed at further distancing himself from his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.Almost 100,000 Russians fleeing Putin’s mobilisation order crossed into Kazakhstan. Following Putin’s partial mobilisation order for war in Ukraine (see Russia and Ukraine) on 21 Sept, officials 27 Sept said around 98,000 Russians had arrived in Kazakhstan. Tokayev same day urged tolerance, saying “we must take care of them and ensure their safety. It is a political and a humanitarian issue”.
Kazakhs voted overwhelmingly in support of constitutional amendments in referendum, which offer greater parliamentary powers. Following nationwide protests in Jan that left 232 dead, Kazakhs 5 June voted in referendum on President Tokayev’s proposed constitutional amendments, seen by some observers as attempt by Tokayev to prevent former President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his relatives’ return to political sphere; referendum proposed 56 amendments, including limits to presidential powers, ban on Nazarbayev’s relatives from holding govt positions and more parliamentary powers. Central Election Commission chairman 6 June said 77.18% voted in favour of changes. Some activists and human rights campaigners said changes included “very few limits to presidential power”, given that president will “retain the right to appoint the prime minister, to appoint key ministers in the cabinet, to veto laws and all the other powers that the president has enjoyed”. During 19th EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council held 20 June, EU welcomed referendum results but highlighted need for independent investigation into Jan unrest. Meanwhile, in 17 June plenary session with Russian President Putin, Tokayev rejected Putin’s claim that former Soviet Union was “historical Russia”; also rejected recognition of so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s east as independent states, despite Russia declaring them independent countries in Feb (see Ukraine).
Localised protests over fuel price turned into nationwide rioting heavily repressed by security forces, killing over 200 people. Protesters 2 Jan flooded streets of petroleum-producing city of Zhanaozen in west after govt doubled fuel prices; protests spread rapidly across country, first in other oil- and mineral-producing regions and then to most regions. In Almaty city, thousands of demonstrators 5 Jan shouted “Old man out” in reference to former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led country until 2019 and retained position of head of National Security Council thereafter. In response to unrest, govt 5 Jan resigned and President Tokayev same day removed Nazarbayev from security council position, as well as senior intelligence official Karim Masimov. Protesters 5 Jan took control of Almaty’s airport. Amid unrest, Tokayev 5 Jan requested regional alliance Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send forces to guard govt facilities in capital Nur-Sultan; Russia 7 Jan announced regional forces, comprising notably Russian and Armenian troops, retook Almaty’s airport. Tokayev 11 Jan announced beginning of departure of CSTO forces on 13 Jan. Media reports indicated authorities detained up to 12,000 people and officials reported 225 deaths during unrest, with over 2,000 requiring hospital treatment. Last four Russian military transport aircraft with Russian CSTO peacekeepers on board 19 Jan departed from Nur-Sultan.
Opposition groups staged protest calling for reform and release of political prisoners. Following 11 Feb EU Parliament resolution citing “worrying deterioration in general situation of human rights and crackdown on civil society organisations”, opposition groups 28 Feb held demonstrations in several cities including Aqtobe, Oral, Almaty and capital Nur-Sultan calling for political reforms and release of political prisoners; authorities detained at least 50 protesters in Almaty city.
Amid stifling of dissent and exclusion of opposition in run-up to vote, ruling party won unopposed parliamentary election. In lead-up to local and parliamentary elections on 10 Jan, authorities in capital Nur-Sultan and Aqtobe city 4-6 Jan arrested and sentenced to seven-15 days imprisonment four activists – including election observer – for allegedly calling for local protests; police 6 Jan detained activist in southern city of Shymkent. On election day, authorities reportedly detained dozens of protesters across country, including two dozen in Almaty city; Deputy Interior Minister Arystangani Zapparov 10 Jan said all detainees were released without charges. Central Election Commission – which last month excluded opposition parties from polls – 11 Jan announced ruling Nur Otan party won over 71% of vote; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe same day stated that “an uncompetitive campaign and systemic de-facto limitations on constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms left voters without genuine choice”. Meanwhile, authorities targeted civil society groups; tax authorities 15-25 Jan fined and later suspended one election-monitoring group and two human rights organisations over alleged financial irregularities; authorities 18 Jan fined fourth group. Court in western city of Atyrau 22 Jan imposed three-year parole restriction on activist Maks Boqaev ahead of his expected release 4 Feb; authorities sentenced Boqaev on extremism charges in 2016 after he allegedly organised unsanctioned protest. Ordabasy district court in southern region of Turkistan 26 Jan sentenced activist to one year “freedom limitation” for involvement with banned Koshe party, associated with proscribed opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Administrative court in northern Kokshetau city 28 Jan sentenced activist to 12 days imprisonment for allegedly taking part in unsanctioned rally 25 Jan in city’s central square.
Authorities continued harassment of opposition groups and activists ahead of parliamentary elections in January. Central Election Commission (OSK) 10 Dec launched parliamentary campaign, due to run until 9 Jan, with no opposition parties listed on ballot; opposition movement Halyq Biligi (People’s Rule) 22 Dec demanded postponement of parliamentary elections, citing lack of opposition parties’ participation. In Almaty city, opposition groups 16 Dec marched in unauthorised protest to demand release of political prisoners, fair parliamentary elections and registration of opposition parties. Meanwhile, authorities continued to target civil society and opposition. Notably, coalition of international NGOs 3 Dec said that tax authorities had notified 13 human rights organisations for alleged financial reporting violations in Oct-Nov, including “incorrectly completed declaration forms relating to foreign income”, which carries fine and suspension of activities penalties. Court in north-western city of Aqtobe 21 Dec sentenced activist Alibek Moldin to one year of “freedom limitation’’ for leading banned Koshe party, associated with proscribed opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Authorities in Aqtobe same day forcibly admitted activist Asanali Suyubaev to psychiatric clinic; Suyubaev accused of tearing down poster of ruling Nur Otan party. In city of Keles, district court 22 Dec sentenced activist Marat Duisembiev to three and a half years of “freedom limitation” for involvement with banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party.
Opposition parties mobilised to boycott Jan 2021 parliamentary elections. Hundreds of opposition Democratic Party supporters 14 Nov held rally in Almaty city to call for boycott of Jan 2021 parliamentary elections, in second opposition demonstration permitted by authorities since law was amended in May. All-National Social Democratic Party 27 Nov announced boycott of parliamentary vote during party conference, citing continued dominance by “the same political parties”. Meanwhile, govt continued to target opposition and civil society figures. Petropavl City Court in north 2 Nov sentenced opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan activist Nurbol Onerkhan to one year of freedom limitation on charges of involvement in “extremist group”; Court also banned Onerkhan from any social or political activity. In line with Nur-Sultan court order on 19 Nov, police 23 Nov forcibly admitted journalist and govt critic Aigul Otepova to psychiatric clinic, reportedly for involvement in Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan opposition movement, labelled as extremist group by govt; Otepova was under house arrest since Sept. NGO Human Rights Watch 18 Nov said Otepova was “being prosecuted solely for the peaceful expression of her views”, urged govt to release her immediately.
Stifling of opposition continued amid calls for creation of new opposition party and adoption of limited reforms. Around 200 people 13 Sept gathered in authorised rally in Almaty to call for release of political prisoners and authorisation to form new opposition Democratic Party, which govt has repeatedly barred from official registration; demonstrators also called for expulsion of Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, citing fear of Chinese economic “expansion” in country. After prominent civil rights activist Erbol Eskhozhin publicly called police officers “Nazarbayev’s puppies” during protest earlier this year, in reference to former President Nazarbayev, Almaty city court 14 Sept fined Eskhozhin $530 for insulting police. Almaty city court next day upheld April sentence of activist Alnur Ilyashev, convicted for criticising govt response to COVID-19 outbreak, to parole-like limited freedom. Authorities 25 Sept disrupted protests across country organised by exiled leader of opposition Mukhtar Ablyazov by reportedly surrounding public squares and preventing demonstrators from gathering; police reportedly detained protesters in capital Nur-Sultan, Aktobe and eastern Semey. President Tokayev 1 Sept called for “reset” of state structures, including implementation of direct elections for local governors from next year; move follows persistent calls from opposition groups for democracy reform in recent years. Tokayev same day announced creation of two new state agencies and more independence for Agency for Emergency Situations to tackle COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid slowing spread of COVID-19, govt maintained some restrictions; meanwhile, several protests took place throughout month. Following stabilisation of COVID-19 cases, Health Minister Alexei Tsoi 3 Aug advised residents to “maintain positions that have been won through very hard trials endured by the entire population and healthcare system”. Dozens of vendors in capital Nur-Sultan 3 Aug protested against closure of Artyom shopping mall as part of COVID-19 lockdown measures and condemned govt’s relief sum of $100 as insufficient. Govt 14 Aug said some health measures would be maintained, including weekend lockdowns and closure of schools until Oct, but postponed July decision to document pneumonia cases with COVID-19 symptoms. Police in Almaty city 3 Aug detained activist Serik Azhibai for protesting outside Chinese consulate; Azhibai accused Chinese ambassador of stating military cooperation between two countries could help quash possible riots; court same day sentenced Azhibai to 15 days in prison on charges of staging unapproved public event and disobeying police orders. District court in Almaty 12 Aug sentenced civil rights activist Asya Tulesova to 18 months of restrictive freedom for assaulting and insulting police during 6 June protest that called for range of democratic reforms. Uzbek law enforcement 17 Aug confirmed Kazakh authorities deported Uzbek opposition activist Khurram Berdiev to Uzbek capital Tashkent (see Uzbekistan). In Aqmola province, at least 100 activists 8 Aug gathered in Talapker village to commemorate prominent civil rights campaigner Dulat Aghadil in Talapker village who died in custody in Feb 2020. In response, police 26-27 Aug detained dozens in cities across country, and courts imposed short jail sentences or fines on activists for attending unsanctioned rally. In south, security forces early Aug reportedly deployed officers to Qosmezgil village after late July clashes between several young ethnic Uzbek and ethnic Kazakh men, which left four injured, including one policeman. In north east, security forces 16 Aug reportedly closed off roads to Baydibek-biy village, day after alleged inter-ethnic clash between Chechens and Kazakhs.
Govt reimposed lockdown as number of reported COVID-19 cases continued to rise sharply. Following 11 May lifting of nationwide state of emergency, President Tokayev 1 July announced return to COVID-19 lockdown until 19 July; PM Mamin 14 July further extended lockdown until 2 Aug and Tokayev 29 July again extended it for two weeks. While former President Nazarbayev’s spokesman 2 July announced Nazarbayev’s recovery from coronavirus, two govt officials mid-July reportedly died from disease, including deputy defence minister. Chinese embassy 9 July warned of “unknown pneumonia” outbreak in Kazakhstan that was supposedly deadlier than COVID-19; Health Ministry next day rejected claims. Amid rising number of pneumonia cases widely attributed to spread of coronavirus, health minister 17 July announced govt will start including pneumonia cases in official coronavirus figure in Aug; NGO Human Rights Watch 21 July welcomed move and said policy change was “vital to stemming the spread of the disease”. After Tokayev 10 July threatened to dismiss govt if coronavirus situation does not improve within two weeks, health minister 21 July announced situation had started to stabilise, citing 60% increase in number of recoveries.
Several protests took place throughout month, while number of reported COVID-19 cases surged. After govt late May amended law to permit certain protests if organisers notify authorities ahead of time, opposition parties Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan and Democratic Party organised 6 June protests calling for range of democratic reforms; police same day detained over 100 protesters on grounds of violating COVID-19 regulations, sparking public outrage. Dozen activists 10 June gathered in front of EU office in capital Nur-Sultan calling for release of three activists, sentenced to jail terms of up to 15 days. NGO Human Rights Watch 12 June called on authorities to release rights activist Asya Tulesov, arrested and sentenced for “violence against the police” after participating in 6 June protest, citing “disproportionate charges”. Meanwhile, more than a dozen women 8-10 June staged “silent protest” in Nur-Sultan over lack of financial assistance from govt; after protesters refused to leave site, authorities 10 June forcibly placed them in quarantine. Senate 11 June approved bill decriminalising libel; free speech advocacy group Adil Soz called change “partial” given custodial sentences of 25 days remain in place. Health authorities 17 June claimed COVID-19 situation was getting “out of control” following spike in infections among govt officials; press service of former President Nazarbayev next day confirmed Nazarbayev tested positive for disease. Govt next day tightened public health restrictions in Nur-Sultan and five other major cities and President Tokayev 25 June dismissed health minister.
President Tokayev 2 May dismissed former president Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva as senate member and chair, second-highest govt office, replacing her with Deputy Chief of Presidential Administration Maulen Ashimbaev; move prompted speculation over dynamics in top leadership. Lower legislative chamber 6 May passed bill decriminalising libel; Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called move “important step forward” and called for further reforms to improve freedom of expression. Senate 28 May approved bill giving parliamentary parties greater agenda-setting power; critics said bill inadequate given widespread govt repression of opposition. International NGOs, including World Organisation Against Torture, 11 May accused govt of using COVID-19 state of emergency “as an excuse to prosecute its critics and opponents”, citing smear campaigns against activists critical of controversial draft assembly law adopted in late March; President Tokayev 25 May signed assembly legislation into law. Deputy governor of southern region Turkistan 2 May criticised Uzbek officials for withholding information on 1 May collapse of dam in Uzbekistan’s Sirdayo region, which forced thousands of Kazakhs to evacuate; Uzbek President Mirziyoyev in telephone call with President Tokayev same day apologised for incident, sent personnel and equipment to help repair damage.
Head of Almaty-based human rights foundation 8 April said govt is “doing everything to muzzle activists to prevent their criticism of the govt’s anti-coronavirus measures”; police 7 April reportedly detained activist in Oral city, court early April sentenced activist in Zhambyl region to up to 28 days’ imprisonment, and court 18 April sentenced activist in capital Almaty to two months in prison in relation to lockdown measures. In response to increasing economic pressure due to COVID-19 and fall in global oil prices, govt 15 April paid out compensation for lost income to more than 2.7m people.
Visiting area affected by 7-8 Feb deadly ethnic clashes in Zhambyl region in south, in which eleven people were killed and dozens injured, President Tokayev 1 March blamed violence on “criminal groups” and called for perpetrators to be punished regardless of ethnicity; meeting with ethnic minority Dungan representatives, he promised state protection of their culture while urging them to take measures to lessen tensions with ethnic Kazakhs, including learning Kazakh language. Authorities late March detained 25 people for involvement in clashes, including ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of Dungan minority. According to govt 80 people briefly detained following continued protests 1 March over late Feb death in custody of civil rights activist Dulat Aghadil; rights activists said police detained 144. National Security Committee 26 March announced arrest of alleged Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated terrorist suspected of plotting attack in capital Nur-Sultan. Govt mid-March introduced state of emergency and sealed off Nur-Sultan and Almaty city in attempt to limit spread of COVID-19.
Eleven people killed in ethnic violence in south, while police detained dozens of people participating in opposition protests. Violence erupted in several villages in Zhambyl province in south between ethnic Kazakhs and minority Dungans 7-8 Feb following alleged road-rage incident; eleven killed, reportedly mostly Dungan, and dozens wounded, tens of properties and vehicles also destroyed, and more than 23,000 mostly Dungan fled, including at least 4,500 into Kyrgyzstan’s Chui region, with some reportedly returning in subsequent days. In response, govt dismissed many senior regional officials and launched inquiry. Police 18 Feb arrested three Dungan brothers allegedly involved in road-rage incident, charged with assaulting police officers. Amid ongoing anti-govt protests, authorities mid-Feb reportedly harassed supporters of newly-founded opposition Democratic Party of Kazakhstan. Party leader Zhanbolat Mamay announced rally in Almaty 22 Feb; police detained him 21 Feb, while Deputy Prosecutor-General 20 Feb called on citizens not to take part in rally of opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Police 22 Feb detained over 100 people planning to attend unauthorised opposition rallies across country. More protests broke out following death in custody 24 Feb of civil rights activist Dulat Aghadil, who had been arrested for contempt of court; authorities claimed he died from heart failure, but protesters took to streets across country 25-26 Feb demanding more information; video emerged 27 Feb allegedly showing Aghadil’s body with bruises and injuries. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 2 Feb met President Tokayev, former President Nazarbayev and FM Mukhtar Tleuberdi in capital Nur-Sultan; Pompeo lauded Kazakhstan’s “real reforms” while praising govt for not repatriating ethnic Kazakhs from China who sought refuge in Kazakhstan. Pompeo and all five Central Asian FMs met in Uzbekistan 3 Feb (see Uzbekistan).
Dozens protested in Almaty city (south east) 8 Jan calling for Ukraine not to extradite Kazakh opposition blogger Zhanar Akhmet, arrested for fraud in 2017, citing fears for her safety. Dozens of women gathered in capital Nur-Sultan 13 Jan in front of Labour and Social Protection Ministry demanding raise in social benefits. President Tokayev 16 Jan appointed former interior minister Qalmukhanbet Qasymov as chief of State Guard Service; rights groups accuse Qasymov of ordering police shooting of oil workers during 2011 protests in Zhanaozen, south west, which killed at least sixteen. Amid ongoing concerns over treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s Xinjiang province, court in Zaisan (east) 21 Jan sentenced two ethnic Kazakhs who crossed border from Xinjiang seeking asylum to one-year prison for illegal entry, but ruled they would not be deported, citing possible persecution in Xinjiang.
Dozens of people demonstrated in Nur Sultan and commercial capital Almaty 16 Dec, calling for more rights and release of political prisoners; police arrested dozens of protesters. Authorities 9 Dec reportedly jailed three human rights activists ahead of planned protests. In address to National Council for Social Trust’s Advisory body President Toqaev 20 Dec suggested easing regulations on public protests, simplifying process for creating new political parties, and decriminalising hate speech and libel.
Dozens of people joined sanctioned demonstration in capital Nur Sultan and unsanctioned rally in former capital Almaty 9 Nov demanding fair elections, parliamentary republic and release of political prisoners; police did not intervene. Media Watchdog Freedom House named Kazakhstan as one of countries with worst deterioration in Internet freedoms over past year.
Amid ongoing tensions over continued political influence of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, President Tokayev 21 Oct issued decree handing Nazarbayev more power: stipulates president must consult Nazarbayev before appointing chiefs of state institutions (including Committee for National Security (KNB)) and ministers. Decree came days after Nazarbayev 11 Oct gave interview on state television downplaying his influence and condemning “traitors” for stoking unrest. Police arrested more than three dozen people involved in attempted anti-govt protests in capital Nur-Sultan, Almaty and other cities 26 Oct against govt business ties with China and calling for release of political prisoners. Trial began 22 Oct of fourteen repatriated citizens accused of fighting with ISIS in Syria, facing charges including involvement in terrorist activities, recruitment and promoting terrorism; KNB earlier reported 595 citizens have been returned from Syria in 2019, including more than 400 children.
Anti-govt protests broke out in several cities 2-9 Sept and 23 Sept, voicing opposition to increasing Chinese investment and loans, and continued influence in govt of former President Nazarbayev. Protests involving dozens of people broke out in Zhanaozen (south west) 2 Sept and spread to other cities over several days, calling for President Tokayev to cancel planned official trip to China. Coalition of Civil Initiatives rights group in Almaty reported dozens of activists fined or jailed following rallies. Authorities reported around 100 people detained during unsanctioned opposition rallies in capital Nur-Sultan, Almaty and other cities 21 Sept, including a teenage girl according to news reports; nine people jailed for several days, in addition to several people jailed ahead of planned rallies. Rallies reportedly organised by banned opposition party Kazakhstan’s Democratic Choice. Dozens of women rallied in Nur-Sultan 19 Sept calling for govt to meet pledges on benefits for families. In speech to parliament 2 Sept, first since his June election, President Toquayev said future elections should “pave the way for the development of a multiparty system”, and peaceful demonstrations should be allowed in designated place.
Anti-govt protests eased. Dozens of activists marched in Almaty 30 Aug demanding democratic reforms, police refrained from interfering. Summit of C5+1 (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and U.S.) held in capital Nur-Sultan 20-23 Aug.
Authorities continued to repress nationwide anti-govt protests spurred by June’s presidential election, which foreign observers rated far short of democratic standards. Sporadic protests and detentions continued throughout month; notably, authorities 6 July reportedly detained at least 70 anti-govt protesters in capital Nur-Sultan and almost 100 in Almaty.
Interim President Tokayev, who took office in March after former president resigned, won snap presidential elections 9 June amid widespread repression of anti-govt protests. Tokayev named winner with 71% of vote and 12 June took oath of office. UK-based organisation NetBlocks reported several social networks blocked 12 June. Election monitors from Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe same day said “lack of regard for fundamental rights, including detentions of peaceful protesters, and widespread irregularities on election day, showed scant respect for democratic standards”. UN Human Rights Office for Central Asia 12 June called on authorities “to respect freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression and right to political participation”. Interior Minister Turghymbayev 18 June said authorities had released most of almost 4,000 people arrested around poll. Major explosions at ammunition warehouse in Arys, near Shymkent in south 24 June killed two, wounded dozens.
Police 9 May arrested dozens of protesters in capital Nur-Sultan and in Almaty staging anti-govt demonstrations ahead of 9 June snap presidential elections and demanding release of political prisoners; social-media apps and news websites reportedly not accessible same day. Govt reported it had repatriated 231 citizens linked to Islamic State (ISIS) including 156 children from Syria early May. European Council President Donald Tusk 31 May met interim President Toqayev, called Kazakhstan “important and stable partner”.
Interim President Tokayev 9 April announced early presidential elections to be held 9 June (instead of April 2020), said he would “guarantee a free and fair election”. Nur Otan party 23 April nominated Tokayev as party’s presidential candidate; country’s only registered opposition party, Nationwide Social Democratic Party, 26 April announced it will boycott polls in protest at participation of “puppet” candidates from pro-govt parties. Police arrested activists calling for fair elections during Almaty marathon 21 April; two of them jailed for fifteen days for protesting without permit. Tokayev met with Russian President Putin in Moscow 3 April, discussed cooperation including on new nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan.
In televised address 19 March, President Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned after almost 30 years in office, retaining positions of head of ruling party Nur Otan and Security Council chairmanship. Senate chair Qasym-Jomart Toqayev sworn in next day as interim president until next presidential election due 2020, while Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva replaced Tokayev as chair of Senate. Parliament 20 March approved proposal by Tokayev to rename capital Astana to Nur-Sultan, prompted some protests in capital and other cities; dozens arrested. EU Parliament 14 March urged govt to end human rights abuses “and all forms of political repression”.
President Nazarbayev 21 Feb dismissed govt citing failure to diversify economy and raise incomes, in response to public anger and protests in Astana and other cities over living conditions, triggered by death in housefire early Feb of five children while their parents were working night shifts. Govt 15 Feb published controversial proposed amendment to media legislation, imposing additional requirements for journalist’s accreditation and empowering authorities to set standards of coverage; union of journalists criticised proposal.
During 9 Jan address to nation, President Nazarbayev said 47 Kazakh citizens including 30 children had been evacuated from Syria, where they were “held hostage by terrorists”; security services say hundreds of citizens have joined militant groups in Syria since 2011. Foreign ministry statement 9 Jan confirmed media reports that China has allowed 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce Chinese citizenship and leave for Kazakhstan, amid ongoing reports of mass Muslim internment camps (see China) and Kazakhs being released into house arrest.
Astana court 1 Dec charged leader of unregistered Alash People’s Social Democratic Party, Syrym Abdirakhmanov, with distribution of false information, assaulting a public official, offending a public official, and obstructing justice. Came one day after Almaty district court 30 Nov sentenced opposition activist Aset Abishev to four years in jail on charges of supporting activities of banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.
Amid ongoing reports of harassment and detention of ethnic Kazakhs in “re-education” camps in China’s Xinjiang province, 50 schoolchildren gathered in Almaty 2 Nov calling for authorities and international human rights organisations to press for release of their parents.
Amid reports of harassment and detention of ethnic Kazakhs in “re-education” camps in China’s Xinjiang province (see China), dozens of Kazakhs 4 Oct presented petition at German Embassy appealing to German Chancellor Merkel for help with release of their relatives. Govt 5 Oct denied asylum request of ethnic Kazakh Chinese woman who fled China and spoke out about “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. Police 27 Sept arrested French journalist Vincent Prado, investigating 2011 deadly crackdown on oil workers’ protest in Zhanaozen (south west); released same day, banned from working in Aktau region.
President Nazarbayev 10 Sept dismissed Chief of Staff Adilbek Zhaqsybekov, ostensibly because he reached retirement age, replacing him with mayor of capital Aset Isekeshev. After Human Rights Watch 10 Sept issued report claiming cultural and religious eradication of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, adjacent to Kazakhstan, Kazakhs reported their relatives were being held in Chinese “re-education camps”.
Leaders of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan met in Kazakh city Aktau 12 Aug to sign new convention on legal status of Caspian Sea (in dispute for two decades) and outlining rights of littoral states; new agreement not disclosed, reportedly allows for construction of underwater pipelines and fishing quotas; follow-up talks expected. Nazarbayev 24 Aug attended meeting of Central Asian leaders in Turkmenistan to discuss environmental degradation of Aral Sea (see Turkmenistan).
President Nazarbayev 5 July signed decree, which came into force 12 July, making him head of Security Council for life, and changing body’s status from consultative to constitutional. U.S. officials visiting Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan 20-23 July met with representatives from all five Central Asian states for meetings under C5+1 format which includes economic and security cooperation.
Police 23 June detained dozens across country ahead of planned protest by banned opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement; authorities 19 June questioned four journalists in connection with protest. Speaker of parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 20 June said he does not believe President Nazarbayev will run for another term in 2020.
Police 10 May detained dozens of protesters during nationwide demonstrations calling for release of political prisoners; rallies were organised by banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement to coincide with visit from EU delegation. Parliament 31 May approved bill allowing President Nazarbayev to chair Security Council for life. Several activists detained or arrested ahead of planned rally against land reforms scheduled for 21 May.
Four Central Asian presidents and representative from Turkmenistan met in Astana 15-16 March, in first meeting in this format in a decade, also notable for not being attended by Russia or China. Opening proceedings, Kazakh President Nazarbayev thanked Uzbek President Mirziyoyev for suggesting meeting. All parties made positive noise about increased cooperation, committing to coordination on use of water resources, increased trade and consultation on security matters. Next meeting of presidents will take place in Uzbek capital Tashkent in March 2019. Nazarbayev visited Uzbekistan’s Samarkand 21 March to mark Nowruz holiday with Uzbek President Mirziyoyev.
Police arrested Kyrgyz MP Damirbek Asylbek-Uulu along with 35 others including border guards, customs officials and representatives of crime groups, during extensive anti-smuggling operation led by National Security Committee and Anti-corruption Bureau 15-16 Feb. Asylbek-Uulu, detained in Kazakhstan and charged with smuggling and being member of organised criminal group, denied charges; responding to request for clarification from Kyrgyz foreign minister, Astana confirmed MP’s arrest, adding he holds Kazakh and Kyrgyz passports.
Country held rotating chairmanship of UN Security Council in Jan, having joined for first time as non-permanent member for 2017-2018. During visit to U.S., President Nazarbayev 16 Jan met with President Trump, discussed situation in Afghanistan and U.S.-Kazakh political and economic ties. Nazarbayev promised to continue providing logistical support and access for Western troops fighting terrorism; also pledged support for the “C5+1” format involving foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states plus U.S.. Russian foreign minister 15 Jan criticised C5+1 format for trying to exclude Russia.
Country late Nov took Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) rotating chairmanship; during handover in Minsk, President Nazarbayev met Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov, agreed to help solve border impasse; presidents met again in Astana 25 Dec. Almost 700 miners went on strike at ArcelorMittal-owned coal mine in Shakhtisnk, Karaganda province 11 Dec, demanding inter alia safety improvements and salary increase; regional administration 15 Dec announced 30% salary increase, said miners would not be prosecuted for striking illegally. National Security Committee chair 12 Dec told parliament that authorities prevented eleven terrorist attacks in 2017. U.S. court 20 Dec sentenced Kazakh citizen to fifteen years’ prison for conspiring to support Islamic State (ISIS).
Foreign ministers of five Central Asian states 10 Nov signed Program on Mutual Cooperation for 2018-2019 outlining joint efforts on security, trade and economic cooperation during EU-Central Asia summit in Uzbekistan.
After Kyrgyz President Atambayev accused President Nazarbayev of “meddling in Kyrgyz internal affairs” by inviting Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov to Almaty 19 Sept, Nazarbayev 10 Oct retaliated by tightening controls along Kazakh-Kyrgyz border. Move severely disrupted trade, but restrictions eased 18 Oct.
President Nazarbayev 16 Sept met with Uzbek President Mirziyoyev during official visit in Tashkent. Tensions increased with Kyrgyzstan after Nazarbayev met Kyrgyz opposition presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov in Almaty 19 Sept. Former PM Serik Akhmetov released from prison 21 Sept after being convicted on corruption charges in 2015.
President Nazarbayev 11 July signed new law enabling removal of citizenship for those convicted of crimes of genocide, separatist activities, and creation, management, or participation in extremist group. Addressing security services in Astana several days later, Nazarbayev said hybrid wars, religious radicalisation, cyber security are priority areas.
Country hosted seventeenth Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Astana 8-9 June; UN Secretary-General Guterres attended as part of regional tour. EU Council 19 June published its conclusions on 2007 EU strategy for Central Asia; next strategy due 2019, with focus so far on strengthening dialogue on human rights and emerging security challenges.
President Nazarbayev 21 May met U.S. Sec State Rex Tillerson during summit of Muslim countries in Riyadh; Nazarbayev expressed hope that interaction between Kazakhstan and U.S. “will enter a qualitatively new level of development in many areas”, reported president’s office. Nazarbayev mid-month attended China’s high-level Belt and Road forum aimed at developing trade routes, specifically Silk Road Economic Belt initiative seeking to improve transport and energy infrastructure along two broad transport corridors in Central Asia.
Trial in abstentia of opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov on charges of embezzlement began 3 April in Almaty; France released Ablyazov 9 Dec 2016, cancelled his extradition to Russia citing political motivation behind request.