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Kazakhstan: the rise of a ‘smart’ authoritarianism

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

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.

Many accuse Tokayev of being a puppet in the hands of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who, with his voluntarily resignation, ensured the maintenance of the political and economic privileges accumulated over the years by his political circle. The persistence of an authoritarian government in Kazakhstan, in fact, is not only to be considered the result of an excessive centralization of power, but of a whole system of patronage and kinship based on membership of a particular clan, created and consolidated by Nazarbayev. In addition to the existent internal dynamics of patronage, Nazarbayev maintains sweeping powers. He not only remains at the head of the ruling Nur Otan party, but he also presides for life over the Security Council, a constitutional advisory body tasked with forming and implementing the country's security policy, advising the president on domestic policy issues, and preparing for the implementation of international agreements. Needless to say, this position allows Nazarbayev to maintain control over major decisions in the political and military fields, as well as to dismiss government officials, control every draft law, as well as the implementation of every government policy. Tokayev is, in addition, obliged to seek Nazarbayev's approval before any kind of political meeting.

Ranked 23rd in the Freedom House Global Freedom Score, Kazakhstan is considered a non-democratic country, where freedom of expression as well as access to free and independent information is constantly denied. The digital communication space in the country is mainly controlled by the National Security Committee, which is responsible for the constant monitoring and blocking of websites, social media, messaging apps, especially during periods of political unrest. All of this is supported by a legal system that provides criminal sanctions for libel and for the 'deliberate dissemination of false information'. Both of them are often used against activists and journalists critical of government lines. An increasing role in the censorship and repression of dissident voices is occupied by the growing use of new surveillance technologies. The 11 January 2021, the European parliamentary question on human rights violations in Kazakhstan ahead of parliamentary elections denounced the Kazakh government's use of Chinese technology in order to prevent citizens from reporting election fraud, accessing alternative sources of information during elections, as well as to block access to websites or social media. Chinese technologies, however, are not the only ones to be imported and used, but they are flanked by Russian and European ones.

3. The role of China and Russia in advancing digital authoritarianism

Located in the center of the Eurasian region, with one of the most developed economies and greatest resources in the region, Kazakhstan has an important geopolitical strategic value for the main powers active in the region, including Russia and China. Despite the fact that the Soviet past is still etched in the minds of many, Russia continues to exert a strong political and economic influence in the country, mainly due to two initiatives promoted by Moscow: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) created in 2014. While the former contributes at maintaining a post-Soviet order, the EAEU stands as an economic tool to contain Chinese economic influence by offering affordable trade tariffs and privileged access to its member countries' energy resources. Whereas Moscow plays a key role in the political and security spheres, Beijing is expanding its influence through numerous economic and infrastructure investments in the region following the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Chinese interests in the region revolve around three main axes: i) maintaining security in the western province of Xinjiang; ii) having access to the energy resources of the region and, in particular, of Kazakhstan; and iii) connecting China to Europe through the construction of infrastructures passing through Central Asia. The Kazakh government is not only actively collaborating in the implementation of Chinese projects in the country, but has also aligned its national development plan, the Nurly Zhol, with the BRI. Despite, in fact, the strong Russian influence, China represents a successful model of state-led development, based entirely on a non-democratic, one-party regime. In the case of Kazakhstan, foreign direct investment and increased economic dependence on China is fueling an autocratic system, helping to maintain and concentrate power in the hands of the current ruling elite.

3.1. The Chinese surveillance model

Among Chinese investments within the BRI, surveillance technology exports play a key role, not only for greater economic development, but as a real foreign policy strategy. In Central Asia, Chinese companies such as Hikvision, Huawei, Analytical Business Solutions and Speech Technology Center are working with national governments to develop surveillance technologies based on facial recognition, with the ultimate goal of ensuring 'public safety'. In October 2019, for example, buses in the capital city of Nur Sultan were equipped with facial recognition cameras, developed by Chinese company Hikvision, to 'facilitate' bus fees payments and some 2,000 cameras surround the city.

What worries many is that China is not only exporting its technology, but also its governance model. In fact, with 2.6 million surveillance cameras at the end of 2019, China is the most surveilled country in the world. State control of the Internet is also notable. The 2010 White Paper, "The Internet in China," states how "laws and regulations clearly prohibit the dissemination of information that contains content that subverts state power, undermines national unity, or violates national honor and interests". The Chinese model of control allows the state to remove and manipulate online content that criticizes the regime, revoke access to activists or opponents, block social media and foreign websites, and cyber-attack dissidents. The control of online content is accompanied by the use of advanced surveillance technologies, based on artificial intelligence, facial recognition and biometric databases.

3.2. The Russian surveillance model

Compared to the Chinese surveillance model, the Russian surveillance model is based less on monitoring activities but more on repressive ones and relies on the System for Operational-Investigative Activities (SORM). SORM was initially developed by the State Security Committee (KGB) in the mid-1980s for the interception of telephone calls. It was then upgraded over the years in order to be able to monitor Internet traffic, up to the SORM-3 model, capable of collecting information coming from all types of media. In addition to the SORM system, the Russian government has designed a video surveillance system called 'Safe city', whose video surveillance cameras, integrated with facial recognition technology, are capable of transmitting collected information directly to central authorities.

providers control device
Source: Security Affairs


In Kazakhstan, the SORM system has been extensively integrated by the authorities to monitor the population. Most Kazakh telecommunication companies, such as Astel OJSC, JSC Nursat, and KazakhtTelecom use it. In addition, many providers require the installation of SORM-2 to be used. This allows Kazakh police to intercept calls, internet traffic, messages, and facial recognition and analyze this data through powerful analytics software. Both the Federal Security Services (FSB) and KazakhTelecom also make use of Russian-made systems, such as the 'Semantic Archive', which is capable of transmitting collected information into a single database. Similar technologies, such as the XFiles system, produced by the Russian company I-Teco, is employed by the Kazakh Ministry of Justice.

4. Conclusion

Being at the center of various regional and global forces, Kazakhstan appears to be adopting a multilateral cooperation strategy, taking advantage of the competition between regional and global powers to strengthen its power and legitimacy, leveraging its strategic geographic location between Asia and Europe and its energy resources. Besides Russia and China, in fact, Kazakhstan has a strategic value for Europe as well. The European Union is one of Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners, as well as one of the largest investors in the region. The Enhanced Partnership Agreement signed with the Kazakh government in 2015 and entered into force on 1 March 2020, aims to increase political dialogue and foster greater cooperation through the promotion of bilateral trade and various strategic investments.

While the European institutions’ report on the constant human rights violation in the country and the disproportionate use of technologies in order to monitor and repress any kind of opposition is an important step, the absence of binding conditions in favor of the respect of human rights within its economic agreements, together with the limited political and economic weight it holds in the region compared to Russia or China, do not allow for the implementation of more beneficial and practical solutions. However, it is essential, on the one hand, to regulate at a European level the export of technological surveillance systems to authoritarian countries, and on the other hand, to offer competitive and alternative technological models, conditioned by greater respect for human rights.

Asia trade turnover Eu China

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