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Russian Cossacks, Russian parliament, centrist party, landlocked nation, Nazarbayev

After Kazakhstan became independent, former Communist officials continued to dominate the government and the legislature, which was renamed the Supreme Kenges. In 1993 Kazakhstan ratified its first post-Soviet constitution, and in March 1994 the republic held its first free multiparty legislative elections since independence. President Nazarbayev’s supporters emerged as the strongest force in the new 177-member legislature. The People’s Unity Party (PUP), a centrist party led by Nazarbayev, won 33 seats, and individual candidates nominated by Nazarbayev won 42 seats. Independent candidates, who were overwhelmingly supporters of Nazarbayev, won 59 seats. International observers monitoring the election reported a number of irregularities, as a number of candidates were allegedly prevented from registering.

Tensions between Nazarbayev and the legislature flared in early 1995. The legislature refused to adopt a new draft budget prepared by the executive branch of government, although Nazarbayev expressed his support for the budget proposals. In February the Constitutional Court proclaimed the previous legislative elections illegitimate, and in March Nazarbayev used this ruling to dissolve the legislature. More than 100 legislators refused to disband and asked for an international inquiry. Nazarbayev effectively began ruling the country by decree until new elections could be held. In a referendum held in April, voters approved the extension of Nazarbayev’s term, which was set to expire in 1996, to the year 2000. Meanwhile, Nazarbayev ordered the drafting of a new constitution. In August the government held a referendum in which voters approved the new constitution, which reconfigured the legislature into two chambers with fewer members. Elections to the new legislature were held in December, with runoff elections in early 1996. Nazarbayev’s supporters again won the dominant share of seats.

Kazakhstan’s new constitution also granted extensive powers to the president, including the right to rule by decree and to dissolve the legislature. As president, Nazarbayev has generally allowed free speech and assembly for all groups in Kazakhstan, with the exception of radical Russian and Kazakh nationalists. These exceptions include Russian Cossacks who have called for Russia’s annexation of northern Kazakhstan and Kazakh extremists who have called for the expulsion of all non-Muslims from Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has tolerated criticism of his programs in the popular press but has outlawed activities that might foment ethnic tensions, such as demonstrations organized by nationalist groups. Sporadic unrest among some Russian communities in Kazakhstan has occurred, mainly in response to the arrests of Russian nationalists accused of fueling interethnic hostilities. The country has also witnessed a number of strikes since the late 1980s, organized by miners, factory workers, teachers, and pensioners. The purpose of the strikes has been to demand payment of salaries by the government, which has been chronically late in paying wages to public-sector workers.

In November 1997 the government of Kazakhstan officially moved from Almaty to new headquarters in Aqmola (now Astana), a small city in northern Kazakhstan. The transfer of the capital from Almaty to Astana had been approved by the legislature in July 1994. Almaty’s vulnerability to earthquakes and Astana’s better transportation links were cited as reasons, although international observers speculated that the move also was designed to allow for more government influence in the Russian-dominated north.

President Nazarbayev has established a close economic, military, and political relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia, despite opposition by Kazakh nationalists. In April 1995 Kazakhstan, which had held a portion of the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR, completed the transfer of its nuclear weapons to Russia. In March 1996 Nazarbayev and Russian officials agreed to cooperate in the fields of energy and railroad transportation. That same month the Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) ratified a 20-year Russian lease of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in south central Kazakhstan. The launch of a new space station, built in Russia with funding from the United States, began from the cosmodrome in 1998.

Foreign analysts agree that the development of Kazakhstan’s large oil reserves is crucial to the country’s economic recovery. An important issue is how to export oil from the landlocked nation. In 1996 Nazarbayev and Russian president Boris Yeltsin reached a preliminary agreement on redistributing the shares of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which plans to build a $2-billion pipeline to export oil and gas from Kazakhstan through Russia to the Black Sea shipping lanes. Russia was given a 24-percent share; Kazakhstan, 19 percent; Oman, 7 percent; the other 50 percent was divided among eight oil companies. The pipeline is crucial to future development of the oil reserves in the giant Tengiz field in western Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev overwhelmingly won a second term as president of Kazakhstan in January 1999. The election, originally scheduled for the year 2000, was moved up by more than a year. International observers criticized the election for failing to meet democratic standards.

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