In early January 2022, Kazakhstan, long viewed as a beacon of stability in Central Asia, experienced a deadly bout of civil unrest. The initial protests, instigated by a doubling in gasoline prices, soon spiralled into a nationwide riot. Troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) eventually brutally suppressed the unrest, and the clashes have led to hundreds killed, and more injured or detained. Although the protests initially started over fuel cost concerns, they have also revealed the deep dissatisfaction many Kazakhs have with the nation’s autocratic government.
In the aftermath of these protests, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev introduced a series of legal and political reforms that was then passed by a nationwide referendum. These reforms include the restoration of the Kazakh Constitutional Court, barring family members of the president from government jobs, and streamlining the process for registering new parties and electing parliamentary officials, among other policies. Tokayev has called the changes a move away from a “super-presidential” system, and the formation of a “New Kazakhstan.” However, it is important to note that the proposed reforms do not include economic reforms, especially when considering that economic concerns kickstarted the unrest in January. Thus, are the reforms as significant as Tokayev claims, or are they just cosmetic policies designed to appease the people?
Reforms and Kazakhstan: The Role of Ex-President Nazarbayev
Some experts have criticized the reforms as superficial and symbolic, serving only to appease the people. That may be true; however, the reforms do express a clear wish from Tokayev to distance Kazakhstan from his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s, legacy. This is meaningful, as Nazarbayev can be viewed as a personal representation of authoritarianism in Kazakhstan. From 1990 until 2019, Kazakhstan was governed by the autocratic Nazarbayev, who, to this day, continues to have a large amount of influence over Kazakhstan. Until this year, Nazarbayev held the presidency of the Kazakh Security Council, held the title of “Leader of the Nation,” and many of the nation’s institutions are named after Nazarbayev, including Kazakhstan’s capital. Nazarbayev is known for his long dictatorial rule over Kazakhstan, and thus he is associated by the Kazakh people with Kazakhstan’s problems in general.
To reduce public discontent, President Tokayev has worked to reduce the influence of Nazarbayev’s legacy over Kazakhstan and the government. The passed reforms stripped Nazarbayev of all of his remaining titles and privileges, and Nazarbayev loyalists were removed from Cabinet in the aftermath of the unrest. Furthermore, many of the reforms reverse changes made by a 1995 constitutional referendum that was called by Nazarbayev in an attempt to consolidate his power. By diminishing Nazarbayev’s legacy, Tokayev is able to reduce public discontent in Kazakhstan without actually addressing the underlying economic situation that started the unrest in the first place. This is aided by the fact that many Kazakhs, especially the protesters of early January, view Nazarbayev as to blame for the many problems Kazakhstan faces, for example, inequality and lack of democracy.
More Needs to Be Done
Nonetheless, these reforms do not mean the end of authoritarianism in Kazakhstan. Although the reforms distance Kazakhstan from the legacy of ex-President Nazarbayev, the rest of the reforms are more symbolic. For example, although opposition parties can technically be formed and elected more easily with the new regulations, electoral freedom in Kazakhstan remains low (Kazakhstan ranked 128th of 167 in the 2021 Democracy Index), and thus the existence of new political parties is unlikely to have any influence on Kazakh politics. Furthermore, the public was not consulted on the proposed reforms, and critics have also argued that the reforms do not go far enough. After all, President Tokayev retains many key powers, such as the power to appoint and fire government heads in the country’s regions, and the parliament that Tokayev gave more powers to still serves effectively as a “rubber stamp.” This is because the governing party, Nur Otan/Amanat, has 75 of 107 seats in the lower house, the Majilis, and the other seats are held by parties that exist only because of the government’s approval.
It is also important to note that this is not the first time Kazakh leaders have proposed reforms. Ex-President Nazarbayev proposed reforms to weaken presidential powers and strengthen the parliament in 2017, but these policy changes also did nothing to change the lack of rights and freedoms in Kazakhstan (as evidenced by the anti-government protests). In addition, neither previous attempts at economic reforms nor this round of political reforms focus on the underlying economic problems of the country: inequality and corruption. Thus, any changes in Kazakhstan must address these problems to be considered truly meaningful.
In the aftermath of the January uprisings, thousands of protesters, most of whom were peaceful, were arrested with many tortured and beaten. This shows the lack of will to change by the Kazakh government. Furthermore, the government accused the protesters of being “foreign-trained terrorists,” who were trying to launch a “coup attempt.” This lumping in of peaceful protesters with violent rioters further reveals how the government intends to discredit the legitimate concerns of Kazakh protesters.
While Kazakhstan’s reforms will certainly distance the country from the legacy of ex-President Nazarbayev, they do not go nearly far enough in addressing economic inequality, improving rights, and opening the government to the citizens. Nonetheless, the reforms have shown that the Kazakh government is shaken by the deep dissatisfaction of the people, and the protests should serve as a warning to other ex-Soviet dictators.
Edited by Osama Alshantti