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Kazakhstan’s Reforms Should Be More Than Just Show

Promised changes after January’s chaos are unpromising so far.

By , a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University who specializes in political regimes and geopolitics in Central Asia, and , a master’s student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies focusing on conflict management and governance in Central Asia.
Protesters wave flags during a rally in Almaty.
Protesters wave flags during a rally in Almaty.
Protesters wave flags during a rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 4. Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

The January unrest in Kazakhstan revealed to its leadership the dangers of ignoring systemic inequality, corruption, and a repressive political environment and put the need for comprehensive socioeconomic and political reforms at the top of the government’s agenda. The sense of domestic instability has been further exacerbated by the looming uncertainties of the spillover effects of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Indeed, the international sanctions on the Russian economy have already had devastating secondary impacts in Kazakhstan, with the tenge, Kazakhstan’s currency, dropping 20 percent in value and food prices soaring.

In light of these developments, domestic audiences had hoped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s State of the Nation address would chart a path to comprehensive political and economic change. In his speech, Tokayev announced plans to build a “new Kazakhstan” through a wide-ranging set of reforms aimed at “democratization” and decentralization of power from a “super-presidential form of government” to a “presidential republic with a strong Parliament.” Yet, despite some promising proposals on court processes and local governance, these reforms risk becoming little more than window dressing if the underlying structural barriers to democratization, transparency, and executive accountability remain unaddressed.

The Kazakh government has long prioritized projecting an image of stability as an essential driver of investment and legitimacy for foreign and domestic audiences rather than actually addressing underlying sources of unrest. These perceptions of stability have been shattered by the January events and the spillover effects of sanctions. But it is still unclear how genuine the administration’s commitment is to the changes needed. After all, Tokayev is a career diplomat and a bureaucrat, long loyal to the same system he is now claiming to reform.

The January unrest in Kazakhstan revealed to its leadership the dangers of ignoring systemic inequality, corruption, and a repressive political environment and put the need for comprehensive socioeconomic and political reforms at the top of the government’s agenda. The sense of domestic instability has been further exacerbated by the looming uncertainties of the spillover effects of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Indeed, the international sanctions on the Russian economy have already had devastating secondary impacts in Kazakhstan, with the tenge, Kazakhstan’s currency, dropping 20 percent in value and food prices soaring.

In light of these developments, domestic audiences had hoped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s State of the Nation address would chart a path to comprehensive political and economic change. In his speech, Tokayev announced plans to build a “new Kazakhstan” through a wide-ranging set of reforms aimed at “democratization” and decentralization of power from a “super-presidential form of government” to a “presidential republic with a strong Parliament.” Yet, despite some promising proposals on court processes and local governance, these reforms risk becoming little more than window dressing if the underlying structural barriers to democratization, transparency, and executive accountability remain unaddressed.

The Kazakh government has long prioritized projecting an image of stability as an essential driver of investment and legitimacy for foreign and domestic audiences rather than actually addressing underlying sources of unrest. These perceptions of stability have been shattered by the January events and the spillover effects of sanctions. But it is still unclear how genuine the administration’s commitment is to the changes needed. After all, Tokayev is a career diplomat and a bureaucrat, long loyal to the same system he is now claiming to reform.

Since its independence, Kazakhstan has pursued a performance-oriented approach of “economy first, politics later” under a super-presidential power structure. Although this system has facilitated Kazakhstan’s transition into an upper-middle-income economy, it has also allowed elites to profit enormously under a favorable status quo. Kazakhstan’s single-party dominance and extreme centralization of power under the president encourages uneven wealth distribution through patronage networks (162 people own 55 percent of the country’s wealth), constrains local government autonomy, and limits the avenues by which people can express their grievances. These structural flaws contributed in large part to the January unrest, which convinced the government that grand gestures of reform were needed to restore its legitimacy.

In his address, Tokayev emphasized the importance of national unity and harmony amid a tense international situation. Reiterating the government’s supposed commitment to transparency, democratic accountability, and respect for human rights, he showcased the human rights ombudsperson’s close monitoring of the January events and the National Council of Public Trust’s routine inspections of detention centers to ensure proper treatment of detained participants. He also made assurances of a thorough investigation of cases in which law enforcement officers used “prohibited methods of interrogation” and torture, disparaging them as unacceptable “barbaric manifestations of the Middle Ages.”

However, skepticism remains over the regime’s commitment to bring justice to the victims of human rights abuses. The 301 reports of torture and brutal interrogation filed with the prosecutor general’s office have led to only nine detentions of law enforcement officers. More robust and transparent efforts by the government to respond to these reports are required for the government to regain public trust.

The president’s comments on the recently passed law on peaceful assembly also raised doubts about what form the promised “democratization” will take in the new Kazakhstan. While highlighting the “democratic law” as a clear effort to make space for civil society to “freely hold rallies and freely express their opinions,” he announced a policy of “no further concessions” and strict enforcement against violations by “provocative activists.” This suggests an intent to closely control protest activity: Not only must civil activists continue to seek local government’s permission to hold a peaceful demonstration—which is rarely granted—but any perceived unauthorized activity will be strictly punished.

The large, peaceful rallies in Almaty on women’s rights and against the war in Ukraine should be viewed with caution, as they only raise critiques that the government finds permissible. Similarly, the move to rebrand the National Council of Public Trust into a National Kurultai, a consultative body aimed to promote dialogue between the government and civil society, would continue the approach of state-managed public discourse if its member lists still require presidential approval.

Many administrative reforms meant to decentralize power away from the president may be hampered if other structural conditions are left in place. While Tokayev proposed reducing the party registration threshold from 20,000 to 5,000 signatures, the main challenge for parties in Kazakhstan is not the registration threshold but the registration process. The chair and two additional members of Kazakhstan’s Central Election Commission (CEC), a body responsible for party registration, are directly appointed by the president; the other four are appointed by each chamber of Parliament, which is dominated by Tokayev’s Amanat party (formerly Nur Otan).

So long as CEC members answer to the ruling party, there is little incentive to register parties that pose a challenge to the current government. Uzbekistan similarly reduced its party registration threshold but simply slow-walked or rejected applications ahead of the 2021 election. The government should develop reforms that protect bureaucratic bodies from presidential influence and break down barriers to political competition.

The same scenario is true for the proposed Supreme Audit Chamber, which is meant to strengthen oversight of the national budget. If it operates like the Accounts Committee, whose members are appointed in identical fashion to the CEC, the chamber will still answer to the ruling government and thus have little license to investigate misuse of funds by government bodies.

Finally, proposed reforms of local governance would exert greater impact if they reduced presidential oversight of akims, or mayors. Tokayev has proposed abolishing his right to “cancel or suspend actions of the akims of regions and cities of republican significance,” as well as his right to “remove district and even rural akims from office.” However, the president can still remove regional and major city akims, which discourages autonomous decision-making. Furthermore, the prosecutor general, who is appointed by the president, can still cancel the actions of these akims, while the regional and major city akims can still remove district and rural akims from office.

This is also the case for the appointment of regional and major city akims. The reforms oblige the president to propose at least two candidates for the posts and then appoint the akims, taking into account the suggestions of maslikhats, or local parliaments. A system by which maslikhats can propose their own candidates would provide them with greater agency, as the current reforms largely uphold the primacy of presidential power in Kazakhstan.

As Tokayev said in his address, “The people do not need abstract ideas and promises but tangible changes for the better.” Retaining the president’s ability to influence the registration of parties, oversight of government bodies, and election of local governments limits the ability of these proposed reforms to produce tangible results.

Despite these challenges, some proposals offer potential to generate significant change if implemented effectively. The expansion of cases subject to jury trial could improve rule of law, so long as the courts apply due process consistently, randomize jury selection, and guarantee the irrevocability of jury decisions.

Additionally, some local governance initiatives hold promise for better redistribution of wealth across the country. Tokayev implied intentions to invest more in new regional capitals such as Semey, Zhezkazgan, and Kapshagai, though the extent of this investment is unclear.

Proposed local-level budget reforms and ratification of the European Charter of Local Self-Government could also provide the foundation for much-needed wealth redistribution away from urban centers. Direct financing of local governments along with greater freedom of local authorities to spend money and decide local policy could go a long way toward addressing inequality and grievances in Kazakhstan. Specific legislation in the coming months will clarify the extent to which the state will actually improve the autonomy and financial viability of local governments. However, just as with previous concerns, reforms will be limited in their ability to effect meaningful change if the president retains his ability, whether directly or indirectly, to remove local akims.

Thus far, unfortunately, the “New Kazakhstan” reforms appear to be mostly spin. More progress is needed. If the government is willing to enact reforms that meaningfully shift the balance of power away from the president and toward elected local governments, Kazakhstan may be able to prevent renewed bouts of unrest and rebuild domestic and foreign trust.

Akbota Karibayeva is a Ph.D. student at the George Washington University who specializes in political regimes and geopolitics in Central Asia.

Jonathan Meyer is a master’s student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies focusing on conflict management and governance in Central Asia.

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