Sunday, February 25, 2024

Kazakhstan’s Once-in-a-Lifetime Democratic Breakaway

On 20 November 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was re-elected as the second president of Kazakhstan. The campaign leading up to the election was unlike any that the country had ever seen.  Tokayev traveled throughout the land, gave speeches, and attended town meetings, as is customary in Western countries. But what sets Tokayev apart is that his words match his deeds. His priority has been to bring economic justice and equality to the people by fighting corruption and reforming the political system.

Breaking away from autocracy

Tokayev began working to erode the power of the former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his family, even before the January 2022 unrest, which was motivated by hangers-on from the old regime. Eventually, riots exploded out of discontent with Nazarbayev-era inequalities.  Tokayev acted decisively to respond to the people’s discontent, by dismantling the state’s architecture, which had enabled oligarchic, authoritarian, and kleptocratic rule.

As part of his political reforms, passed through a referendum and corresponding legislation, the remaining “super-presidential” powers were ceded to the Majlis. Tokayev’s power-sharing package also removed the presidential authority to overrule local authorities.  A Constitutional Court that had been abolished under the Nazarbayev regime was re-instituted. A single seven-year term limit was imposed on any president. And nepotism was officially banned through specific legislation.

When Tokayev announced his campaign program on 26 October, titled “A Just Kazakhstan: For All and for Everyone”, he said: “Every decision and action we take will be based on justice. People are the country’s main wealth and competitive advantage. Therefore, we will firmly follow the formula ‘not a person for the state, but the state for the person’.” 

This approach is a humanistic and individualistic reversal of the political culture that Nazarbayev era elitists had inherited from the Soviet regime. 

Delivering economic justice

To create a fair and level economic playing field for all his constituents, Tokayev is working to dismantle an economy that is still largely dominated by powerful oligarchs. Tokayev is responding to the Kazakhistani’s wish for economic justice by going after businesses owned and run by members of  Nazarbayev’s inner circle. 

These include Nazarbayev’s daughter’s company, which received fees for recycling automobiles; a key business consortium led by her husband Timur Kulibayev, who also lost his leadership roles in the oil and gas sector since Tokayev took power; various enterprises run by Nazarbayev’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy, who has been convicted of fraud, embezzlement, and money-laundering, and the large-scale smuggling operations from the Chinese border, organized by Nazarbayev’s brother, Bolat Nazarbayev, and Bolat’s wife Maira Kurmangaliyeva.

The Nazarbayev family and their personal connections have dominated the Kazakh economy for three decades. Up until the beginning of last year, according to a KPMG report, 50 percent of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of just 162 people. At his final campaign stop in Almaty on 16 November, Tokayev told Kazakhstan’s youth that the country’s natural resources now belong to the whole population. Declarations like this one underscore Tokayev’s break from the old regime.

Bringing social justice

Kazakhstan is still a nascent democracy having achieved independence only 32 years ago. Its sister states in Central Asia are often characterized as oligarchic-authoritarian autocracies. Under Tokayev’s leadership, Kazakhstan has been universally acknowledged for breaking that mold. Contrary to some Western commentary betraying an Orientalist bias, the changes he has led are far from merely “cosmetic”. 

It is undeniable that Tokayev’s initiatives represent a marked contrast to the policies of former president Nazarbayev’s regime, which ultimately fell due to his neglect of the population’s interest at large, including their desire for social justice. Cases of torture are now subject to a Constitutional Court (and families are receiving compensation); an independent human rights ombudsman with immunity from prosecution was established, and the death penalty has been eliminated. 

This year, Tokayev has directed Kazakhstan’s legislation to comply with the norms of the Istanbul Protocol, which sets minimum standards for States to investigate and document torture and ill-treatment as defined by the United Nations. 

Tokayev’s initiatives also respond to social justice grievances by increasing the level of representation by youth, women, and those with disabilities in the national parliament. Women are now allowed to hold official positions from which they were previously excluded by law. In addition, Tokayev has subscribed Kazakhstan to the norms of the Palermo Convention (i.e. “United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime”), which are being incorporated into national legislation.

The challenges ahead

Kazakhstan’s democratic traditions date back to the nomadic hordes in the pre-Soviet and pre-Russian periods, which still survive in the collective consciousness. Tokayev’s reforms have set the country on a progressive democratic trajectory promising justice and fairness to its citizens.  However, these measures are opposed by oligarchic powers, inherited from the previous regime, that seek to maintain and claw back their influence. 

They, together with unjustly cynical foreign critics, denigrate Tokayev’s statecraft.  Foreign observers should applaud and encourage the democratic progress that is underway in Kazakhstan. Among statesmen, Tokayev has the experience, skills, and vision to respond to demands for change. The people of Kazakhstan, at least, appear to recognize this.

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