NUR-SULTAN – On March 16, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev delivered his long-awaited state of the nation address. Originally slated for September, the fact that a major reform package was already unveiled in March underscores the urgency of transformative and lasting change in Kazakhstan, increasing demands for accountability and transparency from Kazakh citizens towards political elites.
Obviously, the first part of President Tokayev’s speech was devoted to the events of January. As we already heard during our visit to Kazakhstan, certain government structures (National Security Committee), senior officials (Minister of Defense) and law enforcement agencies were complicit in a coup against President Tokayev. Clearly, there was opposition among these actors to President Tokayev’s reformist credentials and to the process of radical modernization and transformation of the country that he has embarked on in recent years – a process that also finds broad support within the population and in particular the younger generations.
While the January protests were rooted in a single economic issue, many people called for a more responsible political system in Kazakhstan. It is on this subject that most of President Tokayev’s speech was devoted. The old political system had clearly worn itself out, lost its usefulness and needed a major overhaul.
In one of the most popular announcements, President Tokayev announced the end of “institutionalized nepotism”, which allows close members of the president’s family to hold high positions in government and state-owned companies. Until very recently, family members of the first president held leadership positions in institutions such as the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan; the National Security Committee; and state-owned companies KazTransOil and QazaqGas. The new political system, from the indications we have heard today, will therefore be less based on family contacts and more on merit.
The other important announcement is the redistribution of presidential powers to parliament, increasing the responsibility of the legislative branch of state power, while retaining the general characteristics of a presidential state. In other words, a strong president with a strong parliament, where President Tokayev remains in charge of strategic development planning, state representation and foreign affairs, and national security and defense . And at the same time, the parliament is not there to simply ratify the decisions of the executive but to play an active role in strengthening control of the quality of execution of the State budget, for example .
We hope to see more clearly in practice the principle of a clear and functional separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches and their balanced interaction in accordance with the principle of checks and balances. President Tokayev also aims to increase the independence of the judiciary by creating the Constitutional Court to replace the Constitutional Council of Kazakhstan, an institution too often exposed to executive capture.
All of the Central Asian republics emerged as strong presidential regimes in the aftermath of their independence – perhaps with the notable absence of Kyrgyzstan which has long experienced a parliamentary system but alas accompanied by great instability. Kazakhstan is a pioneer in this respect in that it is beginning a process of gradual decentralization of powers to parliament while maintaining stability in the country.
During the State of the Nation address, less attention was given to economic reforms, which mainly dealt with the negative collateral damage of the current tense international geopolitical environment and in particular the impact of international sanctions against Russia. , on the Kazakh economy. Other structural changes have already been set in motion – green economy, digitalisation, connectivity – and would perhaps deserve less attention in a discourse resolutely devoted to radical new changes for a new Kazakhstan.
A final point worth mentioning is that of the media. In countries in transition, we observe that the media is often perceived as an obstacle or a nuisance by the government, which then creates an environment where journalists have to work in fear and intimidation. It is therefore remarkable that President Tokayev is committed to reviewing the media law and thus creating an environment for an open, competitive and accountable media, as an ally of the government in effecting further democratic changes and increasing the mechanisms feedback between citizens and government. Critical and curious media that do their job without undue pressure, interference and intimidation are essential.
Of course, for some, the speech may not go far enough and fall short of some audience members’ expectations. As the threshold for new parties to form continues to decline, the real litmus test will be whether opposition parties will actually be registered. Also, the fact that no direct elections for regional governors have been announced may disappoint some pro-democracy activists. Instead, regional governors will be elected indirectly. This means that the people cannot elect them, but the local councils, to which the president must propose at least two candidates.
In the coming months, a plethora of legislation; amendments to the Constitution; and new laws will have to be enacted and put into practice. But the stage is set for the new Kazakhstan, and the “new Kazakhstan” is here to stay.
The author is Alberto Turkstra, project manager of the Institute of the Diplomatic World (Brussels, Belgium).
The article was originally published in the Journal of the EU.