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Is Kazakhstan hewing a new path in the Central Asian region?

Kazakhstan President Kassym Jomart Tokayev (Images courtesy: Akorda.kz & Parlam.kz)

Will Kazakhstan be the one to spearhead deep rooted change in the Central Asian region? While ensuring continuity, the country it seems, is ushering in long-term change in some innovative ways. In a region rife with the deification of rulers who have been at the helm for decades, Kazakhstan is seeking to put an end to it. But unlike fellow Central Asian country Kyrgyzstan, which has seen numerous presidents seated and overthrown creating chaos and cacophony, Kazakhstan seems to be getting its act together more adroitly.

On  June 5  this year citizens of Central Asia’s largest country will be participating in a referendum for the adoption of some constitutional amendments. According to current President Kassym Jomart Tokayev, the constitutional reform is aimed at a comprehensive transformation of the entire state model. The amendments are intended to ensure the final transition from a “super-presidential” form of government to a presidential republic with a powerful parliament and an accountable government. The full-majoritarian system of elections of deputies to regional and city masukhats opens up the opportunity for citizens to influence on life in the regions more effectively.”

While there is nothing unusual about making amendments to a constitution, one change that has been proposed by Kazakhstan’s law maker is curious. And that is – doing away with the mention and explication of the ‘historical role’ of Kazakhstan’s first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nursultan Abishovich Nazarbayev, 78, grew up in the Soviet Union, was a former steel worker and a high- profile member of the Communist Party. He held the reins of power and ruled Kazakhstan and its almost 18 million people with an iron fist. Under him, energy rich Kazakhstan, which is also Central Asia’s largest republic, has recorded higher standards of living, a brand-new capital Astana, sustained increase in oil output, connectivity with the outside world, and foreign investments. In fact, Nazarbayev endeavoured to follow a ‘multi-vectoral’ foreign policy, trying to do a balancing act between Russia and the West.

In 2012, Nazarbayev announced his new national strategy —Kazakhstan-2050— the main objective of which was to bring Kazakhstan amongst the top 50 developed countries in the world. 


Nut in March 2019, in a surprise move, Nazarbayev announced that he was stepping down from the post of president. He had been holding this post for 28 years, since 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved and Kazakhstan emerged a sovereign republic.

The current constitution includes this on the former president: “The independence of the state, unitarity and territorial integrity of the republic, the form of its government, established by the Constitution, as well as the fundamental principles of the republic’s activities, laid down by the founder of independent Kazakhstan, the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Elbasy), and his status are unchanged”.

Members of the working group are reported to have proposed that the status of the first president and reference to him be eliminated from the constitution altogether as Nazarbayev’s role as the first president of the republic is “well known”. The Constitutional Committee is said to have accepted the amendment.

In a region rife with hagiographies of its leaders, often elevated to the position of demi-gods, Kazakhstan may be hewing a new path.

Earlier this year when spontaneous and unprecedented riots engulfed the country, President Tokayev, in spite of the show and massive use of force, which included inviting forces from the Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), had to also yield to some of the popular demands. This included removing Nazarbayev as the head of the Kazakh Security Council, Karim Masimov , head of the National Security Committee as well as a number of other heads of government, including the Defence Minister, many of whom were close to Nazarbayev. The riots in part were fuelled by dissatisfaction both with the Tokayev administration, as well as with the Nazarbayevs.

The removal of the reference to Nazarbayev in the constitution, read in conjunction with Tokayev’s announcement that the amendments are meant to ensure ‘the final transition from a “super-presidential” form of government to a presidential republic with a powerful parliament and an accountable government’ make it clear that much of the president’s powers, that had been put in place by Nazarbayev, will be curtailed. It may also mean that in later years the glorious place in Kazakh history that Nazarbayev had so far claimed as “Elbasi” – the Leader, may not be imputed to him. While the Constitutional Council has reportedly accepted the changes, it remains to be seen how the Kazakh people will respond to them. Whether or not Nazarbayev’s legacy comes undone, changes in the manner of governance and in the polity towards further democratization of the country will take place in a peaceful and stable manner. This will be a major achievement for the Kazakh people. 

(Aditi Bhaduri is a columnist specialising in Eurasian geopolitics. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)

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