Kazakhstan: All politics is local
January’s unrest is on the government’s mind, but do authorities have the tools to respond?
Residents of Bestobe in Kazakhstan’s northern Akmola region had been demanding an audience with their governor for the best part of a year.
Thanks to a decree signed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in March that tightens requirements for face-to-face meetings between local officials and residents, the regional akim, Yermek Marzhikpayev, had run out of road to kick the can down.
Tensions at the April 28 event were palpable.
Hundreds of people filled the seats in the village hall and more stood bunched at the building’s main entrance.
Many were miners who feared they would lose their jobs during an upcoming restructure at the local gold mine – also a source of pollution in the village.
Others were simply fed up with waiting for basic infrastructure promised decades ago.
Local gripes, national fury
On June 5 Kazakhstan will hold a referendum on constitutional changes that the ruling regime hopes will help close one of the bloodiest chapters in the country’s modern history.
Unrest in January began with protests in the oil-rich yet economically depressed western region of Mangystau after the government dropped subsidies for liquified petroleum gas (LPG), which many drivers there use to fuel their cars, causing prices to double overnight.
Solidarity protests soon reached cities where LPG is not used as often, including Almaty. Political demands became broader.
As security unraveled on January 5, the financial capital became the epicenter of deadly clashes that killed over 230 people, mostly civilians. Arson and looting left parts of the city unrecognizable. Smaller cities witnessed their own share of death and damage.
Tokayev has not missed the lesson that local gripes can quickly escalate into national problems.
On March 16, the president rolled out a series of political reforms for a “New Kazakhstan.”
One decree, “On the conduct of meetings between akims and the population,” has replaced a vaguely worded order signed by predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2016.
For regional leaders, the edict stipulates compulsory check-ins with residents of the region’s respective districts and towns at least twice a year. City and district heads are subject to similarly exacting schedules throughout their territorial subdivisions.
Yet critics argue that both the decree and draft constitutional amendments supposedly empowering local governments fall short of what is needed.
Accountability still goes upwards, they say, since akims of regions and cities are not directly elected (village akims are), while local councils are dominated by representatives of the ruling Amanat party.
“You cannot create an institutional link between people and local governments through formal meetings,” Dimash Alzhanov, a political analyst and activist, told Eurasianet. “That is what elections are for.”
Nevertheless, residents of Bestobe were keen to seize their opportunity.
As their settlement is neither a district capital nor a major town, they activated a separate provision in Tokayev’s decree necessitating “out-of-calendar meetings” for akims in cases when it is demanded by local representatives.
Marzhikpayev arrived just 17 days after Bestobe filed the request.
The akim’s pledges to complete a school, improve roads and restore heating – absent since a Soviet-era plant gave out in the 1990s – failed to break the tension.
What residents really wanted was a promise to prevent the mining company from transitioning to open-pit excavations that they believe would cause redundancies and pose fresh environmental threats.
The discussion lasted two hours and mostly consisted of residents venting at the company, Altynalmas.
Eventually Marzhikpayev promised the crowd that he intended to block the development and preserve hundreds of jobs. Applause broke out around the hall. It is not clear whether his office has the power to follow through.
But a week later, Marzhikpayev’s staff were back in Bestobe to chase up their infrastructure pledges.
Democratic leap or local strongman shuffle?
When they appear in small towns, regional governors can generate childlike happiness from their audiences with promises to allocate funding from their sizable budgets.
Town and district akims, on the other hand, spend most of their time explaining why they are unable to meet popular demands, usually due to lack of money or political mandate.
The meetings usually begin with presentations of the authorities’ work-to-date and plans for the future, which are followed by Q&A sessions.
The average duration of regular meetings is around 90 minutes, but residents of Aksu had enough queries for three hours during an April 15 meeting with the akim of the nearest city, Stepnagorsk. The absence or low quality of buses to and from the village was a key concern.
At the end of the two most recent meetings that this correspondent attended – in Stepnagorsk on May 24 and May 26 – city councilors explained to residents the nature of the constitutional changes that will pass if a majority vote “Yes” on Sunday, offering propaganda-lite for the referendum.
That result is a foregone conclusion – there has been no “No” campaign to speak of and the plebiscite is being held just a month after Tokayev called it.
Tokayev has billed the proposed changes as a democratic leap forward and a shift away from super-presidentialism. The changes affecting local government, however, look more like a shuffle.
Longstanding demands for direct elections at the level of regions and major cities have been sidestepped. But there is an amendment affecting how city and regional akims take office.
Instead of having presidents choose a single candidate for the council’s approval, the head of state would offer councils a choice of two candidates for the position. Presidents will also lose their right to overrule the legal acts of local governments.
Time will tell whether these tweaks can help fundamentally alter citizen-state relationships at the local level.
Notably, the proposals “shift political burden from the president’s shoulders to those of councilors,” who will now bear some responsibility for the akim’s future behavior, said Gaziz Abishev, a political observer.
The increased frequency of mandatory meetings “will help provincial leaders improve their communications,” which are traditionally poor, Abishev said, but that may not be enough to prevent mass discord.
“Protest moods are often about problems that cannot be solved quickly, or, at minimum, through meetings,” the analyst told Eurasianet. “Often these are general, national problems [reflected locally].”
Artyem Sochnev is a writer based in Stepnogorsk, Kazakhstan.
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