Kazakhstan: Is Nazarbayev Serious About Political Reform?
Kazakhstan’s recently re-elected president has made a vaguely worded pledge of political reform for his new term. Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested that Kazakhstan must transition from its super-presidential system to a more balanced one with greater checks and balances.
Yet while mulling reforms to pave the way for the eventual post-Nazarbayev era, the president made no specific pledges about what form they might take or when they might be enacted, leaving skeptics wondering if his intentions are serious.
Kazakhstan’s political system has hitherto been characterized by “strong presidential rule,” Nazarbayev said on May 29 in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda government-owned daily.
Yet as a middle class emerges “this should probably be weakened and the government should be given more opportunities to work independently and more powers should be handed over to parliament.”
There has long been talk in Kazakhstan about weakening the top-down system in which Nazarbayev wields all powers, the government carries out his orders, and parliament (which contains no genuine opposition parties) rubberstamps executive decisions.
Reforms, the thinking goes, would pave the way for a time when the aging president – who has ruled Kazakhstan for a quarter century and will be 80 when his term of office ends in 2020 – will no longer be in power, allowing him to bequeath his successor a system less dependent on one personality.
Talk of political reform has in the past failed to deliver anything beyond cosmetic changes. So many commentators reacted skeptically to the idea that Nazarbayev (who is officially known in Kazakhstan as “Leader of the Nation”) plans a radical overhaul of the system he created.
“Most such initiatives remain at the level of talk,” political analyst Rasul Zhumaly told the Kapital newspaper. Parliament is dominated by Nazarbayev’s ruling Nur Otan party, he pointed out, and “all decisions are made there with practically 100-percent unanimity.”
“Since there is no real debate in parliament, this sort of initiative with this sort of parliament will hardly change the quality of decision-making,” Zhumaly concluded.
Anticipating criticism, Nazarbayev said that everyone has “their own truth” when it comes to democracy. For Kazakhstan, he declared, “democracy lies in making the state more accountable to the people.”
His election manifesto promised greater public accountability and improved rule of law as well as economic growth. The 100 steps designed to deliver on his pledges, unveiled last month, contain plenty of detailed measures on improving transparency and public accountability, from overhauling the bloated and corrupt civil service, police and courts to publishing more financial data online.
However, the 100 steps contain not a word about the political reform to which Nazarbayev has once again professed his commitment.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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