Kazakhstan’s parliament is mulling legislative changes that would bestow vast, new powers on the incumbent president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. In addition to granting Nazarbayev the title of “leader of the nation,” he would gain the right to intervene in politics after he officially retired from the presidency and would enjoy enhanced immunity from prosecution.
The move to boost the already significant powers wielded by Kazakhstan’s president has drawn fire from opposition politicians and could tarnish Kazakhstan’s international image as it chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year.
Parliamentary deputies promoting the amendments say Nazarbayev occupies a special role in Kazakhstan’s national psyche. They talk up his role in shaping Kazakh statehood since independence in 1991, and commend him for successfully steering the country out of the ruins of Communist central planning and transforming it into an energy-rich regional economic powerhouse.
“I believe the achievements of our president give us the right to acknowledge him as leader of the nation, and that status needs to be legislatively enshrined,” MP Svetlana Ferkho told the Mazhilis (lower house) on May 5 in remarks quoted by the state controlled Kazakhstanskaya Pravda newspaper.
With a hyperbolic flourish, she went on to compare Nazarbayev to historical figures who are viewed as the fathers of their respective countries: “Nursultan Nazarbayev ranks with such great personalities as George Washington, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Mahatma Gandhi, who in the interests of their states did truly historic deeds and remained in the memories of their people for eternity,” Ferkho stated.
Deputy Amzebek Zholshibekov said the legislation would grant Nazarbayev a political role even after he retires. In effect, he would retain de facto veto authority over state policy. “The draft law stipulates the need to agree with the first president and leader of the nation [on] initiatives that are being elaborated in the main directions of the state’s foreign and domestic policy,” Zholshibekov said in remarks quoted by the Kazakhstan Today news agency.
Ferkho and Zholshibekov made their comments during an impromptu parliamentary debate on the president’s status that had not been formally scheduled on the day’s agenda. This fact prompted some journalists to question the sudden emergence of the topic.
At a briefing after the discussions, Zholshibekov denied suggestions that the overthrow of the president in neighboring Kyrgyzstan last month had sparked moves to shore up Nazarbayev’s status in Kazakhstan. The MP said that deputies had been drafting legislative amendments concerning the president since last fall. They involve changing several laws – including the one governing the president’s status and the one governing elections – to bestow the title of “first president and leader of the nation” on Nazarbayev. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Zholshibekov said the draft legislation contained “no provision for [a president] being elected forever,” implying that moves to introduce a life presidency for Nazarbayev and abolish the need for him to stand for re-election – which were first mooted last fall – have been shelved. That proposal sparked outcries among opposition leaders, who said it flouted basic democratic principles. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
While stopping short of introducing a life presidency, the latest moves are set to further boost the powers wielded by Nazarbayev, who already enjoys unchallenged influence over all aspects of public policymaking in Kazakhstan. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
Nazarbayev, who has been at the helm of Kazakhstan since becoming first secretary of the Soviet republic’s Communist Party in 1989, is already exempt from term limits following a controversial constitutional amendment introduced in May 2007.
He is expected to stand in the next presidential election, slated for 2012, his political adviser Yermukhamet Yertysbayev indicated earlier this year. Most observers think he would easily win reelection: Nazarbayev enjoys a genuine measure of public popularity, due in no small part to state control over mass media outlets. Political rivals also have little room for maneuver in the tightly controlled political arena. At the same time, his administration has been successful in keeping public dissatisfaction in check.
Opposition leaders had scathing comments about the latest bid to boost Nazarbayev’s status. “Yet again it is Nazarbayev and his entourage demonstrating that, to be honest, they are not confident in themselves,” Bolat Abilov, co-leader of the OSDP Azat Party, said in remarks quoted by the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency. “They want to secure themselves with this ridiculous law.”
With all elected seats in the Mazhilis held by the pro-presidential Nur Otan Party, and the upper house also packed with Nazarbayev loyalists, the proposed legislative amendments seem likely to sail through parliament. [For background see EurasiaNet's archive].
They are set for further debate in the Mazhilis on June 25, raising the possibility that they could be adopted ahead of Nazarbayev’s 70th birthday on July 6. The president himself, who enjoys veto authority over all legislation, will have the final say on the plans.
If passed, the legislation will significantly shore up presidential immunity provisions, ruling out the possibility of Nazarbayev facing trial over actions taken while in office, and extending immunity covering property-related issues to members of his family who live with him.
That would cover his wife, Sara Nazarbayeva, but it was not immediately clear if property immunity would extend to his three daughters. His eldest, Dariga Nazarbayeva, owns a 50.4 percent stake in Nurbank; his middle daughter and her husband, Dinara and Timur Kulibayev, have indirect ownership of a 41.8 percent stake in Halyk Bank. The couple features on the Forbes rich list of world billionaires, with an estimated fortune of $1.1 billion.
Critics say the legislative amendments contradict the principle that everyone should be equal before the law. It also potentially creates an awkward moment for Astana as it leads the OSCE, Europe’s foremost democratization institution.
“Many of the realities of modern Kazakhstan can probably be considered as contradicting OSCE values,” Aitolkyn Kourmanova, executive director of the Institute for Economic Strategies - Central Asia, told EurasiaNet.org. “The fact itself that Kazakhstan has become the chairman of OSCE proves that this organization had either closed its eyes to Kazakh realities, or hoped for their improvements. Yet there are little improvements since the chairmanship was granted.”
Many who lobbied in favor of Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship argued that granting it to Astana would encourage political liberalization. Skeptics say the chairmanship has instead given Astana a green light to cement a fairly constricted political status quo in place.
The administration’s latest actions “prove the correctness of those who predicted that awarding Nazarbayev the OSCE chairmanship while commitments were not fulfilled would be assessed as carte blanche for anything to be permitted,” wrote columnist Sergey Duvanov, a fierce Nazarabayev critic, in a commentary posted on the Respublika news website on May 6.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.