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Democratization Process in Kazakhstan Unfolds

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 03, 2017

    After having fully consolidated the state for 25 years, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has recently initiated the process of devolving some presidential powers to the Mazhilis (Parliament) and the Government.1

    The 76-year-old Nazarbayev, the most popular and accomplished President, has been in power since even before the Soviet collapse in 1991. In 2015, he won a fifth term with an overwhelming 98 per cent of the vote.

    But early this year (January 25, 2017), in an address to the nation, Nazarbayev called for amending the constitution to give more power and responsibilities to the parliament and the government for managing social and economic development. He said “vertical separation of power was necessary to overcome the enormous difficulties of state formation” including to meet the impending “global and regional challenges”. The proposed reform, he said, is a “serious redistribution of power, democratization of the political system as a whole.”

    Under the new system, the President would focus only on strategic, foreign policy and national security matters while serving as "supreme arbiter" between the various branches of government. In essence, the Government and Parliament would be solely responsible for running the country’s affairs. It seems that about 40 functions are to be transferred to Parliament. These include the Parliament’s role in the formation of Government, bringing amendments, choosing the cabinet, and lawmakers holding a "vote of no confidence" on a sitting cabinet. What it all means is that the Government would be accountable to the Mazhilis rather than to the President. The Government, headed by the Prime Minister, will have the right to set programmes but also bear full accountability for them. However, the President will retain the right to cancel or suspend the acts of the Government.

    The proposed programme is stated to be aimed firstly at ensuring the stability of the political system, secondly to make the Government and Parliament more effective in responding to modern challenges, and thirdly to evolve a political system for Kazakhstan of its own, rather than copying a foreign model, to cater to the country’s unique problems. Nazarbayev stated that the fifth reform “Open Government” is a part of democratic reforms and the proposed redistribution of powers is meant to ensure an appropriate system with checks and balances.

    The draft proposal has been made open for a nationwide public debate and, in March, the Mazhilis gave preliminary approval to the proposed legislation. It seems that the President has endorsed the changes for the amendments.

    Nazarbayev’s latest moves have led to speculations about him laying the groundwork for an eventual political transition. He has been saying over the years that “power won’t be a family business” and he has no intention for his children to succeed him.2 But his latest move came soon after the demise of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in September 2016, who had opted out of leaving behind a family legacy and had instead gradually prepared the ground for shifting some power to parliament – ostensibly to avoid a political crisis after his demise.

    However, the critics of Nazarbayev (though scanty) say that the move is nothing but a stunt to make things easier for the entrenched political elite to manage a succession by dividing key roles among different factions and figures rather than allowing one successor to emerge – a Uzbekistan-style power transition aimed at denying leadership to Nazarbayev’s elder daughter Dariga, just as Karimov’s daughter Gulnara has been denied leadership by powerful Uzbek elite clans.

    Under the present system, the speaker of the Mazhilis, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, would succeed Nazarbayev in the event of the latter’s death, pending elections. But Nazarbayev's Nur Otan Party that controls 84 of 98 seats in the Mazhilis can easily manoeuvre the succession plan in the event of the President’s demise.

    Nazarbayev’s move essentially comes following the massive economic slowdown faced by oil-rich Kazakhstan after the plunge in oil prices since 2014. The country is facing its worst downturn since 2009. The government had to spend USD 10 billion from its oil fund to bail out banks. In addition, the economy has suffered badly due to Western sanctions against Russia. As a result, the country’s GDP growth slowed from 4.1 in 2014 to 1.2 per cent in 2015, and further came down to 0.1 per cent in 2016 – the lowest since 1998. In 2016, the national budget had to be readjusted based on an average oil price of USD 40 per barrel, down from USD 80 per barrel in the 2015 budget.

    In fact, soon after he set out a bold plan to enhance the powers of Parliament, Nazarbayev, in his annual address on January 31, 2017, announced the “Third Modernisation” of Kazakhstan, which envisages a new model of economic growth to help the country join the top 30 most developed countries by 2050.3 The five priorities of the Third Modernization plan include: acceleration of technological modernisation of the economy; improved business environment; macroeconomic stability; improved quality of human capital and institutional reforms; and improved security (preventing terrorism and extremism) including fight against corruption by creating a “Cybershield” of Kazakhstan”.

    Interestingly, Nazarbayev has been appreciative of Donald Trump’s plans to revive domestic industry and boost infrastructure spending. He endorsed Trump’s view that “there’s no need to spread American values across the whole globe” to promote democracy. “The best democratization is to have the West in friendly relations with all of us.”

    The changes in Kazakhstan have also come against mounting security challenges. The country faced frequent street protests against the Government’s plans to encourage investments by easing land sales to foreigners. The Government had to abandon the plan after it realised that the existing Parliamentary structure had no teeth to respond to the huge public outcry against the land laws.

    The political restructuring seems also impelled by heightening security concerns and threat from terrorist groups. The country recently experienced a series of terrorist attacks involving the Islamic State (IS). Reportedly, many Kazakh fighters have joined the ranks of the IS and are fighting along with the Al Nusrah Front in Syria and Iraq. The possibility of these fighters returning to the country to foment trouble is a huge risk, especially given that Kazakhstan is predominantly a Muslim country.

    The stakes are, in fact, high for Kazakhstan, especially for its oil industry in which major companies including Chevron Corp. is investing billions in the Tengiz oil field. Similarly, the giant Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea draws investors including Eni SpA, Total Sa and Royal Dutch Shell Plc and brings large revenues to the country.

    However, the constitutional changes are more about managing a succession plan that would technically sound like a democratic decision. But the planned transfer of power is unlikely to make Parliament more potent. It is doubtful that the vertical structure of power flowing from the President will vanish.

    Kazakhstan cannot risk experimenting as yet with a horizontal distribution of power or a parliamentary form of democracy. A Kyrgyz-style democracy could potentially plunge the country into a deep crisis given its diversity and large resources. Which means a strong presidential system will remain in being. And that is indicated by the proposed reform envisaging the President retaining the right to cancel or suspend any act passed by the Government.

    While it is difficult to delve into the depth of the internal dynamics of Central Asian countries, because one intrinsic aspect of the political systems in the region is that they revolve around the intricate interplay of major Zhuz (clan) and tribal networks that effectively influence their economic and commercial interests.

    The earlier transitions of power to Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan and to Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan, following the deaths of President Saparmurat Niyazov and President Islam Karimov, have been smooth without any sign of internal feud.

    It seems that Kazakhstan is likely to emulate the Uzbek model. Tashkent recently had a smooth and soft transition of power following Karimov’s demise. In fact, in Uzbekistan’s case, the traditional clan-regional network had worked out a power-distribution deal prior to Karimov’s death. Also, the Uzbek model of parliamentary functioning, which enables the letting out of steam, could be a useful experience for Kazakhstan to follow in order to deal with the frequent public outcries over policy issues.

    Clearly, in the case of Kazakhstan too, the balancing of power interests among local Zhuz clans/tribes would be essential for ensuring political stability. Unlike in Uzbekistan, the distribution of power among the major Zhuz, which have high stakes in the country’s vast energy resources, will prove to be complicated one.

    Seemingly, this traditional system and solidarity for selecting leadership and sharing of powers has proved practicable in the region. In fact, this is the only option that outwits any other form of social mobilization including through religious solidarity – one reason why the region has been insulated so far from protest movements despite the strong presence of Islamists in the region.

    In fact, it was widely expected that Karimov’s death would trigger a wave of internal instability that could be exploited by Islamists such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb-ut-Tehrir (HuT) and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and others that are well entrenched in the region and have been using violence to create an Islamic caliphate for decades. But this has been belied by the matrix of clan solidarity, howsoever opaque that may be. Already, the policies of the new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev are helping to spur large-scale changes in the region including the resolution of long-standing inter-state tensions over land and water disputes.

    Moreover, the succession question in Kazakhstan has huge geopolitical significance for the region. So far, Nazarbayev has successfully played a balancing game vis-à-vis the two giant neighbours Russia and China. Nazarbayev co-founded the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Putin, but he also fully endorsed Xi Jinping’s plan to revive the ancient Silk Road under the One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) plan that makes Kazakhstan a land bridge between Europe and Asia.

    Whatever may be the motivation behind Nazarbayev’s proposed changes in the constitution, his efforts are going to ensure a modicum of stability in Central Asia’s largest country. Until now, the oft-speculated Western scenario of a political vacuum and chaos in Central Asia following the death of the old leadership has proved wrong. The fact is that the democratic process is making marked progress, albeit as per the region’s own political ethos and traditions. The last presidential elections in Uzbekistan in November 2016 were considered extremely free and fair even by the OSCE/ODIHR Mission.4

    It seems also clear that despite the opacity of Central Asian politics, the course of political change in the region is likely to be smooth, which is also essential for peace and stability within and outside Central Asia, including India.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.