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Kazakh President Unlikely To Give Up Real Power Despite Pledging End To 'Super-Presidency'


Many are skeptical about the package of reforms proposed by President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev on March 16. (file photo)

Some experts are dismissing the Kazakh president’s proposal to limit the powers of his office as a populist move designed to appease the public following bloody riots in the oil-rich country in January.

In an address to the nation on March 16, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev proposed a package of reforms that include a “gradual” transition from a “super-presidential form of government to a presidential republic with a strong parliament.”

Toqaev said it “is not right” that the president of the country is "at the center of everything.”

He suggested that the constitution be amended to remove some presidential powers, give more authority to parliament, and allow more independence to regional governments and legislative bodies.

Many experts, however, say Toqaev is actually not abandoning any “real” presidential powers.

For example, Toqaev said he wants to abolish the presidential right to cancel or suspend decrees and decisions made by regional governors.

But he wants to maintain the powerful right to appoint and dismiss regional governors, despite long-standing debates and calls from the public that governors be chosen in local elections.

He did, however, say he would give up the presidential right to dismiss village and district heads.

In a more noteworthy change, Toqaev proposed that close relatives of the president be barred from holding high-ranking government posts and executive positions in the quasi-public sector.

The president also said he would resign as the head of the ruling Amanat party to prevent the concentration of too much political power in a single person’s hands.

He also proposed reducing the number of Senate members appointed by the president from 15 to 10.

'Cosmetic Changes'

Almaty-based political analyst Shalqar Nurseit says Toqaev’s proposals are mere cosmetic changes and will not alter “the nature of the authoritarian regime.”

Nurseit says Toqaev doesn’t want to lose the right to appoint and dismiss regional heads because he fears such a step might lead to losing crucial political support from the governors.

Shalkar Nurseit
Shalkar Nurseit

“It’s the regional governors who ensure the president’s victory in elections. Governors follow the instructions from the president’s administration to make sure the election process and the vote count don’t spiral out of control,” Nurseit says.

Similar statements about ending Kazakhstan's super-presidency and empowering parliament have been made numerous times in the past both by Toqaev and his authoritarian predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who resigned in 2019 after running the country for nearly 30 years.

Those pledges of democratization, however, never brought tangible results.

Lip Service To Democracy

Toqaev’s proposed reforms also include allowing for 30 percent of parliament members to be elected in single-mandate districts.

To make it easier for new parties to register, he proposed lowering the number of members required to set up a political party from 20,000 to 5,000.

But experts say that, as long as the authorities continue to stifle political opposition and target activists, the mere creation of new parties or conducting elections won't necessarily bring democracy to the country.

“What is the point of empowering the legislature if it remains a rubber stamp?” says Alex Melikishvili, principal research analyst for S&P Global Market Intelligence. “For meaningful political reforms to take hold, Toqaev must first start by allowing the genuine political opposition to form real opposition parties so that they can then take part in truly competitive parliamentary elections.”

Melikishvili said Toqaev’s proposals are “aimed at placating the public anger” following the nationwide riots that killed at least 238 people in January.

The unrest was sparked by a protest over a fuel price hike. But soon protesters began to call for political reforms and the end to Nazarbaev and his cronies’ continued influence in the country’s politics and economy.

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Melikishvili says the unrest “should have been a wake-up call for Toqaev and Kazakhstan’s ruling elite writ large” to undertake real reforms and address people’s social and political grievances.

“Unfortunately, judging by the content of Toqaev’s speech, this has not been the case,” the expert adds.

Targeting Nazarbaev Relatives

Toqaev’s proposal to ban the president’s close relatives from holding high-ranking positions outside the private sector comes as authorities have mounted pressure on Nazarbaev’s extended family in the wake of the January events.

On January 15, Nazarbaev's two sons-in-law, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively.

Another son-in-law, billionaire Timur Kulibaev, resigned as head of the National Chamber of Entrepreneurs (Atameken) on January 17.

On the same day, Toqaev dismissed Nazarbaev's nephew Samat Abish from the post of deputy chairman of the Committee for National Security.

Kairat Satybaldyuly, another influential nephew of Nazarbaev, was detained on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power on March 13.

Three days later, Satybaldyulys wife, Gulmira Satubaldy, was detained on suspicion of "unlawful seizure of a business," authorities said.

Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of Nazarbaev who was once seen as an heir apparent for her father, resigned from parliament in February.

Many Kazakhs have voiced support for the campaign against Nazarbaev’s relatives and demanded that their “stolen money” be returned to people.

One Almaty resident took to social media to say that “the ban on relatives getting high jobs” was perhaps the only popular move among Toqaev’s otherwise “empty package” of reforms.

RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Ayan Kalmurat and Mukhtar Senggirbay contributed to this report.
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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