NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, under growing pressure at home and abroad for his government's failure to carry out economic and democratic reforms, has called for a "reset" of the state structures managing the oil-rich Central Asian nation.
Addressing the nation during a joint session of both parliamentary chambers, the Mazhilis and the Senate, Toqaev said on September 1 that a new state body called the Agency for Strategic Planning and Reforms would soon begin carrying out its function to boost "necessary reforms," while a second state agency will be created to support economic competition. Both will report directly to the president.
The changes, Toqaev said, include direct elections for governors in villages starting next year, as well as hiving off the Agency for Emergency Situations from the Interior Ministry to allow it to have a freer hand in responding to the coronavirus pandemic in the face of protests by citizens demanding compensation for losses caused by the outbreak.
Opposition groups in Kazakhstan have been calling for direct elections of all governors across the country for years, a move that has been rejected by the government.
Kazakhstan's economy has stalled in recent months, hit hard by the double whammy of a drop in oil prices and the virus, which has choked off growth and forced many businesses to be shuttered.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Kazakh government to extend and bolster economic relief for those negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from facing poverty.
Despite Kazakhstan's vast natural resources, a high portion of its population was at risk of poverty even before the pandemic.
One study from October 2018 found that one-quarter of Kazakhstan's population of more than 18 million is chronically poor, and more are at risk of falling into poverty. The situation has deteriorated as oil revenues dwindled due to the pandemic.
In March, Toqaev announced that the government was allocating about $10 billion toward improving access to health care, cash transfers for people who lost income, and protecting businesses from the economic fallout.
The aid package totaled almost 7 percent of Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product, but the relief was still lower than the monthly living wage needed to cover basic expenses in higher-cost cities such as Almaty or Nur-Sultan.
Compounding the problem, some measures such as loan deferrals have since expired.
"There could be dire consequences unless the government urgently extends and expands financial assistance during the quarantine and beyond," said Lena Simet, senior poverty and inequality researcher at HRW in an August 18 report.
Of his almost 90 minute address, Toqaev devoted just two minutes to the issue of human rights in Kazakhstan, though he still called the issue "a priority."
According to Toqaev, his government must bring national legislation in line with the International Convention Against Torture, implement measures to prevent cyberbullying, and join the protocol of the Convention on the Rights of Children. He also called on the Interior Ministry to thoroughly investigate human trafficking cases.
International right defenders have criticized Kazakh authorities for years for limiting the civil and political rights of the country’s citizens, cracking down on dissent, allowing politically motivated persecutions, torture in jails and prisons, and other rights violations.
They have also urged Kazakhstan to release political prisoners, but the authorities in Kazakhstan have insisted that there are no political prisoners in the country.
"Due to what became routine in the past, law enforcement structures continue to stick mainly to an accusation style of work. Very often citizens are being criminally charged without any grounds," Toqaev said in his address, adding that police must be "free from other duties" to allow them more time to investigate crimes and collect evidence.
It was Toqaev's second address to the nation after he took over the former Soviet republic following the sudden resignation in March 2019 of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who had ruled the tightly controlled country since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nazarbaev remains a key political figure as the leader of the ruling Nur-Otan party, and lifetime chief of the powerful Security Council. He also enjoys full immunity guaranteed for him by his title of elbasy - the leader of the nation.