There Will be No ‘New’ Kazakhstan Without Deep Legal, Constitutional Reforms — Law Professor Explains Recent Mass Protests

In the aftermath of mass protests that swept major cities across Kazakhstan last month, resulting in hundreds of casualties and ultimately the deployment of Russian and allied troops to restore order, a law professor from Nazarbayev University explains what happened, and what we can expect for the Central Asian nation going forward.

How did the mass protests come to be?

Rallies in western Kazakhstan that started on January 2 rapidly escalated into nationwide protests over economic hardship, rising poverty, total corruption, and an ineffective political system – problems that have been simmering through the course of the past 30 years of the country’s independence. In several major cities, and particularly the city of Almaty, a wave of violence swept the streets. Peaceful demonstrations turned into seizures of administrative buildings, looting, and deaths. The uprising swiftly emerged as the largest and the most violent wave of protests that have occurred in independent Kazakhstan’s history.

The authorities shut down the internet and landlines across the country. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed “foreign elements” for the unrest and claimed that the protests were organized by “international terrorists.” He stated that it was a coup aimed at undermining the country’s constitutional order. These claims of armed aggression carried out by international terrorists provided an apparently legitimate basis for the president’s appeal for the deployment of troops by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The president launched the government’s reshuffle and removed Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, from his position as the head of the Security Council. Later, some of the first president’s family members and allies were also removed from key positions amid efforts by the current president to distance himself from his predecessor.

After the situation stabilized, local authorities in Almaty estimated that damages caused by the unrest amounted to some 67 billion tenge [ed: roughly $155 million USD as of publication date] to business entities and 22.6 billion tenge [ed: roughly $52 million USD] to administrative buildings. The Prosecutor General’s Office has announced that 225 people were killed and 4,578 people were injured, including civilians. Finally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that almost 8,000 people have been detained since the beginning of the anti-terrorist operation.

The international community’s reaction has been mixed. The UN denounced the use of armed forces against protesters, including the use of deadly weapons, and called for an independent investigation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Tokayev’s ‘shoot to kill’ order and the decision to appeal to the CSTO for military assistance. The EU Parliament issued a resolution condemning ‘the violations of fundamental freedoms and human rights committed by the Kazakh authorities against demonstrators, media workers, and activists.’ Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s neighboring states – Russia and China, expressed their full support to President Tokayev.

International markets responded too. For example, bitcoin price immediately dropped below $43,000 since Kazakhstan ranks as the world’s second-largest center for bitcoin mining after the United States.

What sparked the outcry?

Due to the Internet shutdown and a lack of reliable information, speculation and theories about what actually happened in the country have proliferated, as evidenced by varying interpretations offered by Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, Foreign Policy, and other international and domestic sources, as well as an endless array of op-eds by area studies experts, academics, and other observers.

The available evidence suggests that what pushed people to the streets were the general sentiments of the unfairness of Kazakhstan’s existing economic and political systems and the incapacity to change them within available institutional means. Amid the protests, President Tokayev had to admit that oligarchic groups that have emerged thanks to the first president are the primary beneficiaries of the country’s economic growth and rich natural resources.

The second theory claims that the protests resulted from power struggles between the country’s political elites and specifically two clans representing the first and the current presidents. Since 2019, when Nazarbayev introduced his chosen successor Tokayev, the country had remained stuck in a ‘semi-transition’ of power when the first president stayed behind the scenes remaining a highly influential political figure. [Ed: After having led the country for some 30 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev stepped down from the presidency in 2019, but remained the country’s most powerful man by virtue of his position on the NSC, and his appointment to the newly created position of First President.] That division of power between Nazarbayev and Tokayev caused an assumption that Tokayev played a nominal role while the real power remained with the first president. As a result of the January events, that power transition to President Tokayev has finally occurred.

The third explanation echoed by the state authorities blames Islamic radicals for having planned and carried out a terrorist attack.

The reality might be that the combination of these factors triggered the unrest. The CSTO military forces left the country on January 19, but the key questions still remain. Will the January events become a starting point for the ground-breaking institutional reforms that Kazakhstan needs? What reforms will the country’s political leadership pursue: fundamental and systemic changes or piecemeal and fragmented interventions? Will Kazakhstan implement the rule of law or replace one autocratic leader with another? The answers to these questions may depend on how optimistic the person answering tends to be.

An optimistic perspective on what we can expect going forward: 

Some feel hopeful about the country’s future course under President Tokayev’s leadership. Indeed, since the beginning of January, the president has been very proactive in proposing reforms and plans across various sectors. The president has emphasized that the new Kazakhstan’s agenda targets “raising living standards, bridging income gaps, creating jobs and curbing inflation.”

The implementation of the president’s agenda began with the appointment of a new cabinet and the dismissal of several high-powered figures associated with Nazarbayev and his family. He instructed the new Prime Minister to ease the financial burden on citizens and businesses affected by the riots and looting. The government has already initiated measures that target the inflation rate and prices for socially important products. The president has also tasked new ministers to develop a special program to raise incomes across the population and to reduce poverty. He proposed the creation of a socially-oriented fund called To the People of Kazakhstan, which would be funded by a combination of private and public sources. The president expects big businesses, wealthy individuals, and monopolists to make significant and regular contributions to this fund as their “tribute to the people of Kazakhstan.”

The second main direction of the reforms aims to reduce the state’s presence in the economy. The government intends to select a pool of state assets for future privatization and set up necessary legal and economic conditions for its implementation. As part of the reform, the national sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, which manages major state assets, has announced its modernization plan. The plan seeks to optimize the fund’s “cumbersome” management structure, review the nature of the relationship with the government to facilitate budget inflows, and improve procurement transparency. The fund has launched a massive staff reduction and cut many of its own managerial positions, as well as those in its portfolio companies. However, it is debatable whether these plans will result in more effective asset management and better market competition rather than trigger another property redistribution and the emergence of new super-rich individuals.

The president has also highlighted that Kazakhstan is keen to maintain a favorable investment climate during these turbulent times and reassured investors that the state will fulfill all obligations and guarantees.

With respect to institutional reforms, the president dwells on the radical reorganization of the entire national security system, including the Armed Forces, law enforcement agencies, and intelligence. He emphasizes that Kazakhstan has adopted new legislation and law amendments on rallies, political parties, elections, criminal liability, and human rights protection to liberalize some provisions.

A perhaps more realistic perspective on Kazakhstan’s future:

Despite all the plans and proposals that the president has announced, some experts and observers, including the author, remain skeptical about the nature of the proposed reforms. The problems of income inequality and unfair distribution of resources have been accumulating over the years, along with and notwithstanding the country’s economic growth. Based on the World Bank’s numbers, the majority lives on $3.56 per day, which is very close to the poverty line. On average, Kazakhstanis spend almost 50% of their income to pay for food. As a result, people are increasingly concerned with the question of why in a country that is famous for its vast natural resources, most people earn mainly to buy food. At the same time, media outlets share details of luxury overseas investments made by Kazakhstani oligarchs, including the first president’s family. In these circumstances, President Tokayev had no choice but to acknowledge an obvious imbalance which the country and international experts have already known: 162 people own half of Kazakhstan’s wealth. Creating the To the People of Kazakhstan fund and offering various subsidies may be clear signs of goodwill, but they are unlikely to serve as a fundamental shift capable of altering the existing oligarchic system.

It is worth mentioning that the president’s reform efforts have made little mention of the legal and judiciary systems, which are the core building blocks of the rule of law. Kazakhstan ranks relatively low in the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. Any economic or social change in the country requires a firm commitment to judicial and legal reforms. Independent judges, solid law enforcement, transparent and inclusive election processes, and effective human and property rights protection demand radical actions by officials who are not compromised by economic and political considerations, and who have fresh perspectives on these issues. Many of those who have been tasked with building a “new” Kazakhstan have been working in the state apparatus for years and participated in creating Kazakhstan’s institutional context with its current flaws. In particular, most ministers in the new cabinet have retained their positions, with only one female minister appointed to the government. In this regard, all recent appointments appear to be little more than rotations.

Another concern is a further concentration of power under the president with no real checks and balances within the state. During the January crisis, the Parliament demonstrated its disfunction. Before January 2, Members of Parliament had praised the first president for his political leadership and foundational role in the country’s development. Now many of them vigorously support President Tokayev’s criticism. In fact, on January 27 the Senate approved an amendment to the law “On the First President” that abolishes Nazarbayev’s life-long chairmanship in the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and the Security Council, two strategic state bodies. Another amendment removes the norm that major foreign and domestic policy issues shall be coordinated with Nazarbayev. The fact that the Parliament is totally dominated by the ruling party Nur-Otan, which was previously led by the first president and is now led by President Tokayev, explains the lack of an independent judgment.

The judiciary branch also lacks autonomy. In one of his January speeches, President Tokayev mentioned the importance of renewing the judicial system, not by structural means but through new judicial appointments. In the same speech, the president tasked the Supreme Judicial Council and the Supreme Court with speeding up the appointment process. Such explicit statements from the president illustrate the lack of separation between the judicial system and the executive branch, both in the president’s view and in reality.

As mentioned above, thousands of people have been detained since the start of the protests, including civilians, human rights activists, peaceful demonstrators, and journalists. It is still unclear what has happened to these people and whether they are benefitting from their rights to due process. The lack of information is alarming. The lack of an impartial state body capable of ensuring this protection is disturbing.

To conclude, the focus on socio-economic problems is long-desired. However, with no deep political, legal, and, more importantly, constitutional reforms, the rhetoric channeled from the top will increasingly appear as populism. Such problems as the oligarchic economy, the lack of social justice, a wide income gap, and the growth of social tensions will persist. The next few years will show whether the country and its leadership have in fact reinvented themselves, and whether the promised “new” Kazakhstan truly is on the horizon.

Roza Nurgozhayeva is an assistant professor of law at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.