“I am a reformer, so there will be no status quo,” the Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was defining himself in June, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Since then, every step taken by the new leader of Kazakhstan has only confirmed this principle and his commitment to deeply reform the country’s political order.
Moreover, the determination of the new Kazakh President to revolutionize the political system was clearly expressed in his first address to the nation on Sept. 2 and since then, in all his public appearances, he has not deviated at all from this ambitious goal.
Although the continuity of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s political legacy has been a declared priority for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and was also part of his electoral strategy, with which he registered a landslide victory in the early presidential elections held in June, some of the Kazakh leader’s bold decisions so far have been truly innovative and have drawn the attention of the political analysts who noted a change of paradigm.
“Without political transformation, Kazakhstan will not be a success story. Without political reforms, there will be no progress in economic reforms,” Mr. Tokayev added in the same interview, thereby giving the signal of the switch from the “economy first, then politics” principle which prevailed until no long ago and explaining his vision for Kazakhstan’s steady, yet significant economic growth under these new concepts.
Among the latest effective measures taken by President Tokayev is the creation of the National Council of Public Trust on July 17 with the main goal to formulate suggestions and recommendations on the current issues of the state policy based on a broad discussion with the representatives of society, political parties and civil society. The new body, which is composed of 44 public figures, civil society and human rights activists and journalists, had its second meeting on December 20 in Nur-Sultan, where President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced a package of political reforms, considered by political observers as a clear expression of his political will and openness for taking significant steps aimed at starting a public dialogue on the needed political reforms in Kazakhstan to support the culture of opposition, to build a tradition of parliamentary opposition, but in the same time to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms to every citizen.
In addition, in order to show the body’s real significance, openness and transparency and to answer any criticism, but also to stop the growing protest sentiments in the society, the Kazakh President, who chaired this second meeting of the Council, opted to announce some bold decisions to show the Council’s serious intentions to become a genuine rostrum of transparent public dialogue for the most acute issues of the society.
“We are overcoming the fear of alternative opinion. The government does not believe that disagreement is a destructive or socially dangerous phenomenon,” Tokayev told the Council meeting.
“The council reflects this idea of different opinions – one nation,” the Kazakh President noted.
“This is not just a slogan or idea, but a real action. The first meeting shaped the agenda of the national council. All suggestions and initiatives were taken into account. The relevant mechanisms and procedures were launched. Work continues,” he said.
In addition, the President wrote on his Twitter account in the same day that the principle “Diverse Opinions – One Nation” is a clear reflection of the work of the National Public Trust Council. “It is not just a slogan or a statement, it is a specific action”, he underlined.
Further on, also on Twitter, Mr. Tokayev took the pledge that the reform of the political system will continue. Among the steps to be taken are the introduction of a preliminary notification procedure for rallies, simplification of the requirements for party formation, and the creation of necessary conditions for the formation of a parliamentary opposition.
Also on Twitter, he wrote after the first Council meeting held on September 6, where participants raised concerns about pension system and land reform, the latter on the agenda since 2016 when citizens protested against the amendments that would have allowed foreign citizens purchase land, and called for amendments to media, election and party laws, among other issues.: “We need new solutions to old problems. The best ideas of the council members meant to modernise the political system, reboot the social and economic policy, reform law enforcement and judiciary, will find their real use”.
The conclusions of the second meeting of the Council held on December 20, not only strengthened these statements that news solutions are needed to old problems, but showed a clear vision of the Kazakh President of how the reboot and modernization of the political life should be done, so that his self-definition, expressed in the interview granted to The Wall Street Journal, as reformer be fully confirmed not only by simple words, but also by deeds and concrete and effective measures.
“There should be no doubt as to the need for political modernisation, which I said in my state-of-the-nation address,” the President said. “At the same time, the reforms should, of course, contribute to the stable development of our country, not undermine it. We need to strengthen the creative foundation of the political process so that pluralism becomes an important element in enhancing economic well-being and human capital,” said Mr. Tokayev.
Once the law is passed, peaceful rallies will require notification to the relevant authorities only, rather than going through a permission process. Tokayev noted that a “culture of rallies” should be cultivated among people.
“It is time for both society and the state to adequately relate to the public expression of position. This is inevitable and it is better to approach it on its own, consciously, and not under pressure. We need to understand that rallies are not only a right, but a responsibility,” said the President.
Tokayev also said the law on parties and elections should also be gradually changed. The threshold to form a political party will be reduced from 40,000 people to 20,000 people in an effort to reduce barriers to equal political participation and expand opportunities for civic engagement.
“We need to understand the main condition for a new social paradigm – the presence of alternative views and opinions. In past years, there were active citizens taking part in tackling a wide range of social and economic problems. We understood that alternative opinions and public debate do not lead to stagnation, but, on the contrary, are some of the main requirements for development,” President Tokayev said, emphasising the need to expand the presence of political minorities in Kazakhstan’s Parliament.
Political parties will also be obliged to have women and youth make up at least 30 percent of their lists, to help amplify those voices in decision-making processes.
Tokayev also instructed the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs to start procedures to join the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty. According to Astana Times, Kazakhstan has maintained a moratorium on capital punishment since December 2003.
Article 174 of the Kazakh Penal Code, which penalises incitement of social, national, tribal, racial, class or religious hatred, will be humanised and will have more clearly defined terms to reduce ambiguity and vagueness.
Article 130, on defamation, is another issue in the Penal Code that recently raised heated public discussion and was brought up at the first meeting of the council. Subsequently, there were several meetings of council members and state representatives on the issue.
“There were suggestions to decriminalise this article, but it turned out there are serious counter arguments. Some activists advocated for the preservation of this norm in the Penal Code, as it deals with the protection of human rights and dignity. Some state bodies suggested amending only the first part of the article,” explained the Kazakh President.
“After reviewing all positions and aspects in this issue, I made the decision to decriminalise the article and move it to the Administrative Code. At the same time, high responsibility must be maintained in order to guarantee the rights of other citizens and protect them from libellous fabrications and attacks,” he added.
The Kazakh President said the government is aware of the demand for further political changes.
“Democracy should serve development and creativity, and not estrangement and collapse. We will build our work based on the highest development goals. There should be no place for populism,” he said.
The council’s open-door meetings and live translation on social networks are very positive features that give credibility to this new institution and that legitimize it in people’s minds, showing without any doubt a transparent approach of the new leadership of the country to tackling some of the country’s most acute issues.
These essential changes of paradigm prove that the year 2019 has been rich for Kazakhstan, which has embarked on a deep transformation road. The resignation of the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March, after almost 30 years in office, and the early presidential elections in June that have brought the former Senate Speaker, an experienced politician, at the helm of the country with a new vision to reform the political system, are among the key milestones of the irreversible transformation of this country.
Along with the pledges of President Tokayev to bring significant changes in the political and social life, but also in the judiciary, Kazakhstan is set to remain a success story in the economic field, also expanding its ambitious reform push to attract investments, capitalising on its strategic geographical location at the crossroad of the largest international trade corridors, that enables connection to European, Asian and Middle Eastern markets.