A ‘New Kazakhstan’, or more of the same?
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev promises reform but has just won a second term through a vote as flawed as all the country’s past elections. Tokayev suppressed rare protests with lethal violence in January, but also used the opportunity to decisively eliminate the lingering power of his predecessor, long-time dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev. But reforms that go beyond the cosmetic have so far not followed. To live up to promises of reform, the government should enable an independent inquiry into the human rights violations committed in response to the January protests and allow – for the first time ever – genuinely independent opposition parties to stand in the next parliamentary election.
The promise was of a ‘New Kazakhstan’. Those were the words spoken by the Central Asian country’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in an address last March. But the presidential election held in November looked a lot like the old Kazakhstan. Tokayev was confirmed in his second term with a whopping 81.3 per cent of the vote. His nearest challenger took only 3.4 per cent.
This was an election entirely in line with a pattern stretching back to Kazakhstan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Every election has seen a politically dominant figure – Nursultan Nazarbayev until 2019 and Tokayev since then – win by a preposterous margin. Genuine political competition has never been on offer. No election in Kazakhstan has ever been assessed to be free and fair by independent observers. The 2022 vote kept up that dismal pattern.
A win never in doubt
Tokayev’s 2022 candidacy was backed not just by the party he used to lead but the bulk of the others represented in Kazakhstan’s parliament, all of which support the government. The distant runner-up, Jiguli Dairabaev, also came from a pro-government party. The other candidates were unknowns, mounting minimal campaigns with election promises essentially identical to Tokayev’s. His expectation of victory was such that he didn’t even bother to attend a TV debate with the other candidates.
People with a track record of campaigning for human rights, who might have offered some genuine competition, were once again excluded from standing on the basis of a set of deliberately obstructive rules, including a requirement to have served at least five years in public service – something that excludes candidates from outside government circles. Opposition movements have been banned as ‘extremist’, and the Democratic Party, founded in 2019 to campaign for human rights and the rule of law, has consistently been denied registration. Its leader, Zhanbolat Mamai, has persistently been detained.
The election campaign was marked by the arrest and harassment of critical figures and journalists, internet restrictions, continuing prevention of protests and allegations of voter intimidation and coercion. Voting stations were awash with pro-government observers, while many independent observers were barred. So much for change.
The aftermath of protests
There are compelling reasons for Tokayev to present himself as a reformer. One is that he needs to look like his own man and draw a line between himself and his predecessor.
Tokayev was handpicked by Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s great dictator, who led the country in Soviet times and stayed on as leader until 2019. A rare wave of protests for economic and democratic reforms finally forced Nazarbayev to stand aside as president, but with no intention of giving up power.
Nazarbayev stayed on as head of the ruling party and chair of the Security Council. He retained his title as leader of the nation. His family remained deeply influential in the country’s politics and economically powerful, enjoying vast stolen wealth. Kazakhstan’s glitzy modern capital, Astana, was even renamed Nur-Sultan in his honour.
But then disruption came in the form of another outburst of protests in January 2022. It takes a lot for protests to break out in Kazakhstan, since permission for formal demonstrations is usually refused and when they happen spontaneously the state’s response is typically violence and detention. But in January when the government withdrew transport fuel subsidies, causing the price to almost double, people were driven to the streets by despair.
Although the government quickly backtracked, protests continued, because as happens time and again around the world, once mobilised people felt compelled to air other, long suppressed grievances: about corruption, oligarchic power, poverty, economic inequality and people’s lack of say over decision-making.
Tokayev reacted with nonsensical claims that protests had been instigated by foreign forces to trigger a coup and responded with lethal force. There was protest violence, including incidences of looting and arson, but the response was cruelly disproportionate. Tokayev ordered a shoot-to-kill policy in what the government characterised as an anti-terrorism operation. Russian forces were part of the repression, invited in under a regional defence pact, given the opportunity to do some practice ahead of their invasion of Ukraine.
When brute force achieved its goal, shutting down protests that lasted little more than a week, over 200 people were reported to have been killed and Kazakhstan’s jails were home to around 10,000 freshly detained people. There followed reports of deaths and widespread torture in detention. It’s little wonder that ever since, people have referred to these events as ‘Bloody January’.
A crisis and an opportunity
Bloody January may have presented a threat to Tokayev’s continuing rule, but it also offered an opportunity. Among the objects of protesters’ anger was Nazarbayev’s continuing power, with people chanting ‘old man out’. As protests raged on the streets, inside government a power struggle ensued between Tokayev’s supporters and those still loyal to Nazarbayev. Tokayev triumphed decisively.
Nazarbayev quickly lost his supposedly lifetime role on the Security Council along with his other powers, largely disappearing from public view. His immunity from prosecution has since been lifted. Notable allies have been eased out of power and several members of his family have stepped down from important roles.
Nazarbayev’s nephew was arrested and charged with embezzlement. In September, he was convicted and handed a six-year jail sentence. This would have been unthinkable previously. Nazarbayev’s former security head, Karim Masimov, faces treason charges. Even the capital got its old name of Astana back.
Tokayev pushed home his advantage through constitutional changes endorsed in a referendum held in June. The referendum showed over 77 per cent support for the changes, but again the vote came amid concerns about intimidation, restrictions on protests and media and apparent instances of electoral fraud.
The reforms appear to show some rebalancing of previously unchecked presidential power, but are so far largely cosmetic. While parliament remains filled with pro-government voices, they mean little. They were developed through a process that involved little public consultation and presented to voters in a short campaigning period of less than a month, something that made a monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which normally observes elections, impossible.
Tokayev then called an early presidential election – one hadn’t been due until 2024. He may have wanted to capitalise on and further consolidate his current power, buoyed by momentum from the successful referendum campaign, before rising inflation and the knock-on effects of Russia’s economic decline bring people further hardships.
He will now serve a seven-year term, rather than the previously mandated five years, thanks to a late change that wasn’t included in the referendum but was subsequently passed by parliament. Future presidents will be restricted to a single seven-year term – but assuming Tokayev serves his full term and then steps down, he will have spent 10 years at the helm.
What might his legacy be? It’s remains to be seen whether Tokayev plans to introduce any significant reforms or the changes stay only at those needed to marginalise Nazarbayev. The next parliamentary elections, brought forward to 2023, will offer evidence.
Tokayev has talked of wanting to encourage more parties to stand, but so far it seems that only parties associated with establishment figures have a chance of clearing registration hurdles – and not those offering genuine opposition. Reform would mean allowing genuine multiparty competition in which parties that campaign for human rights and democratic freedoms can stand and get elected. That would result in a more diverse and balanced parliament, and not one that just says yes whenever the president asks.
Change would also mean accountability. So far there has still been no independent investigation into the events of Bloody January. Nazarbayev paid the political price, but no one who carried out or ordered killings, torture and other acts of violence has been held to account. A list of those who died was only released following international pressure, including a visit by members of the European Parliament in August. In September, Tokayev announced an amnesty for many of those detained, but those facing the most serious charges still await trial, including many civil society and opposition activists. Some have been convicted on flimsy evidence.
Tokayev’s image as a reformer is playing well with the west, whose major corporations are active in extracting Kazakhstan’s natural resources. He’s broken from the country’s former policy of carefully balancing relations with Russia and the west, moving to distance Kazakhstan from Russia in response to the war on Ukraine.
Almost 100,000 Russians have crossed the long border between the two countries since Vladimir Putin announced military conscription in September, and Tokayev has said they will be offered assistance. When Russia held fake referendums to annex parts of Ukraine that same month, Kazakhstan refused to recognise the results. Russia has retaliated to Kazakhstan’s lack of support for its imperial project by repeatedly disrupting the pipeline that carries the country’s oil through Russia to Black Sea ports.
This is an enticing package for western states, who may well be content with the limited evidence of reform so far. But this is the moment they could join in and support Kazakhstan civil society’s demands for much more significant change. If there is indeed to be a ‘New Kazakhstan’, civil society and opposition parties must be enabled to play their part in building it.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government of Kazakhstan should permit an independent inquiry into all human rights violations committed in response to the January protests, including killings, torture and other acts of violence, and those responsible should be held to account.
The government should release detained civil society and opposition activists.
The government should enable the registration of independent opposition parties ahead of the next parliamentary election.
Cover illustration by CIVICUS