Kazakhstan President Tokayev announces more democratic reforms

June 2019 was a turning point in Kazakhstan’s history. It was the first time since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, over thirty years ago, that the larger-than-life former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, did not run for election; he resigned earlier in the year. His appointed successor and Nur Otan party candidate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (pictured above), won the election with 70 per cent of the vote. As one of dozens of journalists from around the world who travelled to Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) to cover and monitor the election, I witnessed a relatively stable and peaceful election with few indiscretions.  

The Kazakh government received some notable criticism for the handling of protests before the election in Nur-Sultan and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and a commercial centre. My second article on the election noted that Kazakhstan is an Asiatic Confucianism democracy rather than a Western Liberal one. In essence, Kazakhs show loyalty towards the family, corporation, and nation; the forgoing of personal freedom for the sake of society's stability and prosperity; the pursuit of academic and technological excellence; and a strong work ethic together with thrift. These principles were presented and tested by Nazarbayev, and worked for Kazakhstan during his nearly three-decade (28-year) tenure as president. The economy had steady growth, and sectarianism in the multi-faith, multi-ethnic country was a non-issue as Nazarbayev pursued and enforced a policy of national unity and secularism that helped the country develop into one of the great success stories in the post-Soviet collapse.

This success was hard-earned as Nazarbayev first took authoritative control and enforced measures to stabilize the country in the immediate aftermath of Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence. Then, he instituted economic and free-market reforms and gradually brought in democratic institutions with a Kazakh twist that have proved popular and successful with most people.

With the closing of the Nazarbayev chapter and the success of the election, President Tokayev has continued with incremental reforms based on the demands of the Kazakhstan people. He will decriminalize libel laws to allow for more freedom of expression while assembly laws have been loosened to foster a politically active population. Rather than going through the process of getting permits and permission to rally or hold a peaceful protest, the Kazakh people will only be required to notify the correct authorities. Tokayev stated in early September 2019 that this was all part of building a culture of pluralism and opposition both in rallies and in the parliament.

What makes Tokayev’s statement interesting is that it came soon after (only three months) the presidential election protests, which saw some mass arrests. Tokayev’s announcements prove the President is carving his own domestic policy, liberalizing and westernizing in a judicious manner that will ensure society's overall stability. It is a move that seems to be popular with the majority of Kazakhs. Shifting away from the authoritative democracy of the Nazarbayev is a sign that Kazakh leaders have confidence in the stability of their country, in their democratic and legal institutions, and in the reliability of those structures to treat citizens fairly.  

After the stability Nazarbayev provided, Tokayev is proving to be a transformative president who continues to promote pro-democratic measures, including creating new political parties and setting a mandatory 30-per-cent quota for women and young adults to be involved in political parties. This follows less than a year after he successfully ran against the first female candidate for ever for president, Dania Espayeva, who represented the Liberal/centre-right Ak Zhol party — a great sign of political maturity in such a young republic.

The median age in Kazakhstan is 30.9 years, while 40 per cent of the population is under 24. So, it is a smart policy to increase political engagement for the upcoming generation that will lead the country into the future as the last of the Soviet-born generation retires from governance. This should foster a culture of adversarial debate and respectful opposition. Interestingly, Tokayev stated at a press conference that his reforms would stamp out populism (which can lead to one party control) and keep it from gaining traction in Kazakhstan. One tenant of right-wing populism is the discussion or at least frustration with immigration. As the most prosperous country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has a booming economy and many migratory workers from other central Asian countries. Foreign labour quotas will be reduced by 40 per cent, dropping to 29,000 in 2020 from a rate of 49,000 in 2019.

To spur growth, education, and innovation, Tokayev is proposing social reforms for those with low incomes, including paying for some of their school costs for transport, meals, and school supplies. He also instituted disability quotas that will be added to private companies. These are savvy preventative measures to ensure economic stability. The social safety net reforms and policies aim to reduce social alienation. This should keep extremist political parties on the fringes while catering to the majority of Kazakh citizens on both the left and the right.

Tokayev is also moving the country away from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet, which will assist in helping Kazakhstan to carve out a unique identity in the region, contribute to the further increase in western-based businesses and provide a distinct break from the Russophile sphere that the country has lived in since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Although former President Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev made Kazakhstan a great nation and achieved much, he used an iron grasp to lead the country into capitalism, free markets, and the early stages of democracy. In an era when states like China and Vietnam have proven that free-market capitalism can exist in an authoritarian state, it may be even bolder for the leader of a former Soviet/Asian nation to take the leap from an illiberal, authoritarian democracy into what appears to be a full blown liberal democracy.

President Tokayev is writing chapter two of the new Kazakhstan. His moves so far have made him a figure to watch in global politics as he pushes for steady incremental democratic reforms to ensure the country’s future prosperity.