The tragic events of January 2022 once again revealed how the republics that emerged from the collapse of the USSR are still a long way from stability. Kazakhstan is not an exception, just one more example. There are, however, big differences in the way the ruling elites react to protests, ranging from attempts to consolidate power through repression to introducing some reforms, even if these can sometimes be a fig leaf masking a tight grip on power. The fact that Kazakhstan’s leadership called a referendum for June 2022 can be interpreted either way. But one thing seems clear: if the reforms fail, the country will certainly not be able to return to peace.
The riots of January 2022
Protests erupted on January 2 in the oil- and gas-producing regions, which should be rich but are in fact among the poorest in the country. Initially, the demands were purely economic. The immediate reason was the increase, after the government removed price controls, in the price of petroleum, which is very important in Kazakhstan as fuel for transport. However, that was only the trigger amidst general discontent.
The protests broke out spontaneously, and then, as is almost always the case in such situations, there were several attempts to exploit them for political ends. It is still not yet clear which of the competing elites was the first to try to exploit them; Islamist groups also tried to become involved. The main group involved, however, were the so-called mambets, young people from rural backgrounds who have moved to the big cities in search of better living conditions. Muslim extremists also mostly come from this social group, and in this Kazakhstan does not differ from many other countries.
The winners from these protests were the incumbent president, Qasym-Jomart Toqaev, and all his followers. The losers were the former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his supporters. Before the protests broke out, Toqaev was considered a weak leader, a puppet in the hands of Nazarbayev. However, he not only succeeded in suppressing the protests, but also freed himself from the dominance of the former president and all the men Nazarbayev had placed in positions of power.
The main outcome of the January 2022 protests was President Toqaev’s consolidation of power. Although there was no evidence that former President Nazarbayev was in any way personally involved in these protests, his former head of government and national security chief, Kárim Másimov, was arrested on charges of high treason. Másimov, whose background and close relations with China made him a potential rival to Toqaev, was thus neutralized without provoking any outcry from the elite who supported him.
It is true that people linked to Nazarbayev participated in the protests. This allowed Toqaev to distance himself from the “Nazarbayev clan.” Besides consolidating his own power, the president managed to gain wide support from the populace, because the old elite was considered corrupt and Másimov’s elimination was seen as a blow against corruption.
However, even all this has not been enough to stabilize the situation in the short term. There are still the economic problems and the old models of government, where clan politics means power is divided among its own men. The immediate causes of the protests were economic and social. Before they broke out, inflation was fluctuating between 20 and 30 percent, without salaries and incomes increasing to the same extent. Unemployment was also very high, particularly among the rural population. But there is no doubt that even purely economic reforms cannot be successfully introduced without political ones.
Economic and social reforms can meet violent opposition from corrupt officials, who see their sources of profit threatened. At the same time, any attempt at reform may meet with mistrust from society at large, because people ultimately distrust the government and those in power. In this environment, the creation of political parties, founded by popular figures and called upon to collaborate in introducing reforms, could be useful. But it is also doubtful whether the ruling elites would allow such real political participation. The referendum held in June 2022 could have been an opportunity for the implementation of such political reforms.
The June 2022 referendum: the background
On March 16, 2022, President Toqaev addressed the nation. In his speech, delivered only a few weeks after the bloody events of early January, he announced the construction of the “New Kazakhstan.” This goal would be achieved by means of political reforms, which, as the president himself said, aim to create “an efficient state and a strong civil society.” The first step in this direction would be a referendum on constitutional changes, to be held on June 5. These announcements were no doubt a response to the events of January, but they were also a continuation of the reforms, or promises of reforms, made by the new president, who assumed office in 2019.
The previous policy was closely linked to the personality of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nazarbayev, whose last announcement of reforms was in 2012 and was called “Kazakhstan 2050.” The goal of his plan was to make Kazakhstan one of the 30 most developed countries in the world by 2050. To this end, seven strategies were to be implemented: the modernization of economic policy; the development of entrepreneurship; social policy; the modernization of basic and vocational education; democracy and administrative autonomy; foreign policy; and Kazakh patriotism.
Eventually the reforms and modernization of all these sectors were even supposed to help the Kazakh economy to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. Some specific measures included investments in infrastructure, in the resumption of industrial production, in the development of agriculture, in the improvement of the mining industry, in the creation of a suitable environment for private entrepreneurship, and also in the creation of spaces for innovation, such as the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC).
The plan also contained political reforms, such as improving state administration, decentralizing power, introducing the election of mayors in rural areas and combating corruption. Economic reforms, as well as political ones, were included in the “Kazakhstan 2050” project. But Nazarbayev’s stated intention was to reform the economy first, while political transformations would come later. His fear was that the political reforms would come too early and that their introduction under precarious economic conditions would lead to the destabilization of the entire country.
A close look at Nazarbayev’s economic plans, revealed that their goal was to double production in the non-energy sector by 2025; production was to triple by 2040. In addition, a program called “The Economy of Simple Things” was drawn up in 2018 with the aim of incentivizing the production of low-tech goods.
It should be recognized that these programs have contributed to real progress in industry. In 2020, for the first time in 10 years, the share of the manufacturing industry in Kazakhstan’s GDP exceeded that of the energy sector. The “Digital Kazakhstan” program also plays an important role in the country’s economic reforms. This program has two aspects: the digitization of state administration and business, and the development of Kazakhstan’s own high-tech industry.
While economic reforms have found fairly broad support, things have been different for political reforms. Regarding the latter – and also in category of social reforms – three areas can be distinguished.
The first is related to religious freedom. Relations between the state and religious groups are rather reminiscent of the Turkish model – at least the Kemalist model – where the religious freedoms of the individual are restricted in order to protect society as a whole from religious extremism. Kazakhstan supports traditional religions – those that existed in this region before the USSR – while trying to contain new religious movements.
The second area includes the improvement of state administration, where some progress has been achieved without harming the status quo.
As for the third area – the liberalization of political life (e.g., freedom of the press, freedom of association) – the Kazakh leadership is much more cautious. Here, little by little, some of the obstacles that had been placed in the way of the political opposition have been removed: for example, in order to found a political party, one now has to collect 20,000 signatures (and no longer 40,000) and a political party, in order to be represented in parliament, must achieve 5 percent of the vote (and no longer 7 percent). These small changes – which were introduced in January 2022 – have been criticized by the opposition as not constituting true political democratization, but an attempt to divert attention away from it.
Some believe that Toqaev could not introduce any real change as long as effective power was in the hands of former President Nazarbayev. Formally, Toqaev was the head of state, but in Kazakhstan power has only partly an institutional profile: in essence, it is tied to family networks and clan politics. In the first three years of Toqaev’s presidency, it was clear that the most influential networks were not interested in reform, but in maintaining the status quo.
There were two reasons why Toqaev distanced himself from Nazarbayev’s policies. First, he could not ignore the discontent and had to respond seriously to the needs of Kazakhstan’s people. Secondly, blaming Nazarbayev’s supporters for all the country’s problems served him as he consolidated power. But once he really took control, he had to make proposals to improve the situation. And that is exactly what he did on March 16, 2022.
The reform proposals
Toqaev’s address to the nation on March 16, 2022, entitled “The New Kazakhstan: the path to renewal and modernization,” was an immediate response to the events of January. In it he also addressed the causes of what had happened in January, but in particular he presented proposals on how he wanted to change the country’s political system. While previous initiatives were a mixture of economic and political measures, in this speech he focused exclusively on the political aspects. He said that he had been pursuing such changes for a long time already, but he was able to accelerate them after the events of January 2022. He talked about measures in areas such as the power of the president, parliament, the voting system, political parties, human rights, administrative autonomy and decentralization of the administration, but also about measures to overcome the crisis.
Toqaev proposed limiting the power of the president. He called Kazakhstan “a country with a presidential superpower.” According to him, this power, if it was necessary at the beginning of independence, now only causes stagnation. He also talked about ridding the state of nepotism, which he associated with the party system. He proposed that the president’s relatives should not hold any post in the state administration, as well as reducing the president’s influence on parliament (previously the president appointed 15 members of the senate, while now he was of the view that number should be reduced to five). As for freedom of the press, he said that no democratic reform is possible without it, but made no proposals on how to guarantee it.
The referendum and the reactions to its results
On June 5, a referendum on constitutional reform was held in Kazakhstan. Citizens were asked to approve or reject 56 changes to the Constitution. This was the third referendum in the history of Kazakhstan. The first two were held in 1995, when citizens had to vote on the extension of the presidency of Nazarbayev and the adoption of the current Constitution. The changes in the more recent referendum were aimed at reducing presidential power, abolishing the death penalty, strengthening the power of the parliament and administrative autonomy and the role of citizens in the political field. One of the most important changes was the removal from the Constitution of the article concerning First President Nazarbayev, who would thus lose most of his personal privileges, as well as the status of Elbasy, “head of the nation.”
The changes were approved by 77.18 percent of those who voted. Journalists and politicians who are skeptical regarding issues of power have had much to say about this referendum. First of all, the proposed constitutional amendments were written in such complicated language that not even all members of parliament could understand them. In general, the amendments are seen by their critics as a kind of “light version of presidential superpower.” Of course, Toqaev wanted to implement his idea of a “responsible state” as early as 2019, but it was the latest events that prompted him to accelerate the changes. “This is not a gift from power, but a conquest of the people,” said opposition politician Muktar Tajžan. The newspaper Nezavisimaja Gazeta wrote that the referendum was a PR-stunt, i.e. a public relations event that does not make any fundamental changes in the country’s political system. Moreover, according to this newspaper, what had been announced as the main reform, namely, the reduction of presidential power, did not occur. According to politician c, only the external forms changed, but the essence of the “super-presidential republic” remains unchanged.
It is interesting to note that, according to the new Constitution, only a Kazakh citizen who has lived in the country in the 15 years preceding the plebiscite may be elected president. It is believed that this was intended to exclude opposition politicians, many of whom live abroad. According to the “Risk Estimation Group” (“Группа оценки рисков,”) this vote is a dress rehearsal for the elections to be held in 2024. The elites want to understand what Toqaev’s approval rating is among the population. At the same time, this referendum was supposed to increase his legitimacy and prestige, not only in Kazakhstan itself, but also abroad, by showing how he had actually implemented the reforms promised.
Experts also point out that the amendments were put to a popular vote all at once, in one package: it was not possible to approve one and reject the others.
Despite this, some politicians are hopeful about the possibility of democracy in the country and have announced their intention to found political parties. But, according to the opposition, the process of registering a party is so complicated that the birth of such parties would be practically impossible. Changes need to be made to the law regulating political parties.
It should also be kept in mind that there is a need not only for change, but also to protect those elements that some people want to eliminate: for example, the secular nature of the state, the status of the Kazakh language as the state language and Russian as the official language, the protection of society from extremism. The values underpinning these elements, says analyst Danijar Ašimbaev, should be protected. He also believes that the referendum will bring truly positive changes, such as the creation of an independent constitutional court and a commission for human rights. After the referendum, some 20 laws will have to be amended.
But the question remains whether 2022 is really a breakthrough year for Kazakhstan. On the one hand, the events so far in this year have certainly changed the country, awakening it from its lethargy. On the other hand, as the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR) and many opposition politicians claim, one cannot expect a miracle either: the authoritarian republic remains largely unchanged. However, even if there proves to be no miracle, it must be said that everything that has happened so far this year in Kazakhstan has taken the country a step forward on the road to democratization.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.9 art. 12, 0922: 10.32009/22072446.0922.12
. Cf. “Причину дефицита автогаза в Казахстане назвали в Минэнерго” (“The Ministry of Energy has clarified the reason for the shortage of automotive gas in Kazakhstan”), in www.nur.kz/politics/kazakhstaneconomy/1949679-prichinu-defitsita-avtogaza-v-kazahstane-nazvali-v-minenergo/, January 3, 2022.
 See S. Kaspe, “Kazakhstan: What it was, what it means”, in www.gisreportsonline.com/r/kazakhstan-protests/, March 3, 2022.
. Cf. G. Rudkevich, “Tokayev wins the battle but the war is not over in Kazakhstan”, in www.eastasiaforum.org/2022/02/26/tokayev-wins-the-battle-but-the-war-is-not-over-in-kazakhstan/, February 26, 2022.
. See N. Imamova, “Kazakhstan Seeks Lessons From Its Bloody January”, in www.voanews.com/a/kazakhstan-seeks-lessons-from-its-bloody-january/6444934.html/, February 16, 2022.
. See S. E. Cornell – A. Barro, “Kazakhstan’s June Referendum: Accelerating Reform”, at www.cacianalyst.org/publications/feature-articles/item/
13720-kazakhstan%E2%80%99s-june-referendum-accelerating-reform.html/, May 31, 2022.
. See “State of the Nation Address by President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev”, in akorda.kz.Republic of Kazakhstan (http://aqorda.kz/en/addresses/addresses_of_president/president-of-kazakhstan-kassym-jomart-tokayevs-state-of-the-nation-address-september-1-2020), September 1, 2021.
. See S. E. Cornell – A. Barro, Kazakhstan’s June Referendum: Accelerating Reform, op. cit.
. See “State of the Nation Address by President of the Republic of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev”, op. cit.
. Cf. “Референдум в Казахстане: ждать чуда не стоит” (“The Referendum in Kazakhstan: No Miracles to Expect”), in Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (https://cabar.asia/ru/referendum-v-kazahstane-zhdat-chuda-ne-stoit).
. See В. Панфилова, “Референдум в Казахстане имеет имиджевый характер” (“Referendum in Kazakhstan has an Image Character”), in Независимая газета (https://tinyurl.com/2hv9w53n,) May 19, 2022.
. Cf. “Референдум в Казахстане: ждать чуда не стоит”, op. cit.