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Kazakhstan: what will the Second Republic be?

12 May 2022
Yuri SolozobovYuri Solozobov

Yuri Solozobov

Candidate of Science, Physics and Mathematics, Regional Programs Director of CISS

The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan signed the Decree about calling the Republican referendum on June 5 of this year on amendments and supplements to the Constitution. In his special video, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said, that the objective of the new constitutional reform was the transition from the «super-presidential» regime to the presidential republic with influential parliament and responsible government. [1]

Going by Tokayevs course

Let us understand, which amendments and supplements to the Constitution of our closest neighbor and strategic partner we may expect.

The topic of immediate amendments to the RK Constitution was launched right after January turmoil having claimed the lives of more than 230 people. Let us remind here, that according to the most recent data provided by the General Prosecutors Office, 721 persons are recognized as suspects under the cases initiated after January events; 281 were arrested. Even though the investigation is not finished yet and the final assessment of January events is not issued, the practical conclusions from this tragedy are pretty obvious. During the months that passed since that moment, many prominent politicians of «Nazarbayevs era» lost their official positions or simply disappeared from the political environment or took the oath to the incumbent President Tokayev.

The scope of changes in Kazakhstan political elite after «tragic January» may be compared only to the personnel reshuffle during the first years after the disintegration of the USSR. New politicians from the second and the third echelons replaced the former political heavy-weighs, they took a leap of several steps on the career ladder. After the failed coup dtat attempt, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned out to be the most influential politician in Kazakhstan, being significantly ahead of all the existing political institutions by his presidential rating. In essence, the incumbent President received an absolute free hand for restructuring of Kazakhstan political class «from scratch», which he did not hesitate to use right away.

Eventually, only one question will be introduced for the referendum. According to the published document, it is worded as follows: «Do you accept the amendments and supplements to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan set in the draft RK law «On introducing amendments and supplements to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan» published in media on 6 May 2022?». Does it mean that the forthcoming referendum needs to be understood as a nation-wide support of Tokayevs political transformation agenda and himself personally as the incumbent and future President? For Kazakhstan government such vote of confidence is extremely important today, especially in the environment of international instability and numerous attempts of various forces to destabilize the situation in Kazakhstan.

Contours of the reform

Initially, the contours of the new constitutional reform were defined in Tokayev's State-of-the-Nation dated 16 March 2022, which announced «the start of the new phase of the state-building». The key ideas of political reforms voiced at that time may be structured within four major groups.

Firstly, the irreversible character of political modernization was stated. In the words of Tokayev, «these reforms represent a game-changer for our nation. We chose acceleration, not stagnation».

Secondly, the definitive rejection of the super-presidential form of government of Elbasy times was offered and transition to a more modern form presidential republic with strong parliament. Simultaneously it was proposed to strengthen the role of regional legislatures maslikhats, to enhance their identity and autonomy.

Thirdly, significant changes of the balance between political institutes was promised, including by restricting the presidential powers, re-formatting the scopes of both parliament chambers and re-establishing the Constitutional Court.

Fourthly, the current electoral system will change there will be a transition to the combined proportionate-majoritarian model and to the simplified procedure of registering the political parties.

The current mastermind of Ak-Orda, Erlan Karin, the State Secretary of Kazakhstan, gives the following assessment of political changes: «The Constitutional reform is designed to optimize the balance between the branches of power, to enhance citizens participation in administering the nation, to improve the protection of the citizens constitutional rights. Regional analysts are more pragmatic: they believe, Tokayev rushes to restructure the constitutional and political framework as he sees fit. Thus, according to the expert Arkadiy Dubnov, «in Central Asia amendments to the Constitution serve the current political situation and the interests of the ruling class, contribute to preservation of the political regime or to legitimation of the succeeding political class coming to replace the older one».

Both of these opinions may be qualified as having the right of existence; however, political practices have their own relentless logic. In the post-January period, President Tokayev undertook a series of important steps to strengthen his power: decisively rejected the duumvirate, initiated a massive purge of security/defense/law enforcement agencies, implemented radical personnel reshuffle. The next stage should mean institutional changes and Constitution amendments called to become the watershed between two different political regimes of the First President and of the Second President.

Promptness and onsurge

All these issues of «power finetuning» could be resolved by the parliament behind the scenes, avoiding the referendum-associated budget expenses and political risks of possible voting turnout and the required high positive vote. The other option highlighted by many experts was to quietly prepare the constitutional reform and implement it during Tokayevs second term in office. Why is this rush with the plebiscite? Especially when there is only one month to prepare and conduct the national referendum given the uneasy social and economic environment and the situation of dramatic international tension.

There are several main versions to that. It may be done to quickly get rid of Nazarbayevs political legacy, which has become useless and even toxic as the burnt-out missile stage. Or with the purpose to radically reformate the electoral framework of Kazakhstan just in time for the forthcoming presidential elections, which quite probably can be extraordinary elections. Or to seize strategic political initiative while many political heavy-weighs in Kazakhstan, found themselves demoralized and discredit after «tragic January». In any case, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev being an experienced politician is pro-active: he launches the constitutional revolution «from above». [2]

Remember that the forthcoming referendum on the constitutional reform will take place 27 years after the last referendum was held in Kazakhstan. Its citizens adopted their first Constitution after receiving independence on 28 January 1993. However, the second Constitution was adopted in 1995, and since then it was amended several times in 1998, 2007, 2011, 2017 and 2019, but every time that was done through the parliament. Kazakhstan media present the referendum-2022 on constitutional reform as the key step in implementing the presidential program of political reforms. The unique feature of this referendum is that the President plans the constitutional reform «from above», which will not broaden its powers, but on the contrary will redistribute them in favor of other government institutions.

Alteration valid

Regional analysts emphasize, that it will be the second time of amending the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan during Tokayevs presidency. Let us remember, that when Nursultan Nazarbayev announce his early retirement from the position of the President, Tokayev proposed to rename the capital city Astana into Nursultan in March 2019. The respective amendments of the second President were very quickly introduced into the RK Constitution. Today, they do not like to remember this episode in Ak-Orda. But of course, the current amendments proposed by Tokayev are much more massive and substantial.

As of today, 56 amendments to 33 Articles of the Constitution are planned. Based on them, 20 laws will require amendments, as well. The amendments prepared by the Presidential task force include the revival of the Constitutional Court abolished in 1995, as well as a series of restrictions for the First and the incumbent Presidents. Thus, Elbasy status as «the Leader of the Nation» and the respective privileges will be discontinued. As for the incumbent President, it will be forbidden for him to be a member of any political party, and for his relatives to become high political officials and to occupy top positions in the quasi-public sector. [3]

Noticeable constitutional changes are proposed with respect to the parliament membership and scope of work, as well as electoral system changes. The following publicly important novels may be highlighted: simplification of the registration procedure for political parties, abolition of death penalty and specification of the property rights with respect to the land. Now the land and natural resources will be the property of the citizens, not of the government. This is an extremely interesting aspect, because land regulation and possible cession of agricultural lands to Chinese companies have been the cause of massive turmoil in Kazakhstan many times. [4]

Base and superstructure

It is interesting that the Constitutional Council issued positive opinion on all the amendments confirming their compliance with the Constitution. According to the analysts, the Presidential package of the Constitutional amendments has exclusive instrumental character specifying and supplementing the model of the state machine. It should be noted that the proposed changes of the existing government system follow the standard Western liberalization path. The most interesting thing is that this westernization process takes place in a typical Oriental country with established clans-based system of power and property, with strong interweaving of elites having developed close family ties during the years of independence. This visible mis-match between «the base» and «the superstructure» (as Marxists used to say) may become a material problem in the process of practical implementation of the Constitutional reform.

We need to highlight that during the discussions on the Constitutional project in Kazakh society a number of other alternatives was put forward. Certain political forces named a series of effective Constitutional provisions they would like to revise. In particular, they were: secular identity, the Kazakh language status as a state language and the Russian language status as an official language, lifting the prohibition of associations based on ethnic and confessional principles, etc. The Presidential Administration harshly blocked such initiatives as untimely ones. [5]

All this provides evidence that the existing public demand for change in Kazakhstan is much broader than just the model of changing the state machine «from above» proposed by Tokayev and modelled along the western lines. January events demonstrated the level of acuteness of the existing trends both for religious archaism and for social equity. These burning points may break out quite possibly during Tokayevs second term in office, they may serve the bases for a new stage of RK Constitution amendments, but also a trigger for new massive social turmoil.

Amendments details

As was mentioned above, the Constitutional amendments proposed by the President pertain to 33 Articles, it means in fact changing one-third of the Constitution. As envisioned by Ak-Orda, it should demonstrate «the massive scale and the fundamental nature of the political reform planned by Tokayev». All these amendments «from above» are inter-related and have a common political logic. Firstly, the constitutional reform is targeted at systemic transformation of the state political model of Kazakhstan, and «shall be performed in the interest of the society at large», as was stated from the high rostrum. Secondly, the declared objective of the reform is systemic transformation of the existing political model. [6]

What changes will take place in Kazakhstan political system after the new constitutional reform? According to the above-described logic of the State-of-the-Nation, they may be grouped into four main areas:

Firstly, the powers will be redistributed from the President to the parliament, and from the central power bodies to regional power bodies. The Constitution will establish the non-partisan status of the President, judges and Election Commission members. The rejection of assigning the title of the Leader of the Nation to the First President is proposed in the context of highlighting his merits in gaining the sovereignty. The prohibition for the Presidents relatives to take top-level positions will be introduced.

Secondly, the role of the parliament will get stronger and its status will become higher. The mixed model of Mazhilis formation will be introduced the party lists and single-mandate constituencies along with extension of the parliaments controlling functions and optimization of the law-making procedures. The key thing here is the change in the order of Mazhilis and Senate formation. As we mentioned above, the Senate will strengthen its role as the body promoting the interests of the regions and poorly represented social and ethnical groups. After abolishing the quota of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan and introducing the mixed proportionate-majoritarian electoral system (70 : 30 ratio) new Mazhilis will strengthen its institutional legitimacy.

Thirdly, citizens participation in the public administration will broaden. Mazhilis members elections by single-mandate constituencies will be introduced along with the mechanism of their mandates withdrawal, regional akims will be appointed on the alternative basis subject to consent of Maslikhats members. On one hand, this is underpinned by the necessity of the maximum coverage of the entire electoral landscape of the country, of taking into account the entire spectrum of citizens views and beliefs. On the other hand, the majoritarian system will be implemented at the local level, where closer contacts of the elected members with the citizens are required. This model combined with the systemic strengthening of Maslikhats will drastically change the relations between executive and representative power bodies in the regions.

Fourthly, the mechanisms of protecting the citizens constitutional rights will become stronger. The Constitutional Court will be re-established as the highest independent body of law enforcement; constitutional guarantees and immunity will be granted to the human rights ombudsperson; the death penalty will be prohibited at the constitutional level. According to the intentions of the reformers, all these changes «will have a comprehensive impact on forming new political culture in the country, enhance confidence between the government and the citizens».

The bottom line is that the irrevocable transition from the «super-presidential model» to the presidential republic will take place in Kazakhstan. The classic model will be established, where the President is an equidistant political institution of arbitration without any super powers or privileges. Thus, the reforms will result in a new optimal balance of the branches of power and in efficient dialogue between the government and the society. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev believes that this creates the foundation for transition to the new model of public administration the Second Republic.

Constitution without Elbasy

Amendments about excluding the special status of Nursultan Nazarbayev (Elbasy, i.e., the Leader of the Nation) have a special place in the President's package. Previously, the issues of the status of the First President could not be the topic of the national referendum. However, Kazakhstan senators proposed to exclude this provision from the legislation, and Mazhilis members immediately supported this decision. Moreover, they forwarded the additional proposal about exclusion the provision about the status of the First President to the Constitutional Council. According to the task force members, the historical role of the First President of Kazakhstan is widely known and does not need to be separately fixed in the Constitution. Thereby, Nursultan Nazarbayev gradually is turning from the one exempt from criticism to the one «with no name». [7]

For a long time, Nursultan Nazarbayev quite deservingly was referred to as «Eurasian  de Gaulle». These two prominent figures were both called to perform a very similar historic mission. «To recreate the nation from garbage on the ruins of defeat», wrote Michel Debr, the main ideologist of Gaullism and later the Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic. If we take a closer look, practically all the post-Soviet countries similar to the post-war France were born with a birth primal trauma of identity. It was underpinned by the fact that these countries emerged as «new» states without any state-forming communion. They represented the product of hasty dismantling of a military empire, not a result of heroic national liberation movement or successive historic development.

The historical experience showed that only strong power may guarantee the political process sustainability at the first stage of the making of the state, especially when it is led by a national heavy-weight authority, like was the «personal power» regime of de Gaulle in France. This may be a new republic headed by the Leader of the Nation as the supreme arbitrator and an obvious symbol of national sovereignty. For example, in French Republic, like in many post-Soviet countries, the President was in fact the «uncrowned monarch» holding all the strings of power in his hands. The concept of supreme arbitration means that the head of the state receives a very important function: he should stand above all the political forces and guarantee normal operation of all the branches of power within the legal framework.

The political practice of the second half of the 20th century demonstrated the efficiency and stability of the political regime of the Fifth Republic. Remember that when the charismatic leader de Gaulle voluntarily went off the scene, Gaullism as a system stayed active. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of Kazakhstan, went along the similar route. He was the only one to demonstrate the freewill political transit in the post-Soviet space. The political lives of de Gaulle and Nazarbayev have a lot in common including the tragic ending: sitting on the throne for too long and then be rejected by the rebellious mob. In 1968, the insurgent students of Paris wrote on the walls: «We are sick of you, old man, leave!». In January 2022, in Taldy-Kurgan the young crowd shouted the same in Kazakh: «Shal, ket!».

The historic lesson to be learnt is that a young republic needs a strong president with special powers only for the period of transition, in the environment of political and economic crisis. And this regime of the Leader of the Nation or «uncrowned monarch» performed its role quite well both in France and in Kazakhstan. For example, termination of government reshuffling, achieving political stability and significant economic growth all of it resulted from the strong presidency in France. And when bureaucrat Pompidou replaced «the Great Frenchman», the country not only did not break into pieces, but achieved the highest level of industrialization in its history. When the unusual or special circumstances were no longer present, the need for the «uncrowned monarch» faded away, and the President of France returned to the standard powers granted by the Constitution.

In the mid-term perspective this means gradual transition from the «super-presidential» manual control to a more democratic and institutionally sustainable for of government presidential-parliamentary republic. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev intends to follow this tested path when he talks about forming a new constitutional balance between the institutions of power. First of all, this is about his initiative to irrevocably transfer from the «super-presidential» regime to the presidential republic with strong parliament. In the opinion of Ak-Orda, the forthcoming referendum on constitutional reform will create a legal framework for the Second Republic a new, more efficient and better-balanced model of the interaction between the government and the public.

The risks of referendum

The national referendum scheduled for June 5 is a big challenge for Kazakhstan authorities. This critical point simultaneously represents the situation of administrative over-stress, inflated expectations of the public, and creates a window of vulnerability for domestic and foreign impacts.

Domestic political destabilization is the first risk factor. Marat Shibutov, a Kazakhstan analyst is warning: «Before and after the referendum we will see attempts to stir the pot in order to remove the government or to exercise pressure on it. Any force may interfere from the opposition sitting abroad and Ukrainian propaganda centers to the accomplices of those being in jail after January events». Sultan Kamaletdinov, Deputy Defense Minister of Kazakhstan, publicly confirmed those concerns right in the time of Tokayevs visit to Turkey: «There is a risk of domestic destabilization». [8]

Internal setback or hang-up of the government system is the second risk factor. Kazakhstan authorities launched two different dramatic systemic reforms simultaneously personnel reshuffle and constitutional reform, which is rather dangerous. The head of the state placed a high bet on the forthcoming referendum based on his strategic understanding of need for his own nation-wide legitimization. Daniyar Ashimbayev, a political analyst from Kazakhstan emphasizes that «constitutional amendments require very high scores (voter turnout should not be below 70%, and the support of the draft Constitution not below 90%); the referendum should be to the maximum extent transparent, without any breaches, carousel voting and jukes». To which extent such inflated demands will be achievable for the new team of Tokayevs inexperienced appointees, we will see in the near future. 

The third risk factor is of international character. Shortly before announcing the referendum, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev published an interesting article in The National Interest. The President presented his point of view on the situation in Ukraine, his vision of the geopolitical situation and his reported about the progress of reforms in Kazakhstan. «We are entering a new era of democratic transformations in Kazakhstan», Tokayev announced. He made an interesting conclusion in his article: «We believe that partnership both at domestic and international levels is still the only way to build a better common future for the entire world based on peace and prosperity. We want to strengthen our 30-year friendship and cooperation with Europe and the United States». [9]

We already emphasized in previous publications the growing difference between the strategic vectors of political modernization in Russia and Kazakhstan. For example, today Russia is publicly discussing the possibility of re-instituting the death penalty. President Tokayev, on the contrary, proposes to amend the Constitution in order to irrevocable fix the abolishment of the death penalty. Such obvious difference of peaceful and military styles resembling the Sombart conflict between the «warriors» and «merchants» may introduce certain challenges into the political dialogue between Moscow and Nur-Sultan in the short-term perspective.

Finally, the name of the Second Republic widely used in Kazakhstan media seems to be not very appropriate. Especially in the context of French political experience, which Tokayev so much likes to appeal to. Remember that the Second French Republic was declared in February 1848 in the aftermath of the revolution, renunciation and escapement of Louis Philippe I. Napoleons nephew became the president and immediately started ruling by authoritarian methods. On 2 December 1851, he assumed exclusive powers, and after one year declared himself the Emperor Napoleon III. That was the end of the Second Republic and the start of the Second French Empire. We can only hope that the Second Republic in Kazakhstan will evade such a destiny.

1. On calling the national referendum on 5 June 2022. Ak-Orda, 05.05.2022. https://www.akorda.kz/ru/o-provedenii-5-iyunya-2022-goda-respublikanskogo-referenduma-545131

2. It is time for new people. CentrAsia, 29.04.2022. https://centrasia.org/newsA.php?st=1651214400

3. What amendments to the Constitution shall be brought to the referendum full text. TENGRINEWS, 06.05.2022. https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/kakie-popravki-konstitutsiyu-vyinosyatsya-referendum-polnyiy-468100/

4. Ten facts about the protests about the land issues in Kazakhstan. Masa.media, 15.01.2021. https://masa.media/ru/site/10-faktov-o-zemelnykh-protestakh-v-kazakhstane

5. Kazbek Issa, the Parliament member, claims he did not propose amendments to the Constitution about the Russian language status. Zakon.kz, 03.05.2022. https://www.zakon.kz/6013434-slova-vydernuty-iz-konteksta-deputat-partii-ak-zhol-o-statuse-russkogo-iazyka.html

6. Is there a need to rename the capital city of Kazakhstan? ATPress, 11.05.2022. https://atpress.kz/20978-nado-li-pereimenovyvat-stolitsu-kazakhstana-20-otvetov-na-samye-ostrye-voprosy

7. Amendments on excluding Nazarbayevs status from the law about the referendum were adopted in Kazakhstan. TASS, 05.05.2022, https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/14552703

8. The risk of domestic destabilization Defense Ministry. ORDA, 11.05.2022. https://orda.kz/est-risk-destabilizacii-vnutri-strany-minoborony/

9. Turmoil in Eurasia will not decelerate the progress of Kazakhstan. DKNnews, 02.05.2022. https://dknews.kz/ru/politika/232869-turbulentnost-v-evrazii-ne-zamedlit-progress

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Caspian Institute for Strategic Studies
Publications

Kazakhstan: what will the Second Republic be?

12 2022
Yuri Solozobov

Yuri Solozobov

Candidate of Science, Physics and Mathematics, Regional Programs Director of CISS

The President of the Republic of Kazakhstan signed the Decree about calling the Republican referendum on June 5 of this year on amendments and supplements to the Constitution. In his special video, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said, that the objective of the new constitutional reform was the transition from the «super-presidential» regime to the presidential republic with influential parliament and responsible government. [1]

Going by Tokayevs course

Let us understand, which amendments and supplements to the Constitution of our closest neighbor and strategic partner we may expect.

The topic of immediate amendments to the RK Constitution was launched right after January turmoil having claimed the lives of more than 230 people. Let us remind here, that according to the most recent data provided by the General Prosecutors Office, 721 persons are recognized as suspects under the cases initiated after January events; 281 were arrested. Even though the investigation is not finished yet and the final assessment of January events is not issued, the practical conclusions from this tragedy are pretty obvious. During the months that passed since that moment, many prominent politicians of «Nazarbayevs era» lost their official positions or simply disappeared from the political environment or took the oath to the incumbent President Tokayev.

The scope of changes in Kazakhstan political elite after «tragic January» may be compared only to the personnel reshuffle during the first years after the disintegration of the USSR. New politicians from the second and the third echelons replaced the former political heavy-weighs, they took a leap of several steps on the career ladder. After the failed coup dtat attempt, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned out to be the most influential politician in Kazakhstan, being significantly ahead of all the existing political institutions by his presidential rating. In essence, the incumbent President received an absolute free hand for restructuring of Kazakhstan political class «from scratch», which he did not hesitate to use right away.

Eventually, only one question will be introduced for the referendum. According to the published document, it is worded as follows: «Do you accept the amendments and supplements to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan set in the draft RK law «On introducing amendments and supplements to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan» published in media on 6 May 2022?». Does it mean that the forthcoming referendum needs to be understood as a nation-wide support of Tokayevs political transformation agenda and himself personally as the incumbent and future President? For Kazakhstan government such vote of confidence is extremely important today, especially in the environment of international instability and numerous attempts of various forces to destabilize the situation in Kazakhstan.

Contours of the reform

Initially, the contours of the new constitutional reform were defined in Tokayev's State-of-the-Nation dated 16 March 2022, which announced «the start of the new phase of the state-building». The key ideas of political reforms voiced at that time may be structured within four major groups.

Firstly, the irreversible character of political modernization was stated. In the words of Tokayev, «these reforms represent a game-changer for our nation. We chose acceleration, not stagnation».

Secondly, the definitive rejection of the super-presidential form of government of Elbasy times was offered and transition to a more modern form presidential republic with strong parliament. Simultaneously it was proposed to strengthen the role of regional legislatures maslikhats, to enhance their identity and autonomy.

Thirdly, significant changes of the balance between political institutes was promised, including by restricting the presidential powers, re-formatting the scopes of both parliament chambers and re-establishing the Constitutional Court.

Fourthly, the current electoral system will change there will be a transition to the combined proportionate-majoritarian model and to the simplified procedure of registering the political parties.

The current mastermind of Ak-Orda, Erlan Karin, the State Secretary of Kazakhstan, gives the following assessment of political changes: «The Constitutional reform is designed to optimize the balance between the branches of power, to enhance citizens participation in administering the nation, to improve the protection of the citizens constitutional rights. Regional analysts are more pragmatic: they believe, Tokayev rushes to restructure the constitutional and political framework as he sees fit. Thus, according to the expert Arkadiy Dubnov, «in Central Asia amendments to the Constitution serve the current political situation and the interests of the ruling class, contribute to preservation of the political regime or to legitimation of the succeeding political class coming to replace the older one».

Both of these opinions may be qualified as having the right of existence; however, political practices have their own relentless logic. In the post-January period, President Tokayev undertook a series of important steps to strengthen his power: decisively rejected the duumvirate, initiated a massive purge of security/defense/law enforcement agencies, implemented radical personnel reshuffle. The next stage should mean institutional changes and Constitution amendments called to become the watershed between two different political regimes of the First President and of the Second President.

Promptness and onsurge

All these issues of «power finetuning» could be resolved by the parliament behind the scenes, avoiding the referendum-associated budget expenses and political risks of possible voting turnout and the required high positive vote. The other option highlighted by many experts was to quietly prepare the constitutional reform and implement it during Tokayevs second term in office. Why is this rush with the plebiscite? Especially when there is only one month to prepare and conduct the national referendum given the uneasy social and economic environment and the situation of dramatic international tension.

There are several main versions to that. It may be done to quickly get rid of Nazarbayevs political legacy, which has become useless and even toxic as the burnt-out missile stage. Or with the purpose to radically reformate the electoral framework of Kazakhstan just in time for the forthcoming presidential elections, which quite probably can be extraordinary elections. Or to seize strategic political initiative while many political heavy-weighs in Kazakhstan, found themselves demoralized and discredit after «tragic January». In any case, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev being an experienced politician is pro-active: he launches the constitutional revolution «from above». [2]

Remember that the forthcoming referendum on the constitutional reform will take place 27 years after the last referendum was held in Kazakhstan. Its citizens adopted their first Constitution after receiving independence on 28 January 1993. However, the second Constitution was adopted in 1995, and since then it was amended several times in 1998, 2007, 2011, 2017 and 2019, but every time that was done through the parliament. Kazakhstan media present the referendum-2022 on constitutional reform as the key step in implementing the presidential program of political reforms. The unique feature of this referendum is that the President plans the constitutional reform «from above», which will not broaden its powers, but on the contrary will redistribute them in favor of other government institutions.

Alteration valid

Regional analysts emphasize, that it will be the second time of amending the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan during Tokayevs presidency. Let us remember, that when Nursultan Nazarbayev announce his early retirement from the position of the President, Tokayev proposed to rename the capital city Astana into Nursultan in March 2019. The respective amendments of the second President were very quickly introduced into the RK Constitution. Today, they do not like to remember this episode in Ak-Orda. But of course, the current amendments proposed by Tokayev are much more massive and substantial.

As of today, 56 amendments to 33 Articles of the Constitution are planned. Based on them, 20 laws will require amendments, as well. The amendments prepared by the Presidential task force include the revival of the Constitutional Court abolished in 1995, as well as a series of restrictions for the First and the incumbent Presidents. Thus, Elbasy status as «the Leader of the Nation» and the respective privileges will be discontinued. As for the incumbent President, it will be forbidden for him to be a member of any political party, and for his relatives to become high political officials and to occupy top positions in the quasi-public sector. [3]

Noticeable constitutional changes are proposed with respect to the parliament membership and scope of work, as well as electoral system changes. The following publicly important novels may be highlighted: simplification of the registration procedure for political parties, abolition of death penalty and specification of the property rights with respect to the land. Now the land and natural resources will be the property of the citizens, not of the government. This is an extremely interesting aspect, because land regulation and possible cession of agricultural lands to Chinese companies have been the cause of massive turmoil in Kazakhstan many times. [4]

Base and superstructure

It is interesting that the Constitutional Council issued positive opinion on all the amendments confirming their compliance with the Constitution. According to the analysts, the Presidential package of the Constitutional amendments has exclusive instrumental character specifying and supplementing the model of the state machine. It should be noted that the proposed changes of the existing government system follow the standard Western liberalization path. The most interesting thing is that this westernization process takes place in a typical Oriental country with established clans-based system of power and property, with strong interweaving of elites having developed close family ties during the years of independence. This visible mis-match between «the base» and «the superstructure» (as Marxists used to say) may become a material problem in the process of practical implementation of the Constitutional reform.

We need to highlight that during the discussions on the Constitutional project in Kazakh society a number of other alternatives was put forward. Certain political forces named a series of effective Constitutional provisions they would like to revise. In particular, they were: secular identity, the Kazakh language status as a state language and the Russian language status as an official language, lifting the prohibition of associations based on ethnic and confessional principles, etc. The Presidential Administration harshly blocked such initiatives as untimely ones. [5]

All this provides evidence that the existing public demand for change in Kazakhstan is much broader than just the model of changing the state machine «from above» proposed by Tokayev and modelled along the western lines. January events demonstrated the level of acuteness of the existing trends both for religious archaism and for social equity. These burning points may break out quite possibly during Tokayevs second term in office, they may serve the bases for a new stage of RK Constitution amendments, but also a trigger for new massive social turmoil.

Amendments details

As was mentioned above, the Constitutional amendments proposed by the President pertain to 33 Articles, it means in fact changing one-third of the Constitution. As envisioned by Ak-Orda, it should demonstrate «the massive scale and the fundamental nature of the political reform planned by Tokayev». All these amendments «from above» are inter-related and have a common political logic. Firstly, the constitutional reform is targeted at systemic transformation of the state political model of Kazakhstan, and «shall be performed in the interest of the society at large», as was stated from the high rostrum. Secondly, the declared objective of the reform is systemic transformation of the existing political model. [6]

What changes will take place in Kazakhstan political system after the new constitutional reform? According to the above-described logic of the State-of-the-Nation, they may be grouped into four main areas:

Firstly, the powers will be redistributed from the President to the parliament, and from the central power bodies to regional power bodies. The Constitution will establish the non-partisan status of the President, judges and Election Commission members. The rejection of assigning the title of the Leader of the Nation to the First President is proposed in the context of highlighting his merits in gaining the sovereignty. The prohibition for the Presidents relatives to take top-level positions will be introduced.

Secondly, the role of the parliament will get stronger and its status will become higher. The mixed model of Mazhilis formation will be introduced the party lists and single-mandate constituencies along with extension of the parliaments controlling functions and optimization of the law-making procedures. The key thing here is the change in the order of Mazhilis and Senate formation. As we mentioned above, the Senate will strengthen its role as the body promoting the interests of the regions and poorly represented social and ethnical groups. After abolishing the quota of the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan and introducing the mixed proportionate-majoritarian electoral system (70 : 30 ratio) new Mazhilis will strengthen its institutional legitimacy.

Thirdly, citizens participation in the public administration will broaden. Mazhilis members elections by single-mandate constituencies will be introduced along with the mechanism of their mandates withdrawal, regional akims will be appointed on the alternative basis subject to consent of Maslikhats members. On one hand, this is underpinned by the necessity of the maximum coverage of the entire electoral landscape of the country, of taking into account the entire spectrum of citizens views and beliefs. On the other hand, the majoritarian system will be implemented at the local level, where closer contacts of the elected members with the citizens are required. This model combined with the systemic strengthening of Maslikhats will drastically change the relations between executive and representative power bodies in the regions.

Fourthly, the mechanisms of protecting the citizens constitutional rights will become stronger. The Constitutional Court will be re-established as the highest independent body of law enforcement; constitutional guarantees and immunity will be granted to the human rights ombudsperson; the death penalty will be prohibited at the constitutional level. According to the intentions of the reformers, all these changes «will have a comprehensive impact on forming new political culture in the country, enhance confidence between the government and the citizens».

The bottom line is that the irrevocable transition from the «super-presidential model» to the presidential republic will take place in Kazakhstan. The classic model will be established, where the President is an equidistant political institution of arbitration without any super powers or privileges. Thus, the reforms will result in a new optimal balance of the branches of power and in efficient dialogue between the government and the society. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev believes that this creates the foundation for transition to the new model of public administration the Second Republic.

Constitution without Elbasy

Amendments about excluding the special status of Nursultan Nazarbayev (Elbasy, i.e., the Leader of the Nation) have a special place in the President's package. Previously, the issues of the status of the First President could not be the topic of the national referendum. However, Kazakhstan senators proposed to exclude this provision from the legislation, and Mazhilis members immediately supported this decision. Moreover, they forwarded the additional proposal about exclusion the provision about the status of the First President to the Constitutional Council. According to the task force members, the historical role of the First President of Kazakhstan is widely known and does not need to be separately fixed in the Constitution. Thereby, Nursultan Nazarbayev gradually is turning from the one exempt from criticism to the one «with no name». [7]

For a long time, Nursultan Nazarbayev quite deservingly was referred to as «Eurasian  de Gaulle». These two prominent figures were both called to perform a very similar historic mission. «To recreate the nation from garbage on the ruins of defeat», wrote Michel Debr, the main ideologist of Gaullism and later the Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic. If we take a closer look, practically all the post-Soviet countries similar to the post-war France were born with a birth primal trauma of identity. It was underpinned by the fact that these countries emerged as «new» states without any state-forming communion. They represented the product of hasty dismantling of a military empire, not a result of heroic national liberation movement or successive historic development.

The historical experience showed that only strong power may guarantee the political process sustainability at the first stage of the making of the state, especially when it is led by a national heavy-weight authority, like was the «personal power» regime of de Gaulle in France. This may be a new republic headed by the Leader of the Nation as the supreme arbitrator and an obvious symbol of national sovereignty. For example, in French Republic, like in many post-Soviet countries, the President was in fact the «uncrowned monarch» holding all the strings of power in his hands. The concept of supreme arbitration means that the head of the state receives a very important function: he should stand above all the political forces and guarantee normal operation of all the branches of power within the legal framework.

The political practice of the second half of the 20th century demonstrated the efficiency and stability of the political regime of the Fifth Republic. Remember that when the charismatic leader de Gaulle voluntarily went off the scene, Gaullism as a system stayed active. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the First President of Kazakhstan, went along the similar route. He was the only one to demonstrate the freewill political transit in the post-Soviet space. The political lives of de Gaulle and Nazarbayev have a lot in common including the tragic ending: sitting on the throne for too long and then be rejected by the rebellious mob. In 1968, the insurgent students of Paris wrote on the walls: «We are sick of you, old man, leave!». In January 2022, in Taldy-Kurgan the young crowd shouted the same in Kazakh: «Shal, ket!».

The historic lesson to be learnt is that a young republic needs a strong president with special powers only for the period of transition, in the environment of political and economic crisis. And this regime of the Leader of the Nation or «uncrowned monarch» performed its role quite well both in France and in Kazakhstan. For example, termination of government reshuffling, achieving political stability and significant economic growth all of it resulted from the strong presidency in France. And when bureaucrat Pompidou replaced «the Great Frenchman», the country not only did not break into pieces, but achieved the highest level of industrialization in its history. When the unusual or special circumstances were no longer present, the need for the «uncrowned monarch» faded away, and the President of France returned to the standard powers granted by the Constitution.

In the mid-term perspective this means gradual transition from the «super-presidential» manual control to a more democratic and institutionally sustainable for of government presidential-parliamentary republic. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev intends to follow this tested path when he talks about forming a new constitutional balance between the institutions of power. First of all, this is about his initiative to irrevocably transfer from the «super-presidential» regime to the presidential republic with strong parliament. In the opinion of Ak-Orda, the forthcoming referendum on constitutional reform will create a legal framework for the Second Republic a new, more efficient and better-balanced model of the interaction between the government and the public.

The risks of referendum

The national referendum scheduled for June 5 is a big challenge for Kazakhstan authorities. This critical point simultaneously represents the situation of administrative over-stress, inflated expectations of the public, and creates a window of vulnerability for domestic and foreign impacts.

Domestic political destabilization is the first risk factor. Marat Shibutov, a Kazakhstan analyst is warning: «Before and after the referendum we will see attempts to stir the pot in order to remove the government or to exercise pressure on it. Any force may interfere from the opposition sitting abroad and Ukrainian propaganda centers to the accomplices of those being in jail after January events». Sultan Kamaletdinov, Deputy Defense Minister of Kazakhstan, publicly confirmed those concerns right in the time of Tokayevs visit to Turkey: «There is a risk of domestic destabilization». [8]

Internal setback or hang-up of the government system is the second risk factor. Kazakhstan authorities launched two different dramatic systemic reforms simultaneously personnel reshuffle and constitutional reform, which is rather dangerous. The head of the state placed a high bet on the forthcoming referendum based on his strategic understanding of need for his own nation-wide legitimization. Daniyar Ashimbayev, a political analyst from Kazakhstan emphasizes that «constitutional amendments require very high scores (voter turnout should not be below 70%, and the support of the draft Constitution not below 90%); the referendum should be to the maximum extent transparent, without any breaches, carousel voting and jukes». To which extent such inflated demands will be achievable for the new team of Tokayevs inexperienced appointees, we will see in the near future. 

The third risk factor is of international character. Shortly before announcing the referendum, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev published an interesting article in The National Interest. The President presented his point of view on the situation in Ukraine, his vision of the geopolitical situation and his reported about the progress of reforms in Kazakhstan. «We are entering a new era of democratic transformations in Kazakhstan», Tokayev announced. He made an interesting conclusion in his article: «We believe that partnership both at domestic and international levels is still the only way to build a better common future for the entire world based on peace and prosperity. We want to strengthen our 30-year friendship and cooperation with Europe and the United States». [9]

We already emphasized in previous publications the growing difference between the strategic vectors of political modernization in Russia and Kazakhstan. For example, today Russia is publicly discussing the possibility of re-instituting the death penalty. President Tokayev, on the contrary, proposes to amend the Constitution in order to irrevocable fix the abolishment of the death penalty. Such obvious difference of peaceful and military styles resembling the Sombart conflict between the «warriors» and «merchants» may introduce certain challenges into the political dialogue between Moscow and Nur-Sultan in the short-term perspective.

Finally, the name of the Second Republic widely used in Kazakhstan media seems to be not very appropriate. Especially in the context of French political experience, which Tokayev so much likes to appeal to. Remember that the Second French Republic was declared in February 1848 in the aftermath of the revolution, renunciation and escapement of Louis Philippe I. Napoleons nephew became the president and immediately started ruling by authoritarian methods. On 2 December 1851, he assumed exclusive powers, and after one year declared himself the Emperor Napoleon III. That was the end of the Second Republic and the start of the Second French Empire. We can only hope that the Second Republic in Kazakhstan will evade such a destiny.

1. On calling the national referendum on 5 June 2022. Ak-Orda, 05.05.2022. https://www.akorda.kz/ru/o-provedenii-5-iyunya-2022-goda-respublikanskogo-referenduma-545131

2. It is time for new people. CentrAsia, 29.04.2022. https://centrasia.org/newsA.php?st=1651214400

3. What amendments to the Constitution shall be brought to the referendum full text. TENGRINEWS, 06.05.2022. https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/kakie-popravki-konstitutsiyu-vyinosyatsya-referendum-polnyiy-468100/

4. Ten facts about the protests about the land issues in Kazakhstan. Masa.media, 15.01.2021. https://masa.media/ru/site/10-faktov-o-zemelnykh-protestakh-v-kazakhstane

5. Kazbek Issa, the Parliament member, claims he did not propose amendments to the Constitution about the Russian language status. Zakon.kz, 03.05.2022. https://www.zakon.kz/6013434-slova-vydernuty-iz-konteksta-deputat-partii-ak-zhol-o-statuse-russkogo-iazyka.html

6. Is there a need to rename the capital city of Kazakhstan? ATPress, 11.05.2022. https://atpress.kz/20978-nado-li-pereimenovyvat-stolitsu-kazakhstana-20-otvetov-na-samye-ostrye-voprosy

7. Amendments on excluding Nazarbayevs status from the law about the referendum were adopted in Kazakhstan. TASS, 05.05.2022, https://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/14552703

8. The risk of domestic destabilization Defense Ministry. ORDA, 11.05.2022. https://orda.kz/est-risk-destabilizacii-vnutri-strany-minoborony/

9. Turmoil in Eurasia will not decelerate the progress of Kazakhstan. DKNnews, 02.05.2022. https://dknews.kz/ru/politika/232869-turbulentnost-v-evrazii-ne-zamedlit-progress