March 28, 2023


Kazakhstan will become a presidential-parliamentary republic instead of a “superpresidential” one under constitutional reforms proposed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. It marks a dramatic increase in the pace and scope of reform in the vast central Asian country, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

In a speech to the parliament that he intends to empower, President Tokayev has set out a series of major reforms aimed at transforming the political, economic, legal and media climate of Kazakhstan. The changes are the latest and most far-reaching reforms announced by the President, who succeeded the country’s long-term leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2019.

He called for changes to the electoral system and a reduction in the number of members of parliament that he can appoint. A constitutional court will be established and the number of people required to register a political party will be cut from 20,000 to 5,000.

In his speech, the President observed that after the events of ‘Tragic January’, when protests over fuel price rises turned to violence, many believed that the reform process would be rolled back. “But we will not deviate from the chosen path and -on the contrary- accelerate systemic changes in all spheres of life”.

He said that he firmly believed that his country still needs fundamental reforms and he promised tangible changes for the better, not “abstract ideas and promises”. Both economic and political monopolies would be “rooted out”. He added that a “ management system that focussed on the over-concentration of powers has already lost its effectiveness”.

The reforms will also extend to the independence and effectiveness of the courts and law enforcement agencies, with fresh measures to safeguard human rights. Local and regional leaders will gain new powers and the president will no longer be able to dismiss them or over-ride their decisions.

Such a bold set of announcements has not yet had the international reaction that might normally be expected, with chancelleries and foreign ministries so focused on Ukraine. Major American newspapers that covered the president’s speech gave factual accounts of what he had said but offered no analysis, merely adding summaries of January’s events in Kazakhstan.

The American controlled Radio Liberty stressed the need to enact, not merely ‘tout’ democratic reforms. The Vatican-backed Pontifical Institute said a profound ‘political transformation’ is now necessary.

The European Union’s external action service is yet to comment, though the influential NGO the European Council on Foreign Relations recently published an analysis of Kazakhstan that urged the EU to advocate ‘further incremental reforms’. The Kazakh president is certainly promising to meet -and to surpass- that goal.

President Tokayev urged his citizens not “to erect political barricades, organise rallies on every occasion, insist on dubious decisions, put forward peremptory demands”. Instead he called for a revival of the “democratic tradition of the Great Steppe”, invoking the traditional meetings of the Kazakh people in past centuries.

That appeal to national pride will also involve the restoration of original place names and reviving the memory of historical figures. The president promised a new Kazakhstan, with free and fair political competition, adding that further democratic transformation required “independent and responsible media”.


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