On 5 June, Kazakhstan’s citizens voted to approve significant changes to their country’s constitution. The president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, claims that this referendum was designed to bring about a “second republic” by reforming “the parliamentary and party system” and moving away from “super-presidential rule”. Yet European policymakers should be careful not to take these claims at face value.
In recent years, several authoritarian regimes in formerly Soviet countries have used constitutional referendums to consolidate their power. In July 2020, Russia held a vote on constitutional amendments that would allow Vladimir Putin to serve two more terms as president. Similarly, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently purported to have sought popular approval for amendments to his country’s constitution. Lukashenka’s underlying intentions were to settle scores from the post-election protests against his regime that began in 2020, to stage a show of support for the proposed changes, and to formalise a series of guarantees of his own safety after he leaves office.
Tokayev may take a similar path, using the plebiscite to strengthen his authority – which has been far from established since his victory in the 2019 presidential election. The election was marred by voting irregularities and popular protests. And his success was due less to his popular appeal than to his status as the anointed heir of former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Widespread demonstrations in January 2022 further challenged Tokayev’s authority, prompting him to call for the support of Russian and Russian-affiliated troops – a decision that came as a shock to many in Kazakhstan. The resulting crackdown was brutal, involving the deaths of more than 230 protesters.
So, the results of the referendum – with 77 per cent of those who voted supporting the constitutional amendments, and a turnout of around 68 per cent – should be of comfort to Tokayev. He can use these outcomes as proof of support, both domestically and vis-à-vis Moscow. The European Union made a relatively positive statement about the reforms and the referendum, while Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau – the chairman-in-office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – visited Kazakhstan a few days later to express his organisation’s support for them.
As many observers have pointed out, the core of the amendments is the removal of all provisions regarding Nazarbayev’s residual privileges as “first president of Kazakhstan” and “leader of the nation”. Tokayev aims to further sideline his predecessor, assert his own power, and make a break with the Nazarbayev era. These were also the motives for amendments such as a prohibition on relatives of the president holding political office – a major shift from the nepotism that was an enduring feature of Nazarbayev’s rule.
Tokayev has also attempted to reach out to Western countries on human rights issues: another amendment will formalise the abolition of the death penalty – which has been in effect since January 2021 – in the constitution.
Furthermore, the revised constitution includes institutional changes that could shift the balance of powers in Kazakhstan. The amendments provide for the reinstatement of a constitutional court – which the 1995 constitution replaced with a council that had limited powers – as well as an independent ombudsman for human rights. The president will also see some of his own powers reduced: he will appoint ten members of the Senate instead of 15, and will no longer be able to overturn the decisions of local executive bodies. Moreover, the voting system for the Majlis (lower house of parliament) will change from an integrally proportional system, which favoured the presidential party, into a mixed proportional-majoritarian one. And the lawmaking process will be modified to give a stronger role to the Majlis, limiting the powers of the Senate.
However, these constitutional changes do not fully address the demands for greater transparency, accountability, and democratic governance the protesters made in January. So, the true function of the referendum could have been to signal to Kazakh citizens and the international community that Tokayev is willing to gradually reform the country. He could assert his power using the legitimacy he gained from public approval of the amendments.
There are good reasons to fear that the “New Kazakhstan” will be mere window dressing for the continuation of authoritarianism. But Tokayev may also understand that genuine reforms can provide a stronger base of popular support than he could otherwise hope to obtain.
In the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Russian support may come at a price Tokayev is unwilling to pay. And powerful domestic stakeholders will likely condition their support for him on the extension of their privileges – which will further limit his power. The outcome of the referendum strengthened his position domestically and in relation to Moscow. But, in the long term, Tokayev’s political room for manoeuvre may depend on his implementation of the promised reforms.
This may be a defining moment for Kazakhstan. It is unclear whether Tokayev genuinely aims to reform the system or is merely trying to maximise his leverage in a negotiation with key domestic powerbrokers. The way in which he handles the following issues should reveal his true intentions:
- Citizens’ opportunities for political participation. The government still needs to fulfil its promise to register new political parties. The decision to jail Zhanbolat Mamay, a former journalist and anticorruption activist who now leads the unregistered Democratic Party, suggests that the government is still reluctant to permit all political forces to operate.
- Leadership of government departments and public companies. Since January, Tokayev has made only a few appointments to these bodies – and most of these were insiders. In this, his priority has been to marginalise the closest affiliates of the Nazarbayev family.
- An investigation into the January protests. So far, judicial proceedings related to the demonstrations have only concerned protesters – several of whom have been found guilty of inciting unrest in various regions. There is still a lack of transparency about the number of victims of the crackdown, the circumstances of their death, and the numerous accusations of torture of detainees.
By initiating reforms, Tokayev may have the opportunity to gain real legitimacy and political weight of his own, but he will have to make significant progress on these three issues. Otherwise, he will remain dependent on the domestic support of local powerbrokers and the external support of Russia. This would limit the EU’s opportunities for meaningful engagement with Kazakhstan and central Asia more broadly. Therefore, the EU should support the reforms Tokayev has committed to and continue closely monitoring his government’s approach to these issues.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.