In his March 16 “message” to the people of Kazakhstan, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev reiterated the government’s narrative regarding “bloody January” and proposed a wide array of political reforms. The speech comes just a few days shy of the third anniversary of Kazakhstan’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s March 2019 resignation.
The first portion of the speech was devoted to laying out the government’s narrative as to what happened in January, when protests about oil prices spread, intensified, and broadened, and then shockingly exploded into violence. Tokayev repeated comments about “radicals” and “terrorists,” the involvement of unnamed foreign forces, while also making comments about how “modernization” efforts in recent years had dismayed unnamed influential individuals. Armed bandits, traitors, and “professional mercenaries” — enemies both internal and external — united to try and seize power, according to Tokayev.
The president said the “terrorists” fired on civilians in order to cast blame on the government (echoing comments made at a Mazhilis session updating the government on the investigation into the January events, in which Prosecutor General Berik Asylov claimed civilians were used as “human shields”). While blaming “traitors” among military and security leaders, Tokayev urged people not to let that “tarnish” the reputation of law enforcement.
This version of events contrasts sharply in some ways with on-the-ground reports from January. For example, journalists and human rights activists described law enforcement as attempting to disburse protestors on January 5 in Almaty using rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, and in some cases live rounds. Our understanding of the January events will invariably be incomplete if the actions of government forces are not also factored in.
Tokayev’s speech, while stressing foreign involvement, provided no new evidence to support that claim. According to Kazakh authorities, 19 foreign citizens remain in custody (in addition to 747 Kazakh citizens). Previous reporting claimed that at least 14 of those still detained were Uzbek citizens and as of late February the Uzbek government was actively seeking access and information about those detainees. It’s unknown if those foreigners recently arrived in Kazakhstan or had been living and working there.
The simple presence of foreigners at a protest in Kazakhstan’s largest city is hardly evidence of a foreign conspiracy to overthrow the government. Infamously, a Kyrgyz citizen paraded on state TV shortly after the unrest as having taken money to come to Almaty and wreak havoc was quickly exposed as a jazz musician, not a paid militant. He was released and only later began speaking about the torture that had led to his forced confession.
Importantly, in his speech Tokayev did acknowledge allegations of torture and in the previous Mazhilis briefing authorities said they were investigating more than 200 such reports. But there seems to be no connecting of the fact of torture to the possibility that those currently still detained and facing serious charges have been falsely accused and possibly abused, too.
Throughout the speech, Tokayev hammered on the importance of unity for Kazakhstan. With the unfolding war in Ukraine, this theme strikes a critical chord.
The next section of the speech made the case for further political reforms, identifying “domestic stagnation” as a cause of the January events. Tokayev then detailed a litany of proposed reforms targeting the presidency, the legislature, the electoral system, and the party system, as well as modernizing the election process and strengthening human rights institutions, the media, and civil society. He also detailed intended adjustments to the country’s “administrative-territorial structure,” efforts to decentralize local government, and specific “anti-crisis” measures in the light of the Ukraine conflict.
Among the reforms, Tokayev highlighted efforts to shift Kazakhstan away from a “super-presidential” system. To do so, he proposed among other things, banning close relatives of the president from positions as “political civil servants” or “executive positions in the quasi-public sector. (Here, the resignations of some Nazarbayev family members and the arrest of others stands out, despite official denials of the notion that “elite conflict” was at the core of the January violence). Tokayev also spoke of abolishing some of the “excessive” presidential powers, such as the ability of the executive to dismiss akims.
On a related note, hopes for direct election of regional and major city akims continue to be deferred, with Tokayev’s new proposal entailing indirect election of regional akims. Village akims were directly elected for the first time in August 2021, but regional and major city leadership remains presidentially appointed. Tokayev’s new proposal would see regional akims selected by the president from at least two candidates proposed by local legislatures, maslikhats. The maslikhats are dominated by the ruling party, recently renamed Amanat, to which Tokayev belongs. Tokayev also proposed that presidents resign from party membership while in office. Incidentally, that is how the presidency and parties operate in Kyrgyzstan. Tokayev spoke about the undesirability of merging party and state structures, which is arguably the case at present in Kazakhstan. Amanat (previously Nur-Otan) holds 76 of 98 elected Mazhilis seats at present.
This in turn highlights the importance of genuine political competition, as such reforms are relatively meaningless without alternative choices being available. Tokayev proposed in his speech reducing the the threshold for party registration from 20,000 to 5,000 signatures. The proposal is positive news on the surface, but as demonstrated in neighboring Uzbekistan changing the threshold does not necessarily mean new parties will be registered. Despite dropping its threshold for party registration from 40,000 to 20,000 signatures, Uzbek authorities last year just dismissed signatures submitted as invalid. No new political parties were able to register ahead of Uzbekistan’s 2021 presidential election, underscoring that reform on paper is not the same as reform in practice.
In Kazakhstan, this can be seen in the much-discussed reforms to the country’s protest laws in recent years. In his speech, Tokayev complained about “provocative activists” who considered it “possible and even necessary” to violate the reformed protest law. He said there would be no more “concessions” on this point. Kazakh activists have complained that the changes to the law that went into effect in 2020 — for example, shifting the system from one of requesting permission to notifying authorities of intent instead — were cosmetic. Unregistered groups, for example, cannot legally protest, so any effort to notify authorities is an exercise is futility. In February, activists staged an unsanctioned rally in Almaty to demand justice for those killed during the January unrest and call for punishment of those responsible; organizers have been fined and subject to administrative detention.
In his state of the nation speech, Tokayev made a great number of proposals that acknowledge the desire of many in Kazakhstan to see political reform. As always, it will take time for such proposals to be converted into law and for observers to see how such laws are adhered to by the authorities (or creatively dodged instead). Time is of the essence, however, with the January events and the Russian invasion of Ukraine standing as reminders of how close chaos is.
Tokayev pledged to build a “New Kazakhstan” and in closing out his speech stressed that amid the “geopolitical storm” Kazakhstan’s strategic course, aimed at protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, was the most important task. Then, after a speech filled with “radical” reform proposals, he nevertheless returned to an evergreen authoritarian theme: that now is not the time to protest “on every occasion” or “lash out at police officers doing their duty.” According to Tokayev, “chaotic political reforms” would only lead to a weakening of the state.