Second Republic of Kazakhstan – European Council on Foreign Relations
On June 5, the citizens of Kazakhstan voted to approve significant changes to their country’s constitution. The president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, says that this referendum aimed to establish a “second republic” by reforming “the parliamentary and party system” and moving away from the “super-presidential regime”. Yet European policymakers must be careful not to take these claims at face value.
In recent years, several authoritarian regimes in former Soviet countries have resorted to constitutional referendums to consolidate their power. In July 2020, Russia held a vote on constitutional amendments that would allow Vladimir Putin to serve two additional terms as president. Similarly, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently claimed to have sought popular approval for amendments to his country’s constitution. Lukashenka’s underlying intentions were to settle scores for the post-election protests against his rule that began in 2020, stage a demonstration in support of the proposed changes, and formalize a series of guarantees of his own security after his departure ().
Tokayev could take a similar route, using the plebiscite to bolster 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 sacred heir of former ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev. Widespread protests in January 2022 further challenged Tokayev’s authority, prompting him to call for support from Russian and Russian-affiliated troops — a move that shocked many in Kazakhstan. The resulting crackdown was brutal, resulting in the deaths of more than 230 protesters.
Thus, the results of the referendum – with 77% of those who voted in favor of the constitutional amendments, and a participation rate of around 68% – should reassure Tokayev. He can use these results as proof of support, both domestically and vis-à-vis Moscow. The EU issued a fairly positive statement regarding the reforms and the referendum, and Polish OSCE Chairman-in-Office Zbigniew Raw visited Kazakhstan a few days later and voiced support for the pan-European organization .
As many observers have pointed out, the core of the amendments is the removal of all provisions regarding Nazarbayev’s residual privileges as “the first president of Kazakhstan” and “ruler of the nation”. Tokaev aims to further marginalize his predecessor, assert his own power and break with the Nazarbayev era. These are also the grounds for amendments such as banning those close to the president from holding political office – a major departure from the nepotism that was a persistent feature of the Nazarbayev regime.
Tokayev also tried to reach out to Western countries on human rights issues: another amendment will formalize the abolition of the death penalty – in force since January 2021 – in the constitution.
In addition, the revised constitution includes institutional changes that may alter the balance of power in Kazakhstan. The amendments provide for the re-establishment of a constitutional court – which the 1995 constitution replaced by a council with limited powers – as well as an independent human rights ombudsman. 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 executives. In addition, the voting system for the Majlis (lower house of parliament) will change from a fully proportional system, which benefited the presidential party, to a mixed proportional-majority system. And the legislative process will be changed 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 that protesters made in January. Thus, the real function of the referendum could have been to signal to Kazakh citizens and the international community that Tokayev is ready to gradually reform the country. He could assert his power by using the legitimacy he derives from the public approval of amendments.
There are good reasons to fear that the “New Kazakhstan” is just a front for the continuation of authoritarianism. But Tokayev can also understand that real reforms can provide a stronger base of popular support than he could otherwise hope to obtain.
In the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Russian support may come at a price that Tokayev is unwilling to pay. And powerful domestic players will likely condition their support for him on extending their privileges – further limiting his power. The referendum result strengthened its position domestically and vis-à-vis Moscow. But, in the long term, Tokayev’s political leeway could depend on his implementing the promised reforms.
This may be a watershed moment for Kazakhstan. It is unclear if Tokayev is genuinely aiming to reform the system or if he is simply trying to maximize his influence in a negotiation with major national brokers. How he handles the following issues should reveal his true intentions:
- Opportunities for citizens’ political participation. The government has yet to deliver on its promise to register new political parties. The decision to jail Zhanbolat Mamay, a former journalist and anti-corruption activist who now leads the unregistered Democratic Party, suggests the government is still hesitant to allow all political forces.
- Management of ministries and public companies. Since January, Tokayev has made only a few appointments to these bodies – and most of them were insiders. In this, his priority has been to marginalize the closest affiliates of the Nazarbayev family.
- An investigation into the January protests. Prosecutions related to the protests have so far only involved protesters – several of whom have been found guilty of inciting unrest in various regions. There is still a lack of transparency on the number of victims of the repression, the circumstances of their death and the numerous accusations of torture of detainees.
By initiating reforms, President Tokayev may have the opportunity to acquire real legitimacy and a political weight of his own, but he will have to deliver on these three issues. Otherwise, it will remain dependent on internal support from local eminences and external support from Russia. This would limit the possibilities for meaningful EU engagement with Kazakhstan, but also more broadly in Central Asia. The EU should therefore support the reforms to which President Tokayev has committed and continue to follow developments on these issues closely.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.