Between Rhetoric And Reality In Kazakhstan

Nazarbayev: Kazakhstan Ready To Assist Ukrainian Conflict Regulation

Constitutional amendments passed in Kazakhstan this week were framed as another departure from Soviet-era authoritarianism towards democratic rule. Power will be transferred from Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-standing president, to the legislature, a process he described as “open and transparent”. The Kazakh embassy in Washington claimed the “authorities have been steadily building the values of Kazakhstan’s democracy”.

But critics think this masks the reality that Kazakhstan’s democratic transition never began. Elections fail to meet international standards, human rights abuses draw criticism from NGOs and The Economist’s Democracy Index continues to describe the country as “authoritarian”. President Nazarbayev is the only surviving communist-era leader in a former Soviet republic.

Some observers were cheered by the changes, which give lawmakers a stronger hand in appointing and removing ministers and do away with Mr. Nazarbayev’s right to issue binding decrees. “The changes proposed by the president are in fact very close to democratic principles,” Rasul Zhumaly, an Almaty-based political analyst, told Radio Free Europe, though he noted that the reality does not match the rhetoric surrounding the amendments.

“In practice these changes are decorative,” Nurseit Niyazbekov, a sociologist at Kazakhstan’s KIMEP University Faculty, told The World Weekly. “How can Parliament get more powerful if it is still ruled and represented by the president’s Nur Otan party?” The party currently holds 84 out of 98 seats in the lower chamber.

Professor Niyazbekov also criticised the outreach programme that took place before the amendments were tabled. He was invited, and said the “roundtable participants were all aware that most of their suggestions would not make it”.

Many believe these changes are meant to prepare for the transition after Mr. Nazarbayev, 76, leaves office by splitting authority between multiple high-ranking positions. Might things then improve? “It really depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist,” says Professor Niyazbekov, though he warns that “intra-elite cleavages, underdeveloped civil society, absence of opposition parties, disenfranchised masses and authoritarian political culture” will be tough obstacles to overcome.

by Tim Cross, The World Weekly

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