Recent political developments in Kazakhstan have increased hopes that the country may be on a path towards democratization. Kazakhstan has been under autocracy since it first began to be taken over by the Russian Empire in the 18th century, throughout its years as part of the Soviet Union, and since its independence in 1991. After all that time, could it be possible that the country is heading towards having a more democratic nature?
From 1990 until early 2019, Kazakhstan was led by Nursultan Nazarbayev. He was chosen by the Communist Party to rule the country and shortly afterwards led Kazakhstan into becoming an independent state when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. He was elected several times since then, with the last election being held in 2015. However, no opposition parties were allowed to run in these elections and he received a suspiciously high vote share of 95% in his last two elections. Along with these electoral irregularities, his regime was marred by accusations of human rights abuses. Protests and independent media were generally suppressed, and torture was common for those detained in the country’s prisons. It is also illegal to insult Nazarbayev, making criticism of the government difficult.
In March 2019, following a series of protests across Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev resigned as president. He appointed a successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to serve the rest of his presidential term. Tokayev was re-elected in snap elections shortly afterwards. Despite Tokayev being the official president, Nazarbayev still holds much power, remaining the leader of Kazakhstan’s ruling political party. He has also been appointed for life as chairman of the Security Council, which advises the president with military and law enforcement policy. This means that his influence on Kazakh politics remains strong.
Despite Nazarbayev’s firm grip on Kazakhstan, the Tokayev presidency has marked some changes in the political situation. While his re-election in June 2019 was also marred by allegations of voting irregularities and the detention of peaceful protestors, he has made some small steps towards improving human rights in Kazakhstan. Tokayev established the National Council of Public Trust, a body which is supposed to allow greater dialogue between the public and the government. On December 20th, at a meeting of the National Council, Tokayev announced important changes to the country’s laws. Protests will no longer need approval from state authorities to be legal, it will become easier to form political parties as the number of supporters needed to start one will be reduced, and punishments for hate speech and libel will be abolished or reduced- meaning criticism of the government will be easier. The fact that these changes were announced just days after the detention of dozens of people who peacefully protested against the government regime makes them hard to read – will Kazakhstan begin to liberalize its laws, or are these changes intended to pay lip service to democratization while making little difference to the government’s control of society?
Neighbouring Uzbekistan, under a new leader since 2016, has also been experimenting with some political reform and has reduced restrictions on the media. Tokayev and Nazarvayev could be following Uzbekistan’s model. However, given Nazarbayev’s previous human rights record it may be hard for Kazakhstan to turn over a new leaf, and even in Uzbekistan, there are still many restrictions on rights. The implementation of the new laws in the coming year will be closely watched by many in Kazakhstan, and hopefully, the government will stay true to its word, allowing increased freedom of expression in a country that has been without it for so long.
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