Democratization and reforms in kazakhstan: moving ahead

Abstract. This article discusses the process of democratization in Kazakhstan since independence. The fundamental elements of democratization and political liberalization in the country are analyzed. Also, special attention is paid to the reforms in the political structure of Kazakhstan, as well as the prospects of democratic development of the country.

In each of the five Republics of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—political institutions of democratic government and market–oriented economies were adopted soon after these nations attained independence in 1991. Since these countries entered into the first stages of transition, the leaders of each of the Central Asian countries spoke in favour of the establishment of democratic institutions and secular government. Following independence, each of them adopted a constitutionally limited, representative form of government and a legal and regulatory framework in accordance with international standards.[5] Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular made steady progress towards the development of democratic or quasi-democratic polities (Human Rights Watch 2001). The current Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, approved through a national referendum in August 1995 and ratified in September 1995, replaced the previous constitution of 1993. The Constitution provides for a democratic, secular state and a Presidential system of government. State governance is divided among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The President is considered the supreme authority of the state. In October 1998, the Constitution was amended to provide for a 7-year Presidential term instead of 5 years. However, in 2007 the term of the President reverted back to 5 years from the existing 7 years starting from 2012. The first election under the amended constitution was held in January 1999 which resulted in the re-election of President Nazarbayev. Further Nazarbayev continued to rule the country following the presidential elections held in 2005, 2011 and 2015 after major political reforms were undertaken. Such developments in the democratization of Kazakhstan politics have given the country a new identity in the postSoviet world. This can also be witnessed by early presidential elections that were held on 9 June 2019 following the resignation of long-term President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The new President Tokayev has been continuing the tradition of his predecessor as far as democratization and reforms are concerned.

It is against this background that this article seeks to examine the process of democratization in Kazakhstan since it got independence, with particular focus on the reforms in the country’s political structure, apart from highlighting the prospects in the democratic development of the country.

Setting off Kazakh Democratization

Kazakhstan can take pride in certain achievements, having avoided the bloody chaos of a civil war like in Tajikistan and the dictatorial backsliding as in Turkmenistan and, to a lesser degree, in Uzbekistan. Possessing abundant hydrocarbon resources and buoyed by high oil prices, Kazakhstan’s economy has out-performed its regional competitors [1, p. 211]. Zohvtis, who talks about the process of democratization in Kazakhstan, divides this process into three stages. He opines that Kazakhstan was ‘freer’ or more democratic in the first stage, between 1991 and 1994, when ‘there were significant developments in freedom of speech and in media in Kazakhstan’ [2, pp. 58-60]. However, the second stage, which began in 1994 and early 1995, witnessed the Constitutional court making a decision to dissolve the Supreme Soviet (the Parliament) of Kazakhstan. According to Zohvits, ‘this decision of the highest judicial body broke the evolutionary development of the political system in Kazakhstan and left the state and the people of the republic without legislative and representative power’. Even in the third stage, beginning in 1997 and 1998, one can witness a glaring contrast to the first stage, when ‘the government is alleged to have begun direct repression aimed at the participants of protest marches and unsanctioned meetings, as well as representatives of the «political opposition» Zhovtis points out that even though the rights and freedoms are guaranteed in the state’s constitution, these may be whittled away in ‘second and third levels of enabling legislation’ [2].

When we talk about the process of Kazakh democratization, there are two positive factors which can be highlighted. The first has been the introduction of Ombudsman under the President of Kazakhstan in the autumn of 2002 and the second is a Permanently Acting Deliberation (PAD) created in December 2002 in Almaty. PAD is a body, initiated by the Government of Kazakhstan, working on democratization and development of civil society. All political parties, movements, public organisations and trade unions were invited to have dialogue with the government. Only the Communist PartyRepublican People’s Party of Kazakhstan and Democratic Choice ignored PAD and expressed their irreconcilability with the organs of power. The third meeting of PAD held in Astana failed because of disagreement among the participants on issues related to the laws on elections, mass media and political parties. PAD was expected to improve its effectiveness with the growing interest in public organisations for democratization and establishment of civil society [3]. Legal reforms constitute another important aspect in post-independence Kazakhstan. The Western countries have helped Kazakhstan enormously in political and legal reforms, through assistance in the establishment and funding of Non-Governmental Organisations. NGOs are oriented to the programme of educational improvement in Kazakhstan aiming at promoting consciousness for the need of political, legal, social and economic reforms in Kazakhstan. The objective behind this was to make people aware of the process of transition from totalitarianism of the past to democracy of today.

Kazakhstan’s transition to democracy forms the subject of several scholarly analyses. Martha Brill Olcott’s seminal work, Kazakhstan: Unfulfi lled Promise (2002), chronicles the recent political history of the country since independence and identifies several challenges to the state–building process. She also notes the need for more attention to such factors as civil society when examining democracy in Kazakhstan. Olcott cites the political obstacles instituted by the Nazarbayev regime as a factor impeding democratization. In an article ‘Democratic Transition in Central Asia: An Assessment’ (1998), Juliana Geran Pilon asserts that the people of Central Asia would like to participate more actively in political life and that they support democratic rights. However, she observes that local cultural factors would determine the depth of civic associational activities that make civil society an effective vehicle for democratic change.

At that time, President Nazarbayev identified seven fundamental elements of democratization and political liberalization which are necessary for political reforms in Kazakhstan [4]. These include the following:

  • The electoral process must be honest, representative and encourage the fullest participation of candidates and voters. Free and fair elections are at the heart of any democracy and Kazakhstan should be no exception. Quoting a popular proverb Nazarbayev argues that ‘The people seldom speak but when they speak, they never make mistakes.’ Elections are the manifestations of people’s verdict. Our goal should be clear: to make the upcoming national elections a model for free and fair elections. According to Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan should develop ‘a comprehensive step-by-step programme of election of leaders at all levels’.
  • The second major element underlined by the President in the political democratisation package is the strengthening of the role of parties in the country’s political system. Political parties are the basic building blocks of democracy and the need of the hour is to help them grow and develop. The President also encourages international groups and NonGovernmental Organizations to come to Kazakhstan to educate and train the political parties. Calling upon all parties, regardless of their political orientation, he urges them to respect and preserve political and interethnic stability in the country as the future of the State system and democracy depends on this.
  • For stability and succession of power in Kazakhstan strengthening and providing autonomy for Majilis and Senate seemed appropriate to the President. The President believes in the greater responsibility of the Parliament to build up a responsive government in the coming years. Representation by political parties according to proportional representation will make the Majilis better refl ect the full spectrum of political views in Kazakhstan. The President proposes that to ensure representation of a broader range of ethnic and religious minorities of the country in Parliament, some of the Presidential appointees to the Senate shall be from candidates recommended by the People’s Assembly.
  • A key element of democratisation is recognised as strengthening the role of NonGovernmental Organisations in building a civil society. A democratic structure does not in itself guarantee a democratic society. Democracy depends on private voluntary institutions which allow citizens to be politically involved, aware enough to volunteer their services and express their grievances to advocate their interests.[6] To ensure that civic groups can operate freely, the Ministry of Justice has been asked to simplify registration and supervision procedures for domestic and international Non-Governmental Organisations who wish to work in Kazakhstan, thus encouraging and accelerating operation.

- The President acknowledged an independent judiciary as the pillar of a democratic society. An autonomous judicial system is absolutely necessary, which would decide issues on their merits and would be free from corruption. The training process of judges should be improved. Vigorous enforcement of the recently enacted AntiCorruption Law was stressed. It was also pointed out that the Higher Judiciary Council should not be headed by the President.

  • Nazarbayev emphasized the building of a free, uncensored and independent press. According to him the Government should consider the free access of journalists to information not as a favor of the Government but as its commitment to public opinion. Th e work to remove any remaining impediments to a free press from the nation is accorded importance. The privatization process of many state publishing houses and the availability and increase in the number of independent mass media means the growth of openness in society.
  • The progress of the society can be measured by its attitude to women. The President therefore intends to increase the role of the Council on Problems of Family, Women and Demographic Policy or reorganize it into a Special Commission on women’s issues. It must become a Chief Advisor both to the President and the Government in solving important problems pertaining to this sphere. It is necessary to increase women’s representation in all branches of authority. This is a question of social equality.

President Nazarbayev insists that his observations are based on a survey of the situation in his country and the world scenario. He is of the opinion that some forces including those who are skillfully hiding behind the mask of pseudo-democrats in public tend to become more authoritarian. He expressed his belief that ‘Only a free democratic society will be a guarantor of our stable and happy life in the near future. My nation deserves freedom in this terrible and bloody century’.

Reforms in Political Structure

The post-independence government was structured by the 1993 constitution with a strong executive parliament and judiciary. In practice the administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev dominated the governance in the country after its independence.[7] The constitution formalised the enhanced powers that President Nazarbayev assumed upon the dissolution of parliament in early 1995. It continued the previous constitutional definition of Kazakhstan as a unitary state with a Presidential form of government. The President is the highest state officer, responsible for forming the government, subject to parliamentary approval, and appointing all other republican officials. The 1995 constitution expanded the President’s powers to introduce and veto legislation. The President has the powers to appoint the council of Ministers, headed by a Prime Minister and several state committees. In October 1995, Nazarbayev himself assumed the portfolio of the Ministry of National Security. The President has the power to declare state of emergency during which the constitution can be suspended. The President is the sponsor of legislation and the guarantor of the constitution and of the proper functioning of government, with the power to override the decisions and actions of local authorities and councils. The only grounds on which a President can be removed are infirmity and treason, either of which must be confirmed by a majority of the joint Upper and Lower House of the new parliament. In the event of such a removal from power, the Prime Minister would become the temporary President.[5]

It is to be noted that the 1993 constitution created a unicameral parliament, which was to replace the 350 seat Supreme Soviet when the mandates of its deputies expired in 1995. The 1990 parliament, which was composed of the former communists, was dissolved early under the pressure of President Nazarbayev in December 1993 in order to pave way for a smaller and presumably more flexible parliament. Under the 1995 constitution, the parliament consisted of two houses, the Senate and the Majilis, both operating in continuous sessions. All the provinces of Kazakhstan and the city of Almaty, which had provincial status, had two senators, chosen for four-year terms by the joint sessions of the provincial legislative bodies. An additional seven senators were appointed directly by the President. In addition, exPresidents automatically receive the status of senators–for–life. In the first election under the new parliamentary structure, all the seats in both houses of parliament were contested in December 1995; runoff elections filled twenty-three seats in the Majilis for which the initial vote was inconclusive. The new parliament, which assembled in January 1996, included sixty-eight Kazakh and thirty-one Russian deputies, among whom only ten were women. The initiative for most legislative actions originated with the President.

The judiciary system initially remained the least developed of Kazakhstan’s three branches of government. The constitution retains the provision of Presidential appointment of all judges in the republic. Whereas the 1993 constitution specified the terms of service for judges, the 1995 document made no mention of length of service, suggesting that judges would serve at the discretion of the President [5]. Under the constitution of 1993, lines of judicial authority were poorly defi ned, in part because the republic had three ‘highest courts’, the Supreme Court, the State Arbitrate Court and the Constitutional Court employing a total of sixty six senior judges. Many of these senior judges, as well as numerous judges in lower courts, had been retained from the Soviet era, when the judicial branch was entirely under the control of the central government. The 1995 constitution makes no provision for the State Arbitrate Court Provisions, for the new judiciary clearly subordinates all other courts to the Supreme Court, which has a consultative role in appointing senior judges.

Kazakhstan is divided into fourteen provinces, and the city of cities of Almaty and Shymken have administrative status equal to that of a province. In turn, the provinces are divided into regions that consist of a number of settlements. Each province or region and most settlements have their own elected councils, entrusted with making a budget and supervising local tax collections. Cities have their own local councils as well, and large cities are divided into regions, each having its own council. What one may find is that the reformation period of Kazakhstan’s political system began immediately after its independence. Transition to democracy commenced under difficult conditions: the country was then experiencing socio-economic crisis due to decline in industrial and agricultural production, hyperinflation (up to 3,000 per cent) and drastic decline in living standards. After the collapse of the USSR, former Soviet states experienced a crisis in situation. Kazakhstan too experienced the same and tried to overcome the problems related to democratization of political institutions, so as to strengthen the political system in Kazakhstan. In short, the government is now liable to discharge functions entrusted to it by the constitution, laws and acts of the President [6].

In 2007, the Parliament of Kazakhstan underwent its most radical transformation over a decade when seats were added to both senate and Majilis, with the latter body elected exclusively through a system of proportional representation, with nine members elected from within the 400 member Assembly of Peoples (Bowyer 2008: 7). But it is noteworthy that the concentration of power in the hands of an experienced statesman and administrator like Nazarbayev during the critical years of transition has proved fruitful for Kazakhstan which has withstood the difficulties in its economic and socio-political transition. As an outcome of the 2007 amendments, the key powers are transferred from the President to the Parliament. The new changes are thus aimed at increasing Parliament’s authority in forming the Government, thus reducing the powers of the President. In the year 2000, the government introduced its ‘Strategy 2030’ outlining the economic priorities and objectives over a period of thirty years. In an important speech made in September 2001, the President outlined the aims for the years up to 2010 in political and economic matters. This included the doubling of GDP by that date and increase in investment.

Continuing with Democratization and Reforms

With regard to the democratisation and reforms in social, economic and political fields “Strategy Kazakhstan 2030” was developed in 1997 for the period which Kazakhstan considered as the formation of its sovereignty. It now believes that the basic parameters of this strategy have already been accomplished, and, therefore, in 2012 it launched its “Strategy Kazakhstan 2050”. This is considered to be a new political course for the fast growing Kazakhstan in the changing world setting. Strategy Kazakhstan 2050 is aimed at integrating with the country’s previous strategy so that its achievements and development model become the basis of the new political course.

The next initiative taken by Kazakhstan was termed as one of the most determined reforms in its history of independence. This is because, Nazarbayev decided to implement five institutional reforms. On May 20, 2015, he announced that a “Plan of the Nation” would be developed to drastically transform the country through these reforms. As such the approaches, outlined in the “100 Concrete Steps to Implement Five Institutional Reforms” document, were published to give the country a clear sense of direction. The 100 concrete steps were put in a cluster under five institutional reforms, i.e., “formation of a professional state apparatus; the rule of law; industrialization and economic growth; identity and unity; and formation of accountable government.”

Another strategic document that came out in on January 31, 2017, focuses on what “President Nursultan Nazarbayev considers to be the country’s new, third stage of modernization.” One of the main priorities of the third modernization is the accelerated technological renovation in Kazakhstan’s economy. It involves the formation of new innovative sectors based on “digital technologies”. This is important to make certain that economic growth in the country could take place positively in the future. For this purpose, Nazarbayev called for the necessity to redistribute the roles and functions among the authority branches. The core idea is that the President hands over a range of his powers to the Parliament and Government.

A major development took place on March 10, 2017 when Nazarbayev signed a number of amendments to the country’s constitution in order to strengthen the role of Parliament and take powers away from the presidency, though the government would remain a presidential system. This has been a clear indication of the positive impact of devolution on the political development of Kazakhstan. In all 26 amendments that have been made to the Kazakhstan’s constitution, most of them were for redistributing the powers of the President, the Parliament and the government. The importance of these amendments is that they support the 100 Concrete Steps Plan, the guiding document of Kazakhstan’s ongoing five institutional reforms programme. According to the Kazakh President, the updated constitution will help Kazakhstan meet the challenges of the evolving global economy. Meanwhile, the county’s political reforms and technological modernization also began simultaneously so that they will mutually reinforce and complement each other.

A few months back on 27th February 2019, Askar Mamin, who had been the First Deputy Prime Minister, was appointed as the new Prime Minister to lead in Kazakhstan, after the President on February 21 dismissed the government led by Bakhytzhan Sagintayev over its failure to improve living standards. It is now expected that the new prime minister will throw all his strength on social policy to be implemented for the people to make their lives better. On the same day, Nazarbayev issued a decree for re-organisation of the government’s ministries to improve the public administration system. Accordingly new ministers have been appointed for different ministries. With the new President took over power in Kazakhstan following his victory in 2019 elections the political circle in particular and the people in general are optimistic of continued implementation of reforms the country has gone through under the leadership of Nazarbayev.


Looking at the extent of democratization and political reforms in Kazakhstan it seems the country has come a long way in fulfilling the aspirations of Kazakh people at large. Nazarbayev’s initiative of the devolution of Presidential powers is most remarkable in terms of political reforms as it handed over a range of Presidential powers to the Parliament and Government. The result has been that it has strengthened the role of Parliament in the public administration system. Recently, the change of President, Prime Minister and other ministers attest the fact that Kazakhstan is committed to ensure the implementation of reforms in a right promised way keeping in mind the welfare of the country and its people. This has been in line with the approaches, outlined in the “100 Concrete Steps to Implement Five Institutional Reforms” document. Hence, currently the impact of democratization and political reforms is clearly visible which appears to be a necessity for the progress and better prospects of Kazakhstan’s development along democratic lines.



  1. Olcott Martha Brill «Democratization and the Growth of Political Participation in Kazakhstan», in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrot (eds) Conf ict, Cleavage, and Change in Central Asia and the Caucasus. - Cambridge, 1997
  2. Ruffin M. H. and Waugh D. (eds) Civil Society in Central Asia. Washington: Center for Civil Society International, 1999, pp. 58–60.
  3. Carother T. Democracy without Illusions - Foreign Affairs, January– February, 1997 - p. 17.
  4. Nazarbayev N.A. ‘On the Situation in the Country and major Directions of Domestic and Foreign Policy: Democratization, Economic and Political Reform for the New Century’ - Almaty, 1997
  5. Glenn E. C. Kazakhstan: A Country Study. Washington: Library of Congress, 1996
  6. Galyamova D. ‘Division of Powers in Kazakhstan: Constitutional Experience of Independent Development’, Contemporary Central Asia,vol. 11, no. 3, 1998 - pp. 27–37.
Year: 2019
City: Almaty