Kazakhstan’s quest for strengthening democracy: understanding strategy "kazakhstan-2050"

Abstract. This article explores the new strategy of strengthening democracy in Kazakhstan as declared in its “Strategy 2050” document. It also seeks to analyze the new democratization model Kazakhstan wants to adopt, besides highlighting the democratic reforms strategies not only in political but also in the socio-economic fields. In conclusion, it can be said that Strategy Kazakhstan 2050 Programme appears to give Kazakhstan further boost for its nation-building in a country that experienced one party-rule for a long time.


Kazakhstan has no historic memory of a state, nation, or a democratic society before 1991 when it became independent after the disintegration of erstwhile Soviet Union. It was successful in boosting the construction of national institutions and growth of economy during the late 1990s. The experience of a young democracy has helped it to play a role on the global stage as well such as the Chairmanship in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Due to such developments in Kazakhstan’s politics during the process of democratic reforms, the country got a new identity in the post-Soviet era. In the 21st century, the political development in Kazakhstan indicates two positive factors: “The first has been the introduction of Ombudsman under the President of Kazakhstan in autumn of 2002 and the second is a Permanently Acting Deliberation

(PAD) created in December 2002 in Almaty.”[1] It is to be noted that PAD is a body, started by the Kazakhstan government to look after the democratisation process and development of civil society under which “all political parties, movements, public organisations and trade unions were invited to have dialogue with the government.” Another important aspect of PostSoviet Kazakhstan is the area of legal reforms where western countries have supported to a great deal by rendering their assistance in not only forming but also funding the Non-Governmental Organisations. All the NGOs are working for the educational development programmes in the country in order to promote awareness about the need of political, legal, social and economic reforms. The objective is “to make people aware of the process of transition from totalitarianism of the past to democracy”. [2]

The Kazakh government after the independence was structured in accordance with the constitution of 1993 with a powerful three pillar of executive, parliament and judiciary. In general, the post-independence governance of the country remained under the domination of Nursultan Nazarbayev. The constitution formalised the increased powers given to President Nazarbayev after the termination of parliament in the beginning of 1995. Basically, “it continued the previous constitutional definition of Kazakhstan as a unitary state with a Presidential form of government”. As enshrined in the constitution of 1995, the parliament comprised two houses: (a) the Senate and (b) the MajilisThe constitution also continued with the terms of appointing all judges by the President in the country. However, for the new judiciary system the constitution of 1995 noticeably subordinated all the courts to the Supreme Court.

In 2007, the Parliament of Kazakhstan underwent its most radical transformation over a decade when seatswere 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. But the concentration of power in the hands of an experienced statesman and administrator like N.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 a result of the amendments done in 2007, “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.” [3]

The Presidential election of 2005 was a landmark in the history of Kazakhstan which has had effects on the future of country and the Central Asian region. In the Presidential election of 4 December 2005, N.Nazarbayev was re-elected after gaining over 90 per cent of votes. It appears that N.Nazarbayev used the experience of Presidential elections held previously in other Central Asian countries. It is noteworthy that Nazarbaev was supposed to rule Kazakhstan for 7 years till the new election could take place in 2012. Nevertheless “in January 2011, the lower house of Parliament adopted an appeal to Nursultan Nazarbayev on holding a referendum to extend his presidential term until December 2020.” As such a Daft Law "On amendments to the Constitution of Kazakhstan" was approved at a joint session of the Kazakh Parliament. But on January 6, 2011, President Nazarbayev rejected the measure to keep him in power until 2020. “Nazarbayev’’s decision to reject the proposed referendum probably stems mainly from his wish to be seen to be observing democratic norms, while at the same time reaffirming his widespread public support.”

With regard to the democratisation of 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 it has recently declared its “Strategy Kazakhstan 2050”.It is considered to be a new political course for the fast growing Kazakhstan in the changing world setting. The new paradigm of challenges has come to the light and so the year 2050 is a real timeline adopted by the world community. The United Nations has developed the Global Forecast on “Future of civilizations” until 2050. Food and Agriculture Organization issued a forecast report until 2050. Now more and more countries are developing and adopting long term strategies. 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.

Recent Developments

On 16th December 2016, Kazakhstan celebrated 25th anniversary of its independence. Since gaining independence Kazakhstan has come a long way in carrying out democratic reforms. The way Kazakhstan’s democratic development took place has been long and uninterrupted, and hence in the initial stage of formation as a state the country needed a strong presidential power. However, the strong presidential power has been conditioned by the initial years of the transition period as well. But at the end Kazakhstan remained stick to democratization of its political system including the devolution of Presidential powers. The strategic document that came out in the press on January 31, 2017, focuses on what “President Nursultan Nazarbayev considers to be the country’s new, third stage of modernisation.” [4] The first and foremost, “was the creation of an entirely new state based on the principles of a market economy; the second was the implementation of the Strategy 2030 and the creation of our country’s capital, Astana,” Nursultan Nazarbayev declared while addressing the country on January 25, 2017. He said that “Kazakhstan has been developing at an accelerated pace to become one of the 50 most-developed countries, though drastic changes in the technological sphere require a transition to a new model of economic growth. That is why he spoke about the third stage of modernisation.”

One of the key priorities of what Nursultan Nazarbayev calls “the third modernization is the accelerated technological renovation” in Kazakhstan’s economy. It involves the formation of new innovative sectors based on “digital technologies”. For this purpose, he stressed that “it is necessary to minimise state involvement in the economy, reduce all possible costs for businesses and develop public-private partnerships.” He pointed out that agriculture, transport, logistics, real estate market, education, healthcare and social protection of the population remained among issues of paramount importance in the future development model. The country’s macroeconomic policy also requires modernisation. He instructed the government to develop a strategic plan of development until 2025 on the third modernisation of the country, i.e., “Kazakhstan’s national technological initiative.” This is important to make certain that economic growth in the country could take place positively in the future as well as achieving the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy’s main objective of connecting with the uppermost 30 developed countries in the world. During his address to the country N.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. [5] Therefore, the main focus of this article is to deal with the impact of the devolution of Presidential powers on reforms in Kazakhstan.

Steps towards Devolution

It was on 16 May 2007 that the government of Nazarbayev had undertaken a number of amendments to the Constitution which increased the power of the Parliament. This gave way to transforming the republic from presidential to a parliamentary form of government. The Parliament’s role “was increased by raising the number of deputies, introducing new procedures of forming the Government on the principles of parliamentary majority, creating proportional election system of deputies to the lower chamber of Majilis, calling off the party affiliation of the Senate deputies and introducing many other political innovations.” [6] As per the new system of forming the Government, it was stipulated that “Prime Minister has to be appointed by the President after consultations with political parties and by the appropriation of a majority of the Parliament’s deputies.” The execution of such norms was aimed, first of all, to raise the function and responsibilities of political parties in the Government formation. And secondly, the mainstream with a majority in parliament will be accountable to the Government formation and its subsequent actions. Moreover, “the President also offered to develop practical mechanisms for partial support of the activities of political parties from the republican budget”, besides recommending a cut short of the presidential term from the existing seven to five years.[7] The President also proposed that “regional governors to be elected with the appropriation of corresponding maslikhats (regional elective entity)”. [8]

In the field of judicial reform, “not only legal confirmation of an arrest but also the abolition of the death penalty was announced. It may be pointed out that the Constitution provides for death penalty to those who commit terrorist acts or violent crimes. President N. Nazarbayev underscored the need for the above stated amendments to the Constitution of Kazakhstan for ushering in a new stage in the democratization of the nation.” [9] Economic rebuilding launched soon after attaining independence was very complex. The Soviet era’s planned economy system was abolished, finance and banking system were restructured and the the Tenge (KZT) as the new currency was launched. In addition, not only the small and medium size businesses but also housing sector was privatized. Overseas investment started coming to develop the affluent natural resources sector. Although there was economic suffering initially after the independence, by the closing decade of 1990 economic reforms raised a sign of hope. The GDP in the first half of 2001 was found to be up to the tune of 13 percent over the year 2000 and inflation rate came down to 7 percent. At about the same time, in 2000, Strategy 2030 was introduced which focused on further economic reforms and set the objectives for a thirty-year period. In his speech delivered in September 2001, President N.Nazarbayev drew attention towards country’s aim of doubling the GDP by 2010 and increasing the investment regime.

Impact of Devolution on Reforms

Kazakhstan set out on some of the most determined reforms in its history of independence as Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to implement five institutional reforms. [10] 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.

On May 22, 2015, in his speech delivered to the Astana Economic Forum’s plenary session, N.Nazarbayev said that “We have now published the 100 Steps for the world to see,” and added that “Now the world will be able to track our progress or lack thereof on all of them.” The preamble of the document sketched out the following: “One hundred concrete steps are a response to global and local challenges and, at the same time, it is a plan for the nation to join the top 30 most- developed countries in the new historical conditions. One hundred concrete steps will give Kazakhstan a margin of safety that will help the country through a difficult period, implement the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy and strengthen Kazakh statehood. The plan lays out radical changes in society and the state, the main goal of which is treatment of systemic diseases, not just smoothing their exterior symptoms.” 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; industrialisation and economic growth; identity and unity; and formation of accountable government.” [10]

Formation of a Professional State Apparatus

This institutional reform suggests the creation of a modern, professional and independent public service that guarantees excellent execution of economic programmes and distribution of public services. Under this reform some of the initiatives are concentrated on new methods to appoint talented professionals for public office that will also include a few professionals from the private sector. It even permits foreign citizens to be recruited on posts within the government, which was prevalent in the postSoviet states like Georgia and Ukraine. Two more methods stipulate that there will be an enlargement of a new code on civil service and a re-examination of public servants in order to crackdown on those who are incompetent. These steps also anticipate the initiation of a renovated system of salary and wages for bureaucrats that will be decided on the basis of performance and region. This is relevant for those working in the oilproducing regions of Atyrau and Mangystau, as well as in Almaty and Astana where living standard is remarkably more expansive than in Shymkent or Petropavlovsk.

The Rule of Law

This reform takes into consideration “the transition from the five-level justice system (first, appeal, cassation, supervising and resupervising) to a three-level (first, appeal and cassation) system.” [10] The goal is to reinforce foreign and domestic investors’ faith in Kazakhstan’s court system. The processes include hardening qualification norms for the appointment of judges by introducing a new criterion for an entrant to serve a minimum of five years in the court system and a one- year testing period for newly-recruited judges, besides advancing the civic image of police in order to increase the level of Kazakh national’s faith and reduce corruption. On the whole, this reform aims at ensuring property rights by expanding environments for business movement and defending contractual commitments. One of the measures under this reform necessitates enlargement of court proceedings “that must be decided by a jury, while introducing into laws a category of criminal cases where consideration by jury will be mandatory.” Another “step” insists on creating “a municipal or local police force, which will work in close cooperation with local executive authorities and local communities”. This has been planned keeping in mind that a system of local police force was introduced in 1992 but was soon dismantled in favour of a more centralized model.

Industrialisation and Economic Growth

Within this reform, the idea is to make investors fascinated towards the Kazakhstan’s agricultural sector that is slower than the industrial and services sectors of economy. Besides, one of the steps clearly specifies the integration of tax and customs structure. The idea is to open doors for a trader to transport merchandises into Kazakhstan before being sold. This reform also provides for not only making declarations of incomes by the civil servants but also declaring their expenditures with effect from January 2017. The next stage could be extended to all citizens sooner or later. One of the measures lays down to strengthen the institution of a “business ombudsman,” a kind of prosecutor on behalf of businesspersons. Execution of those tasks is aimed at boosting economic growth and diversifying industry. Some measures focus on establishing a “multi-modal Eurasian transcontinental transport corridor” that would ease faster deliverance of goods between Asia and Europe passing through Kazakhstan.

Two more measures envision the formation of the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) with a status ominously different so much so that it may need fresh amendments in Kazakhstan’s Constitution. Those may be justified by a need to introduce a separate judicial system in the AIFC based largely on the English law and the use of English as “an official language” of the centre, along with Kazakh and Russian. The model of the centre, like the one used in Dubai, would covert Astana into a major “financial hub for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries and West Asia.” The centre would focus particularly on “servicing capital markets and Islamic finances” with a goal to becoming one of the 20 leading financial centres of the world. Nursultan Nazarbayev announced at the

Astana Economic Forum that AIFC will utilize the amenities built for EXPO 2017 after the exhibition is over.

Identity and Unity

The main aspect of this reform is to shape a ‘Nation of Common Future’ by “nurturing a viable middle class as the backbone of a successful nation, which can be achieved by sustaining the genuine rule of law and modern and valid political, economic and civil institutions in the society.” [10] For this purpose, the philosophy of Mangilik El (The Eternal Nation) can serve as a basis of universal civic ethics. Procedures to advance domestic tourism and establish encyclopediatype information resources and records as well as regulating management of Kazakhstan’s natural and human resources are central in the portrayal of the “steps” under the agenda of this reform.

Formation of Accountable Government

Under this reform the heads of public bodies will report annually to the general public on the achievements of their agencies. This will include a concept of “open government” (expansion of a new law on unrestricted “access to public information with an exclusion for classified materials), budget and consolidated financial statements, the results of an external financial audit, evaluation of the effectiveness of public policy, public assessment of the results of the quality of public services, online statistical reports from the state agencies and reports on the execution of the national and local budgets.” [10] Moreover, “development of an e-government concept, that has seen a highly successful implementation in Kazakhstan, is included in the proposal as reflected in the last of the 100 steps, on establishing a State Corporation of Government for Citizens that is to become a single provider of public services.” [10]

Furthermore, with the aim of putting into practice all the aforementioned reforms, the

National Modernisation Commission under the direct supervision of President has been established. The Prime Minister has been chosen as the head of the commission. It comprises five working groups in which members are drawn from local and overseas experts. Significantly. “the commission will have its own International Advisory Council, with the inclusion of international experts responsible not only for providing recommendations but also performing an independent systematised monitoring of results in implementation of the reforms.” [11]

Impact on Political Development

Recently, a major development took place on March 10, 2017 when President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a number of amendments to the country’s constitution that will strengthen the role of Parliament and take powers away from the presidency, though the government will 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 have been made to 19 articles of Kazakhstan’s constitution, most of them redistributing the powers of the President, the Parliament and the government. Such reforms are expected to help propel the development of Kazakhstan’s democracy and strengthen the people’s power over government. Even Nursultan Nazarbaev expressed his support for the changes by describing in the following words: [11] Firstly, “the new law significantly strengthens the Parliament’s role in state affairs, including in the formation of the government.” Secondly, “the government becomes more independent, receiving power to directly manage the economy. Thirdly, “the constitutional foundation of law enforcement and judicial systems will be modernized”, because “the law lays the foundations for the activities of the Prosecutor General’s Office, providing the highest supervision over the observance of the rule of law and representation of state interests in court. Fourthly, “constitutional control will be strengthened”, while Fifthly, “guarantees of immutability of our [Kazakhstan’s] independence, unitary status, territorial integrity and form of government are to be fixed at the constitutional level.”

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 that have been discussed above. According to the Kazakh President, the updated constitution will help Kazakhstan meet the challenges of the evolving global economy. He reminded the government of the goal of becoming one of the 30 most developed countries in the world by 2050 and asked all citizens to work toward that goal. He has been quoted as saying, “I am confident that together we will be able to ensure the successful development of the state and the prosperity of our people in the 21st century. The main goal of the reforms is to preserve our unity, friendship and mutual understanding, as well as equality in terms of ethnic, linguistic and confessional identity. Thanks to our cohesion, we have achieved many victories. Following these amendments, we will achieve new ones”.

In fact, the Constitutional reforms bill was first introduced to Parliament on March 3, 2017. The bill entitled “On introducing amendments and additions to the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan (first reading)” proposed to amend “23 articles of the Basic Law, redistributing 35 presidential powers.” [12] However, “the new reforms, stipulated that it will keep the presidential form of government while strengthening the roles of the legislative and executive branches.” During a speech delivered in parliament, Nursultan Nazarbayev explained the main characteristics of political reforms included in the draft Constitutional amendments. He focused on the process of preparing the draft amendments, highlighting the openness and transparency of the discussion process: “Upon my order, the draft was presented for nationwide discussion, which was held intensively for a month. Every single citizen had the opportunity to express his/her opinion. We all witnessed not only a large-scale discussion, but also a high- quality one.” The nationwide discussion of the amendments to the Constitution took place from January 26 to February 24, 2017.

In addition to the members of the Parliament, “the draft amendments were discussed by representatives of the Constitutional Council, Prosecutor General’s Office, Supreme Court, Notarial Chamber, Academy of law enforcement agencies, Trade unions’ federation, Lawyers’ union, Forensic Centre of the Ministry of Justice and the Research institute of the Academy of Public Administration under the President of Kazakhstan.” Several NGOs also participated in the deliberations. Moreover, “the legislation, as well as suggestions by the Mazhilis (lower house a Parliament) and Senate deputies, was considered by the joint commission of the Parliament chambers.” [12]

President Nursultan Nazarbayev also offered the outcome of the working group’s activities, stressing on “the ambiguous understanding of the amendments to Article 26 of the Constitution by some Kazakh citizens.” In all, the working group acknowledged 6,000 suggestions concerning with almost two thirds of the articles mentioned in the Constitution. Since the the goal of the constitutional reform is to strengthen the Kazakhstani society, the President put forth a proposal to put down Article 26 in its earlier version. It is to be noted that “the proposed amendments in Article 26 would have changed the wording on the protection of property rights from ‘citizens of Kazakhstan’ to ‘everyone’, which caused wide discussions about the appropriateness of such step.” The President stressed on “separate stages of Kazakhstan’s political modernisation, highlighting the peculiarity of current reforms.” He noted “the high professionalism of all branches of government, emphasising their ability to take responsibility and make decisions independently,” adding in his words that: “I am sure the expansion of powers of the Parliament and the government will contribute to a more effective achievement of the objectives of the third modernisation of the economy.”

The head of the working group Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, who serves as the president’s chief of staff, reported about developed proposals for a distribution of powers between branches of the government along three general lines [13]: Firstly, he said about the proposed redistribution of the statutory powers of the head of state, which do not require amending the Constitution. In general, proposals of state bodies that relate to the powers that govern the social and economic fields were mentioned, including: economic governance issues, finances, state property and the powers associated with the solution of certain issues of administrative-territorial structure. Secondly, the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office presented proposals to improve the judicial and law enforcement systems, which also do not require amending the Constitution. The proposals concern strengthening judicial control, further reducing the participation of prosecutors in civil and administrative proceedings. There were 13 such proposals. And. third, the working group considered approximately 40 proposals, which implied amending the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Nazarbayev also stressed that the county’s political reform and technological modernisation should begin simultaneously as they will mutually reinforce and complement each other. Under the proposed reforms, the Prime Minister will be assigned the task of submitting nominees for the government to the head of state after consulting the Mazhilis. But an exception is made for the ministers of foreign affairs and defence, who will be appointed by only the President. Interestingly, an important innovation is the norm, according to which the government will resign before the newly elected Mazhilis, not the newly elected President. At the same time, President would retain the right to impose moratoria on bills and to relieve the akims (mayors) of different levels of their duties. The bill was passed in its first reading on the same day. A joint commission of members of the Mazhilis and the Senate was set up to prepare the bill for the second reading which took place on March 6, and finally it was signed by the President on March 10.


Since Kazakhstan felt the necessity to redistribute the roles and functions among the authority branches in accordance with Strategy Kazakhstan 2050, Nazarbayev’s initiative of the devolution of Presidential powers is noteworthy. His core idea of devolution is that the President hands over a range of his powers to the Parliament and Government. He himself emphasized the need to strengthen the role of Parliament in the public administration system. Keeping in mind that the government is formed by the winning party or faction, the role of Parliament has been revised in relation to the government on many issues. This has been in line with the approaches, outlined in the “100 Concrete Steps to Implement Five Institutional Reforms” document. The implementation of five institutional reforms may sooner or later prove to be a boon for Kazakhstan’s society, politics and economy. One of the institutional reforms includes giving the government additional executive powers in the economic field, though in the political field the President will still be responsible for main issues in defence, foreign policy, governance, protection of the Constitution and effective work between different branches of government. Hence, currently the impact of the devolution of Presidential powers on reforms in Kazakhstan is clearly visible which appears to be a necessity for Kazakhstan’s quest for strengthening democracy.


This article is an outcome of a Research Project undertaken by the author, which was funded by the UGC-Area Studies Programme, Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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Year: 2018
City: Almaty