Devolution of presidential powers: impact on reforms in Kazakhstan

Abstract. The article analyzes the process of transformation of the political system of Kazakhstan. Consideration of the “Kazakhstan-2050” program, the “Nation’s Plan – 100 concrete steps to implement five institutional reforms”, “Modernization 3.0”, among which the author puts emphasis on the constitutional reform called for redistributing the powers between the government and parliament, and influence of this political decision on the further development of the state.


On 16th December 2016, Kazakhstan celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence. Since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has come a long way in carrying out democratic reforms. The way in which Kazakhstan’s democratic development has taken place has been long and uninterrupted; and hence in the initial stage of its formation as a state the country needed a strong presidential power. However strong presidential power has been conditioned by the initial years of the transition period as well. But in the end Kazakhstan has adhered to the democratization of its political system, including the devolution of Presidential powers. The strategic document that was released to the media on January 31, 2017, focuses on what President Nursultan Nazarbayev considers to be the country’s new, third stage of modernisation.1 “The first one 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,” Nazarbayev declared while addressing the country on January 25, 2017. He said that Kazakhstan had been developing at an accelerated pace to become one of the 50 most- developed countries; but that 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 Nazarbayev calls ‘the third modernisation’ is the accelerated technological revolution in Kazakhstan’s economy. It implies the creation of new promising sectors on the basis of 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 ensure the country’s economic growth in the long run as well as achieving the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy’s main goal of joining the top 30 most-developed countries in the world. During his address to the country, Nazarbayev said that it was necessary to redistribute roles and functions among the different areas of government. The core idea is that the President hands over a range of his powers to the Parliament and Government.2 The main focus of this article is therefore the impact of the devolution of Presidential powers on reforms in Kazakhstan.

Steps towards Devolution

On 16 May 2007, President Nazarbayev and his government initiated a number of constitutional amendments which increased the authority of the Parliament. This paved the way for the transformation of the republic from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government. Parliament’s role was increased by increasing the number of deputies; introducing new procedures for forming the government on the principles of parliamentary majority; creating a system of proportional election of deputies to the lower chamber of Majilis; calling off the party affiliation of the Senate deputies; and introducing many other political innovations.The new procedures for forming the government stipulate that the Prime Minister has to be appointed by the President after consultations with the political parties and the backing of a majority of the Parliament’s deputies. The implementation of such an approach was aimed, first of all, at elevating the role of political parties in forming the government. Second, the party having a parliamentary majority will be responsible for the formation of the government and its consequent actions in implementing the praogramme of the winning party or coalition. The President also offered to develop practical mechanisms for partial support of the activities of political parties, funded from the republican budget. The President also proposed a reduction of the presidential term from seven to five years in addition to recommending regional governors to be elected with the support of the corresponding maslikhats (the regional elective entity).4

In the area 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 allows the death penalty for those who commit terrorist acts or violent crimes. President

Nazarbayev underscored the need for the above-stated amendments to the Constitution of Kazakhstan as a means of ushering in a new stage in the democratization of the nation.5 The task of economic reconstruction undertaken immediately after independence was extremely complex. The Soviet-style planned management of the economy was dismantled; the government financial system and the banking system were reformed; and the new currency, the Tenge (KZT) was introduced. Small and medium-size businesses and housing were privatized. Foreign investment flowed into the country to develop the rich natural resources. Immediately after independence, there were hardship and a decline in the economy; but by the end of 1990s economic restructuring bore fruit. In 1999, the economy began to grow and the take-off phase started, something evident from the fact that GDP in the first half of 2001 was 13 percent higher than in 2000; and the rate of inflation decreased to 7 percent. In 2000, the government introduced its Strategy 2030 outlining the economic priorities and objectives over the following 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 an increase in investment.

Impact of Devolution on Reforms

Kazakhstan embarked on some of the most ambitious reforms in its independent history when President Nazarbayev decided to implement five institutional reforms. On May 20, 2015, he announced that a “Plan of the Nation” would be developed to radically change the country through these reforms. As such, the approaches, outlined in the document “100 Concrete Steps to Implement Five Institutional Reforms”, were published in order to give the country a clear sense of direction.

On May 22, 2015, in his remarks at the plenary session of the Astana Economic Forum, 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 organized into headings under the 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.

Formation of a Professional State Apparatus

This institutional reform suggests the formation of a modern, professional and independent public service that ensures the high- quality implementation of economic programmes and the delivery of public services. A few steps under this reform are concentrated on new ways to recruit talented professionals for public office, including from the private sector. One of them even allows for appointing foreign citizens to positions within the government, which was the practice in post-Soviet countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. Two more measures specify the expansion of a new code relating to the civil service and a re-examination of public servants, aimed at ridding the organisation of the less competent. These steps also anticipate the introduction of a revamped system of remuneration for civil servants that will rely on performance and region-based criteria. The latter could be relevant for those working in the oilproducing regions of Atyrau and Mangystau, as well as in Almaty and Astana, where the standard of living is markedly more expensive than in Shymkent or Petropavlovsk.

The Rule of Law

This reform involves the transition from the five-level justice system (first, appeal, cassation, supervising and re-supervising) to a three-level (first, appeal and cassation) system. The aim is to strengthen foreign and domestic investors’ trust in Kazakhstan’s court system. The measures include toughening the qualification criteria for the recruitment of judges by introducing a new condition for a candidate to serve at least five years within the court system and a one-year trial period for newly-appointed judges, as well as improving the public image of the police in order to increase the level of citizens’ trust and reduce corruption. In general, implementing this reform seeks to ensure property rights by improving the conditions for entrepreneurial activity and protecting contractual obligations. One of the steps under this reform requires the expansion 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” stipulates the creation of 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 an institution of local police was introduced in 1992 but was soon scrapped in favour of a more centralised model.

Industrialisation and Economic Growth

A key purpose of this reform is to attract strategic investors to the country’s agricultural sector, which is lagging behind the industrial and services branches of the economy. Beyond that, one of the measures stipulates that the tax and customs systems will be integrated. This will open doors to an importer wishing to transport commodities into Kazakhstan before selling them. In addition, with effect from January 2017, this reform provides not only for the declaration of income by civil servants but also for the declaration of their expenses. The following stage could be extended to all citizens sooner or later. One of the measures strengthens the powers of the “business ombudsman,” a kind of prosecutor on behalf of entrepreneurs. Implementation of those tasks is aimed at boosting economic growth and diversifying industry. A few steps focus on establishing a “multi-modal Eurasian transcontinental transport corridor” that would facilitate quicker delivery of goods between Asia and Europe via Kazakhstan.

Two more steps envisage establishing the Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) with a status significantly different enough that it may require introducing amendments into the nation’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 design of the centre, similar to one used in Dubai, would turn Astana into a major “financial hub for the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries and West Asia.” The centre will focus particularly on “servicing capital markets and Islamic finances”, with the goal of becoming one of the 20 leading financial centres of the world. Nazarbayev announced at the Astana Economic Forum that AIFC will use the facilities constructed 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 within society. For this purpose, the ideology of Mangilik El (The Eternal Nation) should serve as a system of common civic values. Measures to boost domestic tourism and establish encyclopedia-type information resources and databases systematizing the presentation of Kazakhstan’s natural and human resources are prominent in the description of the steps under 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 the concept of “open government” (the 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; the 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. Further development of the e-government concept, which has been implemented very successfully in Kazakhstan, is included in the proposal through the last of the 100 Steps, which deals with the establishment of a State Corporation of Government for Citizens that is to become a single provider of public services.

In order to implement all of the abovementioned reforms, the National Modernisation Commission under the President has been created, with the Prime Minister as head of the commission. It consists of five working groups, members of which include local and foreign experts. 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.”6

Impact on Political Development

On March 10, 2017, a major development took place when President Nazarbayev signed a number of amendments to the country’s constitution strengthening the role of Parliament and taking 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 Nazarbaev expressed his support for the changes in the following words. First, “the new law significantly strengthens the Parliament’s role in state affairs, including in the formation of the government.” Second, “the government becomes more independent, receiving power to directly manage the economy. Third, “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. Fourth, “constitutional control will be strengthened”, while, fifth, “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 as 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.7 The new reforms, however, stipulated that it will keep the presidential form of government while strengthening the roles of the legislative and executive branches. Speaking before members of Parliament, Nazarbayev highlighted the key factors and aspects of political reforms provided by the draft amendments to the Constitution. 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 Parliament, the draft amendments were discussed by representatives of the Constitutional Council, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Supreme

Court, the Notarial Chamber, the Academy of Law-Enforcement Agencies, the Trade Unions’ Federation, the Lawyers’ Union, the Forensic Centre of the Ministry of Justice and the Research Institute of the Academy of Public Administration under the President of Kazakhstan. A number of non-governmental organisations also took part in the discussions. The legislation, as well as suggestions by the Mazhilis (the lower house of Parliament) and Senate Deputies, was considered by the joint commission of the Parliamentary chambers. 8

Nazarbayev also presented the results of the working group’s activities, highlighting the ambiguous understanding on the part of some Kazakh citizens of the amendments to Article 26 of the Constitution. The working group received 6,000 proposals concerning two thirds of the Articles of the Constitution and all of its sections. Since the constitutional reform is aimed at consolidating Kazakhstan society, he proposed to leave Article 26 in its previous version. The proposed amendments to 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 a step. The President emphasised the separate stages of Kazakhstan’s political modernisation, highlighting the peculiarity of the current reforms. He noted the high professionalism of all branches of government, emphasising their ability to take responsibility and make decisions independently. “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 President said.

The head of the working group, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, who serves as the president’s chief of staff, reported on the development of proposals for a distribution of powers between the branches of the government along three general lines. 9 First, he reported on the proposed redistribution of the statutory powers of the head of state, which do not require the Constitution to be amended. In general, the proposals concerning the bodies of state that relate to the powers governing 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. Second, the Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office presented proposals to improve the judicial and law enforcement systems, which also do not require the Constitution to be amended. The proposals concern strengthening judicial control, further reducing the participation of prosecutors in civil and administrative proceedings. There were 13 such proposals. Third, the working group considered approximately 40 proposals which did imply 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. However an exception is made for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, who will be appointed by the President alone. Interestingly, an important innovation is the rule 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 roles and functions among the branches of government, Nazarbayev’s initiative of the devolution of Presidential powers has been noteworthy. His core idea of devolution is that the President hands over a range of his powers to the Parliament and Government. He himself emphasised 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. At this time, therefore, the impact of the devolution of Presidential powers on reforms in Kazakhstan is clearly visible.



  1. Aigerim Seisembayeva in Nation on 31 January 2017.
  2. KAZINFORM, 27 January, Astana.
  3. Marat Yermukanov, CACI Analyst, 30 May 2007.
  4. Mukesh Kumar Mishra, ‘Political Development and Constitutional Reforms in Contemporary Kazakhstan’, Central Asia’s Affairs, QUARTERLY ANALYTICAL REVIEW 3 (55)/2014, 12.1.2011.
  5., 16 May 2007.
  6. concrete-steps-astana-economic-forum#sthash.askmcMIw.dpuf
  7. Aigerim Seisembayeva in Nation on 4 March 2017.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Yerbolat Uatkhanov in Nation on 25 January 2017.
  10. Source: World Economic Outlook Database, April 2016. IMF website. URL: (date of access: September 25, 2016). ↑
  11. Саудовская Аравия все же девальвирует риял? Вести Экономика, 30.09.2016 07:28. URL: articles/75625 ↑
  12. According to World Bank: Total reserves (includes gold, current US$). The World Bank website. URL: http://data.worldbank. org/indicator/FI.RES.TOTL.CD?locations=SA (date of access: September 26, 2016). ↑
  13. Король Саудовской Аравии сократил зарплаты министров на 20 процентов. РИА Новости. 27.09.2016. URL: https://ria. ru/world/20160927/1477914209.html ↑
  14. Саудовская Аравия поможет банкам и закрутит гайки. Вести Экономика, 27.09.2016. URL: articles/75461 ↑
  15. Calculated based on the data of World and sectoral indices. website. URL: indices/Мировые-индексы (date of access: October 5, 2016). ↑
  16. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. ↑
  17. Саудовская Аравия обогнала Россию по военным расходам. Взгляд, 5 апреля 2016 г. URL: economy/2016/4/5/803530.html ↑
  18. MAJOR FOREIGN HOLDERS OF TREASURY SECURITIES// Securities (B): Portfolio Holdings of U.S. and Foreign Securities. U.S. Department of the Treasury website. URL: (date of access: October 10, 2016). ↑
  19. National Bank of the Republic of Kazakhstan. File “Gross inflow of foreign direct investments into the Republic of Kazakhstan from foreign direct investors by countries”. Internet access: ↑
  20. Ibid. ↑
  21. Which Kazakhstan-Chinese enterprises are created in the country and what do they produce? Internet access: rus/show/9418. ↑
  22. The Chinese enterprises are not to be transferred to Kazakhstan. Internet access: sobirayutsya-perenosit-kitayskie-predpriyatiya-mir-rk.html ↑
  23. Ibid. ↑
  24. National Agency for Export and Investment KAZNEX INVEST. Tools for supporting investments, export, FEZ. Internet access: ↑
  25. Kazakhstan Industry Development Institute. Investment Climate of Kazakhstan. Internet access: publications/483 ↑
  26. Official website of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. poslanie-prezidenta-respubliki-kazahstan-nnazarbaeva-narodu-kazahstana-31-yanvarya-2017-g ↑
  27. Trade map – international trade statistics. Internet access: aspx?nvpm=1|398||||TOTAL|||2|1|1|1|2|1|2|1|1 ↑
  28. See the concept of pre-modernist, modernist and post-modernist states, for example, in [8; 9; 10]. ↑
  29. This is well illustrated in such documents as the National Security Concept and Foreign ↑
  30. See analysis of periphery concept in international relations in [13]. Analysis of Central Asia as periphery of international relations is presented in [14]. ↑
  31. "New dimensions of the international security" normally include migration, demographic problems, illicit drugs and arms trafficking, transnational organized crime, religious extremism and terrorism. 
Year: 2017
City: Almaty