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Board of (Dis)trust. What Went Wrong in the National Board of Public Trust of Kazakhstan?

The National Board of Public Trust established by president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev after his victory in elections will start working in August. Some see it as a great advantage noting that the new head of state is going to regain the trust of the people. Some see a canny move in it to get the protesting voters back from the streets and retain his legitimacy after the criticism by international observers at presidential elections.

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As reported on the Akorda’s website, the National Board of Public Trust at the President of Kazakhstan (NSOD) is a consultative and advisory body. Its main purpose is to provide suggestions and recommendations on important national policy issues on the basis of public discourse with the community leaders, representatives of parties and civil society.

According to the tasks, NSOD is to carry out public evaluation of draft concepts, state programmes and statutory acts, tackle significant strategic issues based on public opinion, as well as to ensure constructive dialogue between all the participants. 

Tolganai Umbetalieva. Photo: matritca.kz

Director of the Central Asian Fund for Democracy Development, Tolgonai Umbetalieva, the authorities find it a pain in the neck to calm the people and change their attitude towards the existing regime.

“They are trying not only to get answers from the Board, but also to use them actively to improve the situation in future. Creation of the Board is an attempt to regulate the increasing number of protesters and to find ways to enhance public trust to the new president,” Umbetalieva said.

Old tricks in a new light

Such Boards that contain all community leaders have been created immediately more than once in Kazakhstan after high profile incidents. This tactics has been time tried. It has existed for at least 17 years.

In 2002, the country established a permanent “Conference on drafting resolutions regarding further democratisation and development of the civil society”. The authorities had the intention to democratise the society once the opposition forces started to become more active. However, the permanent conference has never been consistent and failed to democratise the society as a result. The project was left behind.

In 2004, another commission for democratisation was initiated with a very “appropriate” name for democracy NKVD (National Commission for Democratisation Issues). By the way, the then NKVD had many similarities with the current Board. It was also a consultative and advisory body. Moreover, it was created after rowdy (parliamentarian) elections, which the opposition forces didn’t accept.

NKVD managed to exist for two years, just like the “permanent conference”.

Back in 2006, Nursultan Nazarbayev established a state commission for development and specification of the democratic reform programme. Like NSOD, this commission was to develop the nationwide dialogue regarding modernisation of political system and deepening of democratic transformations. However, it sank into oblivion soon. After 2006, the word “democracy” was voiced more and more seldom when the authorities promoted their initiatives.

New commissions and conferences were not revisited until 2016, when the country, mainly its western part, was seized by land protests. Afterwards, the land reform commission emerged. By the way, one of the active members of that commission – public figure Mukhtar Taizhan – is now a member of the Board of Trust.

Mukhtar Taizhan. Photo: lenta.inform.kz

He said it was this commission that made president Nazarbayev to put in place a moratorium on land lease in 2016 amid the land conflict.

“Here [in NSOD] we are going to follow this example and seek the amendment of the laws “On elections”, “On the procedure of protests and demonstrations”.  I have already said we don’t need the [protest] approval system. It’s time to take reforms and modernise both politics and economy. Neither people, nor authorities need fluent phrases,” Taizhan said.

“Trust is like a car”

While we speak about the members of the new board, it’s worth noting that there are other people in addition to Taizhan who are perceived positively by the public. For example, prominent lawyer Aiman Umarova, who was awarded “for courage” by Melania Trump. However, there are few such people.

At the same time, controversial figures, whom activists don’t trust, also became the members of the Board of Trust. Moreover, Umarova said in public she was shocked by the members of NSOD.

The members of the Board were approved by Tokayev on July 17. In addition to the head of the state, the permanent members are his advisor Yerlan Karin and the chief of the president’s staff, Krymbek Kusherbaev. Other members entered it upon approval. Whose approval? No one says.

The Board’s members are mainly public figures, political analysts, deputies, businessmen, former officials and even journalists. For example, a prominent businessman Margulan Seisembai, who is considered one of the opinion shapers, was invited to the board.

He made some conditions of his entry to the Board. One of them is to release political prisoners. Also he suggested that every member of the National Board should collect at least 10 thousand signatures in their support once they represent the people. As a result, Seisembai didn’t enter the NSOD.

He compared trust to the Board to a car, which is borrowed by a strong neighbour represented by the authorities and returned “smashed to pieces”.

“Here he comes to borrow you car again. What are you going to do? If you refuse, you’ll have a fight. Then you ask for a deposit to secure his promise and to return the car in good repair. That’s what I did,” the businessman wrote in his Facebook account.

The Board exists, the dialogue doesn’t

Human rights activist Yerlan Kaliev said only two-three nominees out of 44 don’t raise any questions, all others are former or acting representatives of the quasipublic sector and persons loyal to the existing political regime. Therefore, he doubts the efficiency of the Board of Trust. 

Yerlan Kaliev. Photo: RFE/RL

“It should be represented by opinion shapers, who are not supported by the state, namely independent experts and human rights activists. Now they are making fools out of us by depicting former vice ministers as oppositionists, critics of the authorities to have a dialogue with. I think the presidential administration invited their people to show them to the international community as oppositionists and thus demonstrate the dialogue between the authorities and the opposition forces,” the human rights defender said with resentment.

A lot of protests took place one month before the Board of Trust was established in Kazakhstan and the protesters seemed to become the members of NSOD. However, it did not happen.

After some of the national board’s members started to offer solutions to solve issues significant for the civil society, the hope emerged that the board would be efficient. For example, a member of NSOD, political analyst Daniyar Ashimbaev offered to release political prisoner Mukhtar Dzhakishev one day before the trial where his release on parole was supposed to be considered. However, it did not help – he was not released.

On the one hand, a part of the community is pleased with the initiatives proposed by the members of the Board. On the other hand, the case of Dzhakishev showed doubts about whether the authorities would take the suggestions of NSOD members into account.

The first session of NSOD is to be held in August and many people wait for it. However, the rules of membership in the Board and the status of decisions taken by it are still unclear.

Tolganai Umbetalieva said president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev needs to make positive history of relations with the society taking into account high rate of protests and discontent of people. However, the consultative and advisory body is no longer seen as a dialogue forum between the power and the society.

“The main criticism is focused on the format of the dialogue via the Board, which is shaped by the authorities not the other party, which is an equal partner in the intended dialogue. Therefore, I come to a conclusion based on the members that it is the first step towards having a dialogue with the society in the future, but not the beginning of the dialogue,” the expert emphasised.

Main photo: akorda.kz

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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