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Repercussions of the Transit Power in Kazakhstan and Its Projection in 2020

«The aggravation of the intra-elite confrontation will most probably be an important trend of this year. It manifests in an intensified anti-corruption campaign and the tension of the information field expressed in leaks and scandals on social media», political scientist Sultanbek Sultangaliev notes in his article for CABAR .asia.


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Speaking of 2020 forecasts for Kazakhstan, we can be certain on the prolonged trends of “long 2019”. The epoch-making event of 2019, the transit of power, and its “side effects” in the form of increased civic activism, protests, politicization of youth, as well as the update of Kazakh government’s socio-economic policies, coupled with the stated political modernization – all cast a shadow over 2020, simultaneously setting its agenda.

Agenda 2020

Which prolonged trends of 2019 affect the 2020 agenda?

First, the transit of power foreseeably led to the newly formed power configuration. It became significantly more complicated involving more actors and increasing the competition between institutions. A new influential political institution has appeared, the Office of the First President – Elbasy or, as Kazakh experts would call it (at the place of residence) – “library”.

Library of the first president of Kazakhstan, source: prezidentlibrary.kz

The Nur Otan party has also applied for the “partization” of power implying the transformation of this dominant political force from a “party in power” into a “ruling party”. The party’s ambitions for greater influence on the country’s political processes, primarily through the parliamentary faction, are very straightforward. However, the seizure of parliament via complete authority will probably occur only after the upcoming parliamentary elections. The government’s resignation in front of the newly elected lower house of parliament, the Majilis, will be the turning point. The winning party should play a key role in the formation of the new cabinet, which enables reinforcement of its oversight functions.

The law enforcement agencies also have evident inclinations to political subjectivity. Recall that the Security Council, with life-long leadership of the first president Elbasy, gained constitutional status in 2018. It was this body that became the key moderator of state reaction to the Korday events of February 2020, which affirms its political subjectivity and independence.

Thus, several institutions redistributed a power, formerly concentrated in the hands of the first president – Elbasy. The notorious hypothesis on the second president not possessing all the power the first president had turned out to be true.

Second, despite the continuity declared by the new head of state, Tokayev makes adjustments to the socio-economic agenda. “Left roll” in social policy emerged right after the assumption of office by the new president. Adjustments were asserted in the growth of salaries for state employees, pensions and scholarships, the implementation of a “credit amnesty” for socially vulnerable population segments, the exemption of micro and small businesses from income tax for three years, the increase in targeted social assistance for large families[1].

Another priority of Tokayev’s presidency is the concept of a “listening state”, with a constructive dialogue between the government and society in its essence. Several initiatives were implemented on this track. First, the Akorda website now offers a virtual reception room of a president. Second, the structure of the presidential administration had formed a department for monitoring the consideration of appeals. Third, the National Council of Public Trust (NCPT) was established under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan[2].

The latter became the venue to announce political modernization path, i.e. the package of economic, social and political reforms presented at the NCPT. Those were comprised of several norms: changing the law on rallies (organization of which now don’t require obtaining permission, just a notification), lowering registration barriers to establish a political party, introducing the institution of the parliamentary opposition, decriminalizing the libel articles, etc.

National Council of Public Trust under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, source: nsod.kz

Among the initiatives in the economic package are the quota reduction for attracting foreign labor to 40%, as well as the inclusion of civil society representatives on the board of directors of the quasi-public sector’s socially significant enterprises[3]. Overall, the norms proposed at the NCPT site are aimed to enhance the accountability and transparency of the authorities, as well as to create an environment for political competition.

The direction towards political modernization, reinforced by a proposition that “socio-economic reforms are impossible without socio-political modernization” in the message to the people of Kazakhstan, can be regarded as prolonged for 2020. The upcoming parliamentary elections are a critical point to converge all the trends of the previous period. According to the Constitution, elections to the lower house of Parliament – the Majilis – should be held in early 2021, although they might be held earlier. No matter the election date, the electoral agenda will determine the 2020 socio-political trends.

The measures of “social therapy” and political marketing of Akorda outlined above were, to a certain extent, a reaction to the series of protests across Kazakhstan in 2019. The growth of civic activism is the third significant trend of last year.

The transit of power led to the “awakening” of the society and the rise of civic activism, with the especially evident politicization of urban youth.

Besides, the election process was accompanied by an unprecedented activity of observers.

New political projects, one after another, naturally began to declare themselves in the post-election period. Among them are The Democratic Party of Kazakhstan uniting the old opposition, youth movements “Oyan, Kazakhstan” and “Republic”, and the Coalition of Civil Initiatives HAQ, which represents the interests of the urban middle class and consolidates various forms of civic activism. The likelihood that these new projects will go through the registration process before the election and create a competitive political force in the next electoral cycle is not high considering the recent measures of law enforcement agencies to detain activists[4].

Will there be any economic reforms?

Thus, the agenda for the beginning of 2020 is set by three key trends: the transformation of the political chain of command, political modernization, the growth of civic activism and the politicization of the people.

However, the need for socio-economic reforms seems to be the primary task, since socio-economic stability determines both the stability of the political chain of command and the success of political reforms while serving as a deterrent to the protest’s growth.

The Kazakh economy looks stable for a third-party observer: last year’s GDP growth amounted to 4.5%[5]. Over the past few years, this indicator has been on an uptrend: in 2018, GDP growth amounted to 4.1%, in 2017 – to 4%[6]. However, economists recognize the growth of the Kazakh economy as a “poor quality” growth. Firstly, it is achieved through the extractive industries, rather than high-tech refining industries – to be more precise, it is provided by Kashagan oil. Secondly, this growth practically does not translate into the welfare of Kazakhstanis. According to research, the share of food expenditures in the budget of Kazakh citizens amounts to 50%[7]. Outside the current model of the Kazakh economy are not only unemployed (4.8% or over 400 thousand people) but also the self-employed category (over 2 million people), whose incomes and consequent socio-economic statuses are extremely unstable.

There is a need to restructure the Kazakh economy. At the enlarged government session held on January 24, 2020, President Tokayev instructed to develop a program of economic reforms[8]. This document should be prepared by the government, the presidential administration and the Atameken National Chamber of Entrepreneurs by May 15.

To control reforms, the president instructed to create a Center for Analysis and Monitoring of Social and Economic Reforms under the presidential administration. In addition to the latter, the Center will also recruit representatives of the scientific and expert community. It will be possibly transformed into a reform agency under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The presidential administration perceptibly intends to tighten control over the government and economic reforms. The question here is: Will the current Prime Minister Askar Mamin have enough reformist potential for “deep and possibly radical reforms”?

Elections as a Bifurcation Point

At the same time, Nazarbayev’s “First economy – then politics” credo, formulated by him three decades ago, has exhausted itself at this stage of development of the Kazakh state and society[9]. The parliamentary control is required to increase the effectiveness of the state apparatus. The existing parliament, in its current composition, does not fully implement that control.

That is why the upcoming elections considered a bifurcation point, which will show how stable the political modernization course in Kazakhstan is. We should note that before the electoral campaign starts a package of reforms should be adopted to liberalize electoral and party legislation. Currently, there are two concepts of bills published on the “Legal acts” platform. Those are on peaceful assemblies and political parties and elections.

The concept of the bill on peaceful assemblies, nonetheless, has already been heavily criticized by the public. Public hearings in Almaty with the participation Information and Public Development Minister Dauren Abaev were held on confrontational position[10]. The well-known Kazakhstani human rights activist, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, Yevgeny Zhovtis noted that the act on transferring the organization of rallies from the permitting principle to the notification basis was not implemented fully by the legal drafter, the Ministry of Information and Public Development (MIPD)[11]. The validity of the thesis was confirmed by the detentions that took place in Almaty in March 2020.[12]

The interethnic factor is a significant trigger of protest, among others.

This conflict has already provoked the withdrawal from the National Council of Public Trust of one of its members. The public figure Bakhytzhan Bukarbay argued that the document developed by the MIPD does not correspond to the project that the NCPT promoted.

In this regard, we should doubt whether a package of political reforms will be adopted in full. Won’t these reforms meet stubborn resistance in the state apparatus or elite? Interrelated question: will the party environment be reframed with preparation for the election? Will new players be released on the field of the upcoming election campaign?

Party mosaic as a formality 

There are currently six political parties registered in Kazakhstan. The “party of power” Nur Otan, headed by Nazarbayev, which has a constitutional majority in parliament and, according to experts, has firmly merged with the state apparatus. Nur Otan’s current ratings are not up to par. This, to some extent, is a consequence of political strategists’ miscalculation. They created a monopoly on the party field with Nur Otan; as a result, all responsibility for socio-economic problems in the country lies entirely with the “party in power”, negatively affecting its rating.

Last fall, the party leader urged to modernize through recruiting civic activists and bloggers into the party ranks. They promise to take stock of the party update on March 5, at an expanded meeting of the party’s political council.

Will new players be released on the field of the upcoming election campaign?

Two other parliamentary parties, the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan and Ak Zhol, have noticeably stepped up their activities in recent times, probably sensing a changing political situation. The Auyl Party of Agrarians, which does not currently have a representative in parliament, has decided to “saddle” the topic of the unused land’s seizure and the fight rhetoric against the latifundists. The Auyl party expects to join the next Parliament, bearing the problems of agricultural reform and national or patriotic rhetoric.

The Birlik party, formed with the union of the Rukhaniyat and Adilet parties, has been in suspended animation since its inception. After the scandalous change of leadership, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party Akikat, which positioned itself as a true and genuine opposition, fell into a protracted crisis.

An alternative to the Akipat NSDP is the project of the Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, the constituent congress of which was initially scheduled for February 22. However, the congress was canceled at the last moment due to the detentions of party activists in the regions. The rest of the announced party projects are still pending; their initiators lack the experience and resources to go through all the registration stages.

Instead of a conclusion

The low representation and involvement of civic activists in political processes (not counting the protests) cast doubt on whether the next parliament will be qualitatively different from the current one or whether the changes will be purely superficial.

The aggravation of the intra-elite confrontation will most probably be an important trend of this year. It manifests in an intensified anti-corruption campaign. For instance, detention of the Pavlodar region’s akim and several akims of the Nur-Sultan and Almaty’s districts. It also manifests in the tension of the information field expressed in leaks and scandals on social media.

Finally, will the promotion of the protest agenda continue? Should we expect more rallies and unrest? This is another question, the response to which are determined by 2020 events. The February events in the Kordai region, where the domestic conflict between the Kazakh and Dungan populations escalated into mass ethnically-fueled clashes, have demonstrated that socio-economic problems and rural poverty, dissatisfaction with the quality of the state apparatus, high levels of corruption, will seek a way out on various “boiling points”. The interethnic factor is a significant trigger of protest, among others.

The trend for the interweaving of the protest agenda and interethnic factor was stipulated much earlier. It was conspicuous back in 2019 when anti-Armenian protests first took place in Karaganda (reasoned by the murder of a Kazakh guy in a restaurant owned by Armenians). It was followed by foreign employees being beaten at the Tengiz field due to the “inappropriate selfie” of one of the ex-pats. Common to all three events is the fact that it is difficult to separate the factor of interethnic tension and socio-economic problems.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.


[1] Forbes.kz, January 1, salaries and pensions will increase, https://forbes.kz/news/2020/01/01/newsid_215999

[2] Kabar.kg, 10 main things President Kassym – Zhomart Tokaev did, http://kabar.kg/news/10-glavnykh-del-prezidenta-kasym-zhomarta-tokaeva/

[3] Kapital.kg, State enterprises will be comprised of civil society representatives, https://kapital.kz/economic/83507/v-sd-gospredpriyatiy-voydut-predstaviteli-grazhdanskogo-obshchestva.html

[4][4][4] Police detained Democratic Party leader Zhanbolat Mamai https://vlast.kz/novosti/37366-policia-zaderzala-lidera-dempartii-zanbolata-mamaa.html

[5] Inbusiness.kz, Kazakhstan’s GDP growth was 4.5% in 2019, https://inbusiness.kz/ru/last/rost-vvp-kazahstana-sostavil-4-5-v-2019-godu

[6] Finmarkrt.ru, The growth of the Kazakhstan economy was 4.1% in 2018, http://www.finmarket.ru/news/4922761

[7] Factcheck.kz, True / 50% of their budget Kazakhstanis spend on food, https://factcheck.kz/claim-checking/verdict/pravda-50-byudzheta-kazaxstancy-tratyat-na-edu/

[8] The President of Kazakhstan instructed the government to prepare a program of economic reforms, http://russian.news.cn/2020-01/25/c_138733242_5.htm

[9] The Elbasy’s “First the economy, then politics” principle is working, https://liter.kz/13206-printsip-elbasy-snachala-ekonomika-potom-politika-srabotal/

[10] Activists and officials came together in a battle, https://zonakz.net/2018/11/12/i-vot-soshlis-v-bitve-aktivisty-i-chinovniki/

[11] Evgeny Zhovtis on rallies: Protest activity is growing and you need to somehow let off steam, https://informburo.kz/interview/evgeniy-zhovtis-o-mitingah-protestnaya-aktivnost-rastyot-i-nuzhno-kak-to -spuskat-par.html

[12] Rus.azattyq.org, Detentions, cordon, street blocking. March 1 in Kazakhstan, https://rus.azattyq.org/a/kazakhstan-protests-1-march/30462260.html

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