ZOiS Spotlight 22/2022

The Constitutional Referendum in Kazakhstan and the Belated End of the Nazarbayev Era

by Beate Eschment 08/06/2022
A voter takes part in the referendum on the constitutional reform in Kazakhstan. IMAGO / SNA

The people of Kazakhstan have voted overwhelming in favour of amendments to one-third of the country’s constitution. With the referendum, held at short notice on 5 June 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hoped to garner popular support for his most ambitious step to date in reforming his country’s political system. With 77.2 per cent of votes in favour and turnout of 68.1 per cent, his bid paid off. The measures include amendments to electoral law and changes to the party registration process in order to boost political participation, while the devolution of powers to the regional or local level is intended to support decentralisation. These measures alone signal a shift away from the political system created by the country’s First President Nursultan Nazarbayev during almost 30 years in office (1990-2019); the same applies to an even greater extent to the transfer of some powers from the President to Parliament – widely regarded in Kazakhstan as a move away from super-presidential rule to a presidential system. A new provision bars a president’s relatives from holding government positions or heading up semi-public enterprises, seemingly a lesson learned from the Nazarbayev era. Not least, all references to the First President will now be deleted from the constitution. While the changes merely represent slightly more ambitious steps in the cautious political reform process initiated by the current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019, they mark a major break with the Nazarbayev legacy.

A failed plan

Nazarbayev (b. 1940) announced his resignation on 19 March 2019 and formally handed over the reins of power to his hand-picked successor Tokayev, who was then voted into office by the electorate, as expected, on 9 June 2019. It was quite clear that preparations for Nazarbayev’s retirement had been under way for some years. In particular, legal amendments introduced in 2010 and 2017 granted Nazarbayev, the “First President”, sweeping powers even after retirement (while curtailing the powers of his successors); Nazarbayev himself and members of his extended family were also granted immunity and a guarantee that they would be allowed to maintain control of their assets. Although these measures were intended to safeguard a soft handover both for the country and for Nazarbayev’s own family, protests – mainly in Almaty – in spring 2019 showed that some groups within the population had expected more radical changes. The challenging economic situation – due in part to the restrictions imposed worldwide to control the coronavirus pandemic – worsened the discontent. Things came to a head in early January 2022, when demonstrators turned out in cities across Kazakhstan not only to protest against price rises but also to voice displeasure at the former President’s ongoing grip on power, with chants of “old man out”. Tokayev heeded their demands and stripped Nazarbayev of his powers, first and foremost his chairmanship of the Security Council. Subsequently, in Almaty in particular, the situation escalated into violence and destruction on a scale never previously witnessed in the Republic of Kazakhstan. According to official figures, there were more than 200 deaths, around 1,000 arrests and damage running to more than 60 million US dollars. It is still unclear who was behind these events and which objectives were being pursued.

Belated change

Not only was Nazarbayev himself deprived of his powers and, of course, his prestige in early January; his relatives and close associates have also been removed from their leadership positions in recent months. Many of them now often face criminal prosecution and several have been arrested. The most striking examples are Nazarbayev’s nephew Kairat Satybaldy and Karim Massimov, the former head of the National Security Committee. The constitutional changes now mean that the immunity previously guaranteed to the ex-President and his relatives will be rescinded and access granted to his family’s wealth.

The attempt to effect a change of leadership without jeopardising stability has also failed. As a rule, the process of regulating succession in autocratic states is viewed as having been successfully completed if the designated successor is legitimised by elections without any unrest occurring. However, due to Nazarbayev’s chosen form of power transfer, the process was incomplete at best: instead of concluding with Tokayev’s election in 2019, it restarted with the events of January this year and was conducted in a violent rather than peaceful manner.

The transfer of power in autocratic regimes

There is a widespread assumption that power transitions in autocratic regimes jeopardise the stability of the states concerned, but in reality, very few cases bear this out. The previous handovers of presidential power in Central Asia and the Caucasus also passed off without significant internal unrest, albeit in different ways: in 2003, Heydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan stepped down several months before his death and arranged for his son Ilham to be elected unchallenged as his successor; both the first President of Turkmenistan (2006) and his Uzbek counterpart (2016) died in office without any legal preparations having been made or a successor designated. In both cases, an internal agreement was reached among the elite and stability was preserved. In Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedov was elected as his father’s official successor in March 2022 – the second smooth and managed handover of the presidency to take place in that country since it gained independence in 1991.

So why have we seen a different turn of events in Kazakhstan? It is a question which we will only be able to answer conclusively a few years down the line. As things stand, it seems reasonable to assume that the core of the problem is less the delayed handover of power, but has more to do with Nazarbayev’s prolonged retirement from office. This was unsettling for the populace and investors alike, but it also shrank the pool of competent potential successors in the political elite. Above all, it became apparent in January 2022 at the latest that Nazarbayev no longer had the energy to genuinely assert his power and keep members of his (extended) family in check.

A fresh start for Kazakhstan?

Changes at the top in authoritarian states are often viewed by foreign observers as a hopeful sign of impending regime change. History, however, offers little evidence to support this assumption. In the aforementioned cases in the Caucasus and Central Asia, too, no radical changes can be discerned.

The events of January 2022 mean that President Tokayev can now move forward without having to consider his predecessor and Kazakhstan’s most influential elite group. However, he must, of course, take into account the interests of the country’s other elites and its increasingly challenging foreign policy situation following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And while it is already clear that his reform efforts have gathered pace since January, they still appear very tentative overall, in many cases merely reversing some of the excesses of the Nazarbayev era. One innovation, however, is that unlike his predecessor, Tokayev is no longer postponing political reforms until the economy is in better shape, but is taking steps towards political liberalisation. He has expressly stated that economic development is possible only with political modernisation.

Will Kazakhstan indeed become a “Second Republic” – a new state clearly distinct from the Nazarbayev era – as a result of the constitutional changes endorsed by voters in the referendum, as the slogans currently suggest? That will depend on whether and how they are implemented. The real work is only just beginning.


Dr Beate Eschment is a researcher at ZOiS and an expert on Central Asia.