When Kazakhstan became independent in December 1991, a lot of people both within and without doubted that it would exist for very long. And for good reason; in fact, for many reasons, ranging from lack of experience in managing an independent nation to the heavy legacy of Soviet nuclear weapons testing, an environmental catastrophe in the Aral area, a very diverse ethnic and religious mix in the population and an economy heavily dependent on and serving the Soviet militaryindustrial complex, which had seen its last days. Add to that a lack of internationally recognised borders and claims by some politicians in neighbouring countries that parts of Kazakhstan should not, in fact, be parts of Kazakhstan.
The fact that Kazakhstan stood on, and not only stood on, but progressed to become a truly enviable success story regionally can be explained by several factors, including the traditional tolerance and industriousness of the Kazakhs and others living on the soil of Kazakhstan and abundant oil, gas and other mineral reserves. But above all else, the Kazakhstan of today is the result of prudent stewardship, both political and economic, of the country by its first and current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, which is based on the strong authority given to him by the people of the country through the constitution.
It was this constitution, adopted in a national referendum 18 years ago next week, on August 30, 1995; and subsequently amended in 1998 and 2007, that became the bedrock of Kazakhstan’s social, political and economic development. It was based on the French Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which was famous for the powerful authority it gave to that country’s president, beginning with Charles de Gaulle. In fact, Roland Dumas, former president of the Constitutional Council and minister of foreign affairs of France, was part of the select group of legal experts that were invited to help draft the Kazakhstan constitution of 1995. After lengthy public debates through the media, it was put to a national vote 18 years ago and received overwhelming approval.
But Kazakhstan’s constitution went much further than the French one in terms of the powers it gave the president. The president of Kazakhstan held more sway in decisions of state and appointments of senior government officials and had a stronger position vis-à-vis the parliament, as well as other powers. This is one of the reasons the system of government in this country came to be known as super- presidential.
It was this system of strong centralised presidential power that allowed President Nazarbayev to push through critical reforms in the mid-1990s, including privatisation, pension reform and civil service reform, as well as to ensure the efficient transfer of the capital to Astana. The economic development of the country was given priority over political change, as the president, realising that one cannot build democracy on an empty stomach, pursued the policies of “economy first, politics second.”
As the country developed, as the middle class grew, as the gross domestic product per capita grew to $12,000 in 2012 (from $700 in 1994), a concerted effort began to be made to realign the political system. So, in 2007, amendments were introduced into the constitution, giving more powers to the parliament and limiting those of the president, including cutting the president’s term from seven to five years.
Six years after the recent amendments to the constitution, which also strengthened political parties, the political system seems more robust and more flexible. Through many ways, big and small, it also presents itself as more balanced, with the three branches of power – executive, parliamentary and judiciary – having to engage in a careful pas-de-deux more often than not. And, of course, the media and the civil society have matured and have begun to play a tangibly bigger role in influencing the directions of state policies, as the recent case with pension reform law has clearly shown.
It is this search for the golden mean in politics and economic management that has defined the policies of President Nazarbayev since his early years in power. The constitution and the constitutional laws give him enough authority and flexibility to have success in this careful balancing game. And it is this search for the golden mean that will need to continue to serve as the basis for the country’s development now, tomorrow and in the future.