Kazakhstan’s New Political Reforms Encourage Pluralism, Civic Engagement Among Citizenry

The Deputies of the Mazhilis – the lower house of the Kazakh parliament adopted a bill titled “On the procedure for organizing and holding peaceful assemblies in Kazakhstan”, as well as an accompanying draft law on the organization and holding of peaceful assemblies. On May 25, the president signed the law, which will become, as some independent experts have stated, a new step towards the democratization of Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh Parliament. Photo credit: Mfa.kz.

“We are shaping a new political culture”

This law was developed by the Ministry of Information and Social Development of Kazakhstan on behalf of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who stated the need for liberalization of the legislation on peaceful assemblies and the implementation of the concept of a “hearing state.”

“We are shaping a new political culture. Pluralism of opinions and alternative views must be allowed to come to the fore. The authorities do not consider disagreement to be destructive. In our work, we must take into account the needs of our citizens. There is nothing and nobody above the people,” the President of Kazakhstan said at a meeting of the National Council of Public Confidence at the end of last year, saying that it was time to instill a rally culture in the public mind. “In both society and the state,” Tokayev added then, “it is time to adequately treat public expression of political positions. It is unavoidable. And it is better that we come to this independently, consciously, and not forcedly. ”

The previous law was adopted 25 years ago – back in 1995 and, according to domestic experts and international observers, has long required a conceptual review. The authorities of the republic completely agree with this. Moreover, as soon as the “draft law” appeared, within the framework of the new concept of the “hearing state,” a discussion was organized throughout the country with the participation of the general public, representatives of human rights, international organizations, legal scholars and the media. Six-months of heated debate, amendments and clarifications resulted in the introduction of the new law.

But what does the law change, what makes it different? Firstly, it fully complies with all international standards, in particular, Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the principles of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, in which the most important outlined principle is the freedom of expression. The document clearly spells out the basic principle behind peaceful assemblies: they must be legal, they must be voluntary, they must be nonviolent, and they must not pose a danger to either the state or its citizens. That is, the principles of human rights must be observed with the guiding principle that “everything that is not explicitly forbidden is allowed” and that “a citizen’s rights end where the rights of other citizens begin.”

Secondly, the procedures themselves for political activism have been greatly simplified. Unlike the previous law, according to which any peaceful assembly from picketing to demonstrating was carried out exclusively with formal permission from the government, now the organizer only needs to notify local authorities about their intentions and the deadlines for submitting notifications have been significantly reduced (for rallies – from 15 to 5 days). The task of the local executive body will be refocused on ensuring the safety of the event. A ban on the part of the city administration, the akimat, can be approved in only one case – if the meeting or rally violates the aforementioned guidelines or the law.

Special protest zones will be set up in each of the districts, in cities of significance within the republic and in the capital.

“Kazakhstan adopted the British idea of having special venues for rallies – the idea of ​​Hyde Park, for example. Moreover, the Kazakh version has gone further and added several such places – the fact that there should be at least three such venues is very important. That way we won’t have to deny permits because the space has been reserved already,” said Dmitry Zhuravlev, Director General of the Institute of Regional Problems, commenting on the advantages of the new law.

And finally, another important innovation: the law removes prohibitions on the activities of journalists. For example, the former rule, obliging them to provide the state with photos and video materials from the place of peaceful assembly, has been repealed.

The principle of the “hearing state” in action

The developed and adopted new proposals have already received feedback from government officials, political scientists, experts. “The right to hold rallies and the simplification of the procedure for holding them are all very important from the point of view of moving away from the over-bureaucratization of the political process and increasing the degree of public confidence in the authorities. The president of Kazakhstan is a prudent politician. This law is a contribution to political stability in the country. Moreover, Tokaev does not just talk a good game, but actually applies the proposed measures. And in this, of course, he continues the policy initiated by Nazarbayev,” says Dmitry Zhuravlev, director general of the Institute for Regional Problems.

Lawyer and member of the National Council of Public Confidence under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Director of the Institute of European Law and Human Rights, Marat Bashimov, called the document liberal and progressive.

Other political experts have echoed the same sentiments.

“The proposed measures, that is, the simplified laws on rallies are a verified step in the right direction. Tokaev, of course, continues the work of his predecessor Nazarbayev. This is a step towards the development of a highly competitive multi-party system, and the continuation of the political development of the republic in the direction of collegial management, which is a requirement of our times… Kazakhstan is a young state, and it is developing its own development model, its own mechanisms of political interaction in the context of a representative democracy,” said Kirill Petrov, political scientist, head of the analytical department of Minchenko Consulting.

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