Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev Address: the Spirit of Freedom Combined With the Spirit of Rule of Law

This year Kazakhstan has been especially eagerly waiting for its President’s traditional annual Address to the Nation. 2022 so far has been a year of unprecedented challenges so far. The attempted terrorist coup in January; an avalanche of Western sanctions which penalized Russia for the war in Ukraine, but which could indirectly affect Kazakhstan, too. And, finally, the emergence of the Omicron virus. All of these challenges required a public response and clarifications from the state. Society expected from the President’s speech both an authoritative explanation and a “road map” for the future.

Dmitry Babich

And the explanation was delivered. President Tokayev did not try to avoid the painful issue of the violent events in January.

“A meticulously prepared, planned in detail  destructive operation of hostile forces was set in motion [in January 2022], – Tokayev said. – Its aim was to oust the country’s leadership. The conspirators also tried to discredit the leaders of the country in the eyes of the people and international community.”

An investigation into this conspiracy of certain individuals from the so called power ministries (such as the army and special services) is under way, Tokayev explained. A lot of work lies ahead. Since the investigation is conducted in the conditions of “top secrecy,” not everything can be revealed right now.

One thing can be stated for sure: the conspirators “did not shy away from using a professional “task force” of armed thugs”, who tried to disrupt the peaceful life in the country’s former capital Almaty and in several other cities.

Tokayev explained that certain circles inside Kazakhstan and abroad expected the state to “tighten the screws,” to stop the reform.  “Some people told me: why dismantle the old power mechanism, when you can use it in your own interests?” – Tokayev confided.

The President resolutely dismissed the variant of a “temporary” preservation of the “super-presidential” republic, since the additional “super-powers” of the head of state could lead to a “stagnation”, Tokayev said.

The word “stagnation“ in the former Soviet Union is used as a synonym of the atmosphere of nepotism, flattery and absence of reform that was typical for the end of the rule of the aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“Elements of stagnation”, in Tokayev’s words, were “partially responsible” for the tragic events in January.

In his Address, Tokayev laid out the foundations for the fulfillment of the cherished dream of Kazakh people: to move the passions away from the streets inside the walls of the Parliament’s building. To make the decisions about the country’s future public and democratic – but to place them within the framework of the law.

President Tokayev reminded his audience that even before the tragic January his administration initiated no less than 10 laws aimed at democratization of political life in Kazakhstan.  One of them was the new law on free assembly, which allowed people to freely meet and organize discussions and political actions outdoors. Despite the fact that in January the rioters and terrorists conducted their ignominious actions under the slogan of “free assembly,” everyone understood that their actions were in fact a huge distortion and abuse of this democratic law. In his speech, President Tokayev one more time insisted on the full implementation and protection of the law on free assembly.

I won’t go into details of many other democratic innovations suggested by the President of Kazakhstan in this historic speech. Prohibition for the relatives of the Republic’s presidents to occupy important positions in the state organs and parties. The empowerment of Mazhilis (the lower house of the Parliament), which will pass laws without the usual “oversight” from the Senate and the executive; prohibition for the president to be a member of any political party; transformation of the electoral system to a mixed one, with 70 percent of the deputies elected by a proportional model, while 30 percent elected by the majoritarian vote. Prevention of violence against women and children, with a special instruction to the Prosecutor General’s Office from the President Tokayev. Limitation on the powers of the super-rich and privileged groups of society…

Every norm from the previous paragraph is a long-awaited one for Kazakhstan, every one of them will surely produce the profound and much-awaited change. But what is especially important is the general spirit of change. Despite the tragic events of January, democratization continues. The President promised that this  democratization will not bring the “negative scenarios”, as Gorbachev’s perestroika did. Democracy in Kazakhstan will mean not less, but more rule of laws, more security, more local self-rule for akims and  maslekhats (local governors and councils). The dreams of the people about free and secure life within the law are coming true. Bureaucracy and turmoil (two sides of the same “medal” which the president vowed to fight) are left in the past.

The author is Dmitry Babich, a Moscow-based journalist with 30 years of experience of covering global politics, a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera and RT

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