‘A twisted form of democracy’ In Sunday's referendum, Kazakhstanis voted to amend the country's Constitution. The authorities call it a step towards democracy, but many have doubts.
On June 5, Kazakhstan held a referendum on amendments to its Constitution that were proposed by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. If you ask the Kazakhstani government, these amendments are a serious step on the path towards Kazakhstan’s democratization. But many political scientists, activists, and Kazakhstani citizens believe that the referendum’s main goal is to consolidate Tokayev’s own power. Meduza explains what’s happened in Kazakhstan since the protests that swept through the country in January, how Sunday’s elections went, and how Kazakhstani citizens see the situation.
The January protests
In early January, mass protests broke out in the city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. The initial reason was a sharp increase in liquified natural gas, the most popular and accessible motor fuel in the area. People around the country soon took to the streets in support of Zhanaozen residents. Before long, the economic demands turned into political ones: people called for the government’s resignation, demanded the power to elect akims, and spoke out against Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had spent 29 years in power.
Nazarbayev left office in 2019, but he retained a strong influence until quite recently: it wasn’t until November 2021 that he gave up his powers as head of the country’s ruling party, which he had led since 1999, and he enjoyed a lifetime appointment as chairman of Kazakhstan’s Security Council until the recent referendum. His relatives and immediate entourage have also occupied key posts in both the government and its surrounding business structures.
The authorities quickly lost control of the situation. Their usual playbook for using force to suppress protests proved useless as thousands of people flooded the streets; in some cities, protesters even seized government buildings. Unprepared for such a dramatic turn of events, local officials tried to establish a dialogue with the protesters, but that only exacerbated the situation. In the city of Taldykorgan, in the Almaty region, protesters sang the national anthem as they tore down a statue of Nazarbayev that was installed in 2016.
In Almaty, where the protests reached their height, the authorities initially tried to disperse protesters with tear gas. Soon, though, armed men appeared; they attacked police officers, took their weapons, took over the National Security Committee building (analogous to the Russian FSB), and began stealing ammunition from a warehouse. On January 5, more armed men took over the international airport. The police disappeared from the city streets, and people started looting.
“There was a high-end shoe store under my apartment; it was literally stripped clean. All that was left were the bare walls, and my neighbors and I took turns keeping watch to make sure somebody didn’t start a fire. It was very scary. We were just left to fend for ourselves,” an Almaty resident named Botagoz told Meduza.
On January 5, the authorities declared a state of emergency. Two days later, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed the nation, claiming that “20,000 terrorists” had attacked Kazakhstan and that as part of an antiterrorist operation, he had asked the heads of the other CSTO countries to send peacekeeping forces into the country “to assist in restoring constitutional order.”
“I’ve ordered law enforcement agencies and the army to shoot to kill with no warning,” said the president. The statement faced immediate criticism from Kazakhstani citizens since a number of civilians, including children, had already been shot and killed. According to official government data, about 230 people were killed during the January protests. The authorities still have yet to release a list of victims.
Constitutional amendments and the New Kazakhstan project
While protests were being quelled throughout the country, Tokayev dismissed the government (notably, the new government includes politicians from the former Cabinet of Ministers), reduced the price of liquified natural gas and food staples, and announced a plan to build a “New Kazakhstan,” proposing 56 amendments to the current Constitution that would, in his view, significantly advance the country on the path to democracy.
“The constitutional reform is aimed at a complex transformation of the entire state model. The amendments are intended to consolidate the decisive transition from a super-presidential government structure to a presidential republic with a powerful parliament and a government that will be held accountable,” said Tokayev.
He and the proposed amendments’ other advocates claim they will limit the president’s powers: he’ll be prohibited from joining any political parties. The authorities have portrayed this as an example of political impartiality, though in reality, it won’t limit his authority at all. The president’s family members will be banned from holding government positions and leadership positions in the quasi-public sector. The new Constitution will also ban judges, electoral commission members, military personnel, national security employees, and law enforcement officials from joining political parties. Until now, membership in the ruling Nur Otan party (now renamed Amanat), which was chaired by Nazarbayev, has essentially been an unofficial requirement for state employees.
The amendments will also change the way akims are selected. While they will still be appointed by the president, their appointments will now require approval from local representative bodies called maslikhats.
In addition, the amendments will officially kick Kazakhstan’s first president, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, out of politics once and for all. Despite his last official presidential term ending in 2019, he effectively remained in power until January 2022. The new amendments will get rid of his status of “Elbasy,” or “People’s Leader.”
Finally, the amendments will simplify the conditions that have to be met to form a new political party: the number of potential members required will be reduced from 20,000 to 5,000.
While the Kazakhstani authorities are presenting the referendum as a serious step towards democratization, many political science experts, including Kazakhstan Risk Assessment Group Director Dosym Satpayev, are skeptical. They claim that the reforms are more cosmetic than anything else, and that they won’t have any effect on the foundations of Kazakhstan’s autocracy. “You get the feeling that many of the amendments are packaged to look like what society wants, but on the inside, nothing’s different,” said Satpayev. Almaty resident Aset Abishev, who took part in the January protests, told Meduza the following:
For thirty years of Nazarbayev’s rule, the country has been mired in corruption and nepotism. The only people in parliament are people loyal to the authorities, people unable to affect anything, while Kazakhstani citizens have literally been erased from political life. And now it’s just funny to me when Tokayev makes statements about the political reforms he’s going to institute along with the old team of officials who have already shown themselves and the kind of work they do: over the last few decades, they’ve done nothing but make the political and economic situation in Kazakhstan worse.
The country's active civil society has made no secret of its overall attitude towards the amendments. On the eve of the elections, anonymous activists from the Qazaq Koktemi (“Kazakh spring”) movement posted flyers around Almaty explaining that the amendments won’t lead to anything positive:
The amendments proposed by Tokayev are not enough to change our political system. They don’t limit the powers of the president and don’t empower citizens to participate in the country’s political life. By proposing these kinds of half-reforms, the authorities are only creating the illusion of society’s participation in public affairs. We don’t need amendments — we need a new Constitution. We won’t achieve change until we move from a super-presidential form of government to a parliamentary one, and until we have the right to elect akims at all levels, as well as an independent judicial system.
‘This is my civic duty’
Voting on the amendments to Kazakhstan’s Constitution began on June 5 at 7:00 a.m. Polling station No. 254, where Meduza’s correspondent went first, is inside the National Library, in the very center of Almaty. Five months ago, less than a quarter mile away, security officials were dispersing protesters with tear gas and looters were smashing ATM machines. The only traces of this now are the bullet marks on the granite pedestal of the city’s Independence Monument.
There’s not much going on at the polling place: commission members are yawning and aimlessly shifting sheets of paper around on their table, election monitors are buried in their smartphones, and actual voters are infrequent. In the first two hours of voting, they barely manage to cover the bottom of the clear ballot box.
At one point, a middle-aged woman comes in, searches for her last name in the voter registry, then spends a long time looking at her ballot. After that, she stands for about five minutes in front of the information booth that explains why Kazakhstani citizens should vote and what will change if the amendments pass. The booth features a flyer with the headline, “A new Kazakhstan — an updated Constitution. 10 bright examples of change.”
The “bright examples” include the fact that the amendments would ban the death penalty (which was abolished in December 2021 but would now be officially “banned”), all natural resources would now belong to the people (the current version of the Constitution holds that the country’s land and minerals belong to the state), and that Nazarbayev’s “Elbasy” status would be removed completely.
After reading to the end, the woman goes into the voting booth and, after a minute, drops her completed ballot into the ballot box.
“You understand, I didn’t watch the president’s speeches, and I never delved into the amendments. But I still think I need to vote — it’s my civic duty,” the woman told Meduza’s correspondent. The conversation doesn’t go much further; the woman says the information from the booth is quite enough for her, and that she trusts her president.
Another voter, Saule Bozumbayeva, says she came to vote in the referendum to prevent a repeat of what happened in January. According to her, President Tokayev is the person most capable of guaranteeing security for the people of Kazakhstan:
I live on Satpayev Street, which was the epicenter of the January events. I don’t want to go through what I went through that day again. I hope the authorities have begun listening to the people, and that every one of our voices is a brick in the construction of a democratic Kazakhstan. Of course, you can’t build a democracy in five months, but you can make a small step towards freedom.
Polling station No. 253, which is also in the center of the city, was a bit more interesting. While Meduza’s correspondent was photographing a ballot box, three young women approached him and said they had already voted. One of them asked:
Are you a journalist? My friends and I decided to vote today. We intentionally spoiled our ballots so that our ballots can’t be stolen. We oppose the referendum, because these amendments won’t help anybody but Tokayev himself.
‘If you want a new Kazakhstan, release the political prisoners’
The young women at the polling station were repeating almost word for word the opinion of Kazakhstani political scientist Dimash Alzhanov, who Meduza’s correspondent had spoken to the previous day. Alzhanov openly referred to the amendments as a “fiction”; he believes the main goal of the referendum is not to make the country more democratic but to consolidate Tokayev’s position as president.
These amendments won’t change the political system. They’re exclusively superficial and technical, and the system of personal rule that was founded by Nazarbayev will not change. Against the backdrop of people’s frustration with the first president and the wave of hatred that was expressed in the January events, Tokayev’s regime is trying to play on people’s emotions and legitimize itself without Nazarbayev. As a result, by participating in the referendum, people are simply legitimizing Tokayev, which sounds especially wild after he gave the order to shoot to kill people without warning in January.
In Alzhanov’s opinion, Kazakhstani citizens who opposed the referendum had several options on June 5: they could ignore the voting, they could go to a polling place and spoil their ballot, or they could express their view and openly protest the constitutional amendments.
“Kazakhstan’s elections are completely under the state’s control, and there’s no way to protect your voice other than to express your view on social media or publicly advocate against them,” said Alzhanov.
Political activist Inga Imanbai was one of the people who chose to speak out on the day of the referendum. Her husband, opposition figure Zhanbolat Mamay, was arrested in mid-March for insulting security officers and disseminating false information. Mamay was one of many Kazakhstanis subjected to pressure from the authorities after the January events. On the day of the referendum, Imanbai wore a t-shirt with a picture of her husband, spoiled her ballot at her polling place, and marched with several of her friends at the Independence Monument.
We unequivocally oppose this referendum. It defeats the very purpose of having an election. This is a twisted form of democracy that was created by Tokayev. And I wrote it on my ballet: “Tokayev, if you want a new Kazakhstan, release the political prisoners!” How can there be a new Kazakhstan when the authorities still haven’t revealed [the names of] all of the people who died during the January events? And it’s hundreds of people!”
More than a few Kazakhstani citizens, however, feel differently. Journalist Serikzhan Mauletbai told Meduza’s correspondent that she’s not holding her breath for any radical changes in the country, but Kazakhstanis likely won’t have another chance to influence their country’s fate:
I go to vote out of principle — that way, they can’t steal my voice. It’s clear that there are no other changes in sight for our country in the near future, and most likely, I’ll support the amendments proposed by the president of Kazakhstan. I don’t believe this can lead to real democratic changes, but it will still make things better than they are now. At the very least, a few civil activists and opposition figures might be able to make it to parliament as independent candidates. And the authorities will see that the people are still here, and that we see and understand everything they’re doing.
Over 68 percent of Kazakhstani citizens voted in the referendum — over 8 million people. About 77 percent (around 6.1 million people) voted in favor of the amendments. About 19 percent (a little less than half a million people) voted against them. 2.58 percent of the ballots were declared invalid. As a result, the amendments have de facto already been passed. Almaty, which is known as Kazakhstan’s most politically active city, had the lowest voter turnout in the country: 33 percent.
That evening, when Meduza’s correspondent was rushing home to write this article, one voter — an unkempt-looking man of about 60 years old — said to him, “No matter what we choose, the result will be bullshit. What do you think, is this place cursed?”
Translation by Sam Breazeale