How not to hit a dead end with transition

In Kazakhstan, there will be no transfer of power in the form of technical replacement of Nazarbaev 0.1 to Nazarbaev 0.2, says famous Kazakhstani civil rights defendant Evgeniy Jovtis. He hopes that a process will go through efforts of building institutional system of checks and balances, which would secure the elite guarantee of security.

We continue to discuss possible scenarios of power transfer in Kazakhstan. Today we offer our readers interview on the subject with the director of Kazakh international bureau on human rights issues and overseeing legality Evgeniy Jovtis.

– Evgeniy Alexandrovich, when discussing transit of power in Kazakhstan the thing that most often causes interest is the name of the successor of Nazarbaev, but in your opinion this isn’t the main thing. What do you think?

– I have been fightin this misconception for a while, including abroad. A view  that out transit of power is personified and thus the most important thing is who will replace Nazarbaev is oversimplified. It comes from assumption that the successor is artificially given all volume of responsibilities, that the acting president has. Thus, it is assumed that a new person will come and he will rule the country with same powers and in the same way as the previous president did, and thus it is very important to understand who it will be and what guarantees will he give or secure to the ruling elite, close to the regime.

This misconception, in my opinion, stems from the fact that in over 20 years of independence we have formed a personalist regime, where guarantees including security guarantees for the elite and their property are provided by a person; nobody believes in ability of institutes to provide guarantees.

In common opinion, such guarantees can be provided by the first person in the government, and after that they start going down like the branches of trees down to every leaf. (This is why this power system is also called crown system, as in the part of the tree). But as soon as the branch at the top is cut out or dries, loses its influence, all of the leaves start to fall down. I.e. the well being of the first person on the country affects all of the groups and individuals related to that person. This patron client system is well known in political science.

It is evident that the acting president of Kazakhstan has a much higher source of trust (we use this word even though in this system nobody can be trusted).

Why does Nazarbaev has this goodwill?

Because there was Soviet history and this person came from those times, created a new system, and is its pillar, groups have been forming around him throughout several years, including in the period of accumulation of capital or division of capital, when the transfer from plan economy with state property to market economy and private property took place. This process implanted mine fields in new system.

This is because there is nobody in power who doesn’t have such “history.”

This whole situation calls for very high demands to the new power structure, i.e. it requires the transit to secure the same level of security. But any other individual who replaces the acting president won’t have such a weight in the eyes of the elite, I am not even talking about the people, who would let it to stand firmly on the ground and provide security that is expected from it.

– What then do you consider important for the future transit?

– I constantly try to prove one thing. Today, in the existing system, who will be the successor is, of course, important, but much more important is what configuration of division and distribution of power will be chosen by those who implement this transit, because it is evident that the current constitution, with these responsibilities could not be upheld by another person. For these, there needs to be a thirty year experience of its formation.

But the possible successor doesn’t have such experience. And even if he is backed by the weight and experience of the acting president, it likely wouldn’t save the situation. Thus, this means that a move towards institutionalization is inevitable, and such institutes will have to be created, that would function on their own, and would provide security through special rules and procedures.

That way they wouldn’t just guarantee it through personified form. Depending on the configuration of such institutes will depend how the transit of power will be implemented and what it would lead to.

For example, today in the Kazakh parliament there are already starting to appear quite serious political figures aiming for direct participation in the formation of policy. It could be assumed that parliament os gaining some part of power albeit not legally outlined. Of course, our representative body has more of a virtual power, executive branch still weighs over it, but still some weighty figures such as Nigmatulin are starting appear there.

In the system itself, at some positions there are now more functionaries rather than political players. For example the positions of the chairman of the National bank, minister of finance, minister of justice and general prosecutor are occupied by functionaries more so than by free political players. Thus, here we have functionaries, and over there in the parliament, presidential administration, and government a what I call building up of institutional inner-elite system of checks and balances is starting to occur.

It is hard to say how this process will move on from here, but it, in my opinion demonstrates the effort (for now just it) to institutionalize something and only then to figure out not the successor in the pure form with the same powers, but the appintments for president, PM and head of the parliament; this is in order to somehow balance the system itself with certain figures at the top of these institutes. Then the role of the successor will be vague, it will be a collective one, consisting of several people in various structures, which will have to find balance between each other.

– Do you think this is a solution for Kazakhstan?

– I think that it is highly important to move from persons to institutes. One indicator is that suddenly there is a serious criticism of law enforcement and judicial bodies and almost revolutionary reforms. And why is that? Because rules of the game are not observed, there are no institutes which would uphold them.

Even those in charge of running these institutes are tired, because personal guarantees weaken due to both age and abilities of the acting president, while there are no normal, institutional ones. As soon as one  group gains strength, it immediately replaces the leaders of the other group. And no successor from the point of view of an individual, cannot compensate for the vulnerability of this system. This is why institutionalization efforts are undertaken.

But there is no experience in this area, so everyone is looking for an individual, someone to lean on. And there is also no tradition of relying on institutes and each other. As a result, current system is misbalanced and everyone waits what will happen next.

I want to emphasize again, that I don’t see this transit in the form of technical replacement of Nazarbaev 01 to Nazarbaev 2. I assume that this process of creation of institutes is inevitable, and thus there will efforts to build an institutional system of checks and balances that would secure elite with guarantees of security in every sense of that word. Because, today no one can say that under transit of power, if they move a different way their property and themselves will be secure.

– And what are the issues that you see that will need to be solved under the transit, for it to go in a more or less democratic way? Will the legislation need to be changed, or constitution?

– Everything needs to be changed. And the first thing we need to start from, is creation of a classical system power division, system of checks and balances.

Kazakhstan today has three branches of power, plus one. I.e. president is above everyone and he he coordinates, does agreements, etc. This won’t do. We need to return to a normal justice system, that is mentioned in constitution in which president doesn’t play a deciding role. Even if we preserve presidential republic or presidential-parliamentary one, the president doesn’t have to be an inspector above everyone. It won’t be possible to build democracy.

Further on we need to move to legislation where individual comes first and not the state. Moreover, it isn’t faceless in Kazakhstan and represents those in power, who through current legislation manage, control, create idology.

It is necessary to give back political life to the party, secure pluralism, possibility of peaceful assembly, guarantee freedom of speech; and not be afraid that these steps will misbalance something. There are no bigger security threats than lack of control over government power and omnipotence of intelligence forces.

But much more important is a serious issue that haven’t found an answer yet – how to survive privatization of the 90s . This problem will weigh over everything we do.

Those in power and people close to them, turned out as the main beneficiaries of the entire process of the 90s transit. They would like to think that time would hide everything , that the country will turn the page and move on. But this won’t be possible. Capital acquired back then aren’t legitimate and aren’t always legal from judicial point of view. Everyone is afraid because they have skeletons in the closet, there is blackmail on everyone that could be put on the table anytime.

This is our system’s soft spot. And if we want to live within the framework of rule of law, it needs to be healed in some way.

– Do you say we need to reexamine results of the 90s privatization?

– No, in this case it will only be worse, but we do need to find a solution to this situation. I said many times that we need to agree that say “from Monday we live fairly” and that includes everyone. And in order to live fairly lets solve this problem.

How did our billionaires become very rich in a very short time period? Whatever their entrepreneurial abilities might be, the majority of their wealth came from division of state property by using administrative, banking resources and various other advantages, that closeness to decision-makers gave them. And there are no exceptions here. And if there are no exceptions, this means it needs to be solved.

– But how?

– For example we can offer billionaires to return part of their money that is sitting somewhere in the account, having discussed say such a condition: you give us back 30% for solving social issues and the rest we will consider earned.

We need to look for various solutions of this political and psychological problem. Without it, those in power will be afraid to lose everything, will remain in the state of psychological discomfort and thus in the state of unwillingness to share power or create a rule-of-law government. Because they don’t believe in law, assuming that while they control intelligence services and internal affairs bodies and financial police and court system and prosecutors office, they are protected, and when they seize to control it, their security will be over.

And this isn’t only a problem of Kazakhstan. It is faced by Russia and Ukraine as well. It is a common trouble, that won’t go away on its own, won’t evaporate, it is a mine that someone going to blow themselves on one day.

Solving of this problem and reforming of the legislation, understanding that there needs to be a transfer to institutes and rules which would support these institutes, are key goals of the upcoming transit in Kazakhstan. And not only these. It is a matter of survival in the XXI century and of not falling off on the curbside of world history.

– In the opinion of our experts, it is important to divide political power from business. How real is it?

– This is like a famous problem of the chicken and the egg: what is essential and what is secondary. If institutional guarantees existed, i.e. independent legal system worked, law enforcement agencies, working by the rule of law, there would have been a system of power division, and businesses, and I’m not talking about the business that feeds of government budget or is a government contractor, wouldn’t have the need for power resource. But since in our country, security guarantees depend on an individual, you need to be either the person or someone really close to them.

As a result in Kazakhstan – government power is business and vice versa. Because nobody will save their business or profits without a closeness to or participation of power in business directly or indirectly.

How to divide power from the business? It is possible, only if we are talking about separate people. And if not, how will you divide it? In Kazakhstan, an official in an important government service is a businessman himself. Ministers,  heads of large companies.. it is a shame if they don’t have their own business, if they live exclusively on a salary of a government worker. Business and power in our country are essentially the same people. And how can you divide them?

In order to divide one from another, and I repeat myself, we need to overcome consequences of the 90s and move to institutional guarantees. Why does a person need a government service if he has a million dollar fortune, that he would gladly manage? But in Kazakhstan he needs to sit on a government position not because he likes it, but because it is a guarantee of security. Many officials would gladly leave the regime, especially older ones. They would raise their grandchildren, manage villas, or would just live on a rent – they have enough of everything. But they can’t do any of this for a simple reason – if they leave – tomorrow everything will be taken away from them already, because everyone has blackmail.

This is why dividing business from power won’t work. A system of institutional guarantees, conditions of overcoming results of the 90s privatization needs to be developed, and we must start living by different rules, in which there is no place for persona; guarantees of security that could disappear easily.

– In your opinion, will the successor of the current president need to go for reforms? What if he tries to preserve existing order?

– Again we are talking about common misconception, by guessing what the successor will be like. I repeat that I don’t think that we will have a personification of a successor with the same powers as Nazarbaev. I don’t believe in this. But if this does happen, then we will likely get a Kazakh Turkmenbashy 2.0. Then, this of course will be conservation. Even if the successor is interested in reforms he simply won’t be able to pass them.

– Why?

– For starters he would need to concentrate power in his hands, put down roots and move competitors. He will have a whole slew of issues that do not suppose some institutionalization, and he will be forced to continue working on a personal level. If a collective successor happens, then he will have a chance.

If the elite will go for reforms, at least due to self-preservation, then quite likely, we will be able to build something new. If it will get scared and will think that it lived not so badly all these years, then conservation will happen. System continues to work in a personified way, some will have guarantees some won’t, some one will be have greater security someone will have less, some will be closer others will be further away, but not to some person – a president, but to a group that will determine the politics of the country. And we again will end up in a  trap.

– So there is no guarantee that things we get better after the transit..

– I believe that any movement is better that stagnation. IF you aren’t moving anywhere you won’t arrive anywhere. If we are moving somewhere, there is a chance that we won’t fall back. And if it gets worse, it means that we will sooner have an understanding that something needs to be done, for things to get better. Any change is for the better, because we get a different view of possibilities. It gotten worse – let’s change something then.

Here we are talking about successors, elites, division of power and co-responsibility. But society is missing from our discussion, people who are the key. It is a hard-to-handle mass. There needs to be an understanding of what ideas are in society, will it want to support certain reforms, participate in them, especially its advanced part, creative class who are self-sufficient and educated. A lot depends on it.

– However, in the society itself, there is an opinion, a very deep one, that “nothing depends on us”.

– Our society has a few, I would say, unpleasant qualities, coming from our past.

First of all, it is not customary here to fight for one’s dignity and freedom; some individuals are trying to do something, but the society in general isn’t embracing these values, not seeing a practical use in them, but only losses. An example of opposition, independent journalists, civil rights activists proves this point very well.

Secondly, our society also doesn’t believe in institutes, in independence of court system, etc and is also oriented on an individual. Why doesn’t the acting president have such a high rating? Because not believing in instiuetes and believing in persons is a very strong-held habit. Where do people start writing to if the going gets tough? To the president, because they don’t trust other institutes.

Moreover, the society is highly automated, collectively, it doesn’t want to do almost anything, there is no common civil position, and any mobilizing is possible only within the family. How many people here come out to meeting or write something collectively to stand up for their rights? Almost zero.

Thus society is very complicated, there is no potential in it or even understanding that the government is concrete people, those in power. As a rule, government is a toolbox which people create so that it would be easier for them to live, in Kazakhstan however, government exists on its own. If you don’t work for it you obey it, it weighs over you like a flying saucer.

Lack of society’s ability to defend itself makes our transit efforts even more difficult. If you remember there was a splash of activity in the early 90s, when people started moving, started doing something, and then everything slowly died down. And for twenty years already we exist in the state of dormancy.

How to revive society, how to motivate it is another problem. Finally out society has another negative trait. We don’t know how and don’t want to make a choice and take responsibility for it. We only go to election places if we are forced to, or if our works requires. But guys, if you don’t want to chose, you carry responsibility for the results. No, we don’t want that either. There is an opinion that nothing depends on us in our society, because we don’t go to elections and are not responsible for results.

Society separated itself from the government. It lives by the principle “as long as it doesn’t touch us”. And this characteristic, unfortunately no the best one of our development, creates additional problems for transit. But you can’t go anywhere without society, because it can suddenly destroy all those bright perspectives that we would like to see in the future.

And we need to keep those peculiarities of our society in mind when we discuss who will be the successor, how the power may be configured and how will it implement the transit.

– Thank you Evgeniy Alexandrovich for an interesting talk.

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