What’s behind Tokayev’s Words on Referendum

On April 29, 2022, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took part in the 31st session of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and made his latest program speech. Some publics have even deemed it revolutionary. Let us see what the President had said that was so important and, most importatly, present our own commentary on it.

Since, as of this writing, the text of the speech was not yet published on Akorda’s official website, we are going to use the press-release titled “The President Determines the Areas of Focus for the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan”.

Here is how it begins (text in bold hereinafter by KZ.expert).

“The head of the state took part in the 31st session of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan called “The Unity of the People Is the Foundation of Reformed Kazakhstan”.

In his speech, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has remarked on the symbolism of holding the session on the eve of Kazakhstan’s National Unity Day.

“Unity, oneness and peace are our unshakable values. We became acutely aware of this during the January events. Now these tragic days are behind us. In time, we will come to an understanding of the danger that we had faced. In point of fact, we could have lost our nationhood. Our nation must learn from the January tragedy. We must do everything in our power to avoid such precedents in the future”.

If one is to read between the lines of the quoted passage, one would clearly see what is happening: Akorda and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev personally understand that no unity of the people exist in Kazakhstan while oneness and peace stem rather form the passivity of the overwhelming majority of the Kazakhs than from their conscious choice. 

But the most damning thing for Akorda and the head of the state lies in the fact that they do not enjoy support of the people. And we are not only talking about ordinary citizens but entrepreneurs, governmental officials, civil activists and even the members of the ruling elite as well. Hence their loud calls for unity, oneness and peace which anyone will find difficult (and unwise) to oppose. However, given the current state of Kazakhstan’s internal political landscape, they de-facto make the citizens (or persuade them if you will) support the “super-presidential” vertical now led by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. 

We at KZ.expert believe that this kind of tactical steps on the part of Akorda may award it with certain success. However, this success is going to be brief and insignificant since, over the course of thirty years of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reign, the degree of trust of the citizens in their “mother” state and, therefore, the degree of their readiness (willingness) to comply with the state’s laws had dropped below the critical level.

Therefore, most Kazakhs (even if they do hear of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s political reforms) will fail to understand their meaning and significance. Hence only few are going to support them.

Given these circumstances, Akorda has made a very wise decision to shake up the country and the voters in order to finally make them choose and, therefore, attract the support of as many Kazakhs as possible.

So, it looks like these political undercurrents serve as the main reason for Tokayev choosing not to change the Constitution through the Parliament via adopting the law in question. Instead, he has announced the nationwide referendum.

Let us make it clear from the very beginning – we are critical of these amendments, and not only because they are half-faced and with a careful eye to everybody but due to the fact that adopting these amendments won’t be enough to accelerate the internal political developments in the country. However, since this is a separate topic, we recommend those wishing to learn more about it to read the interview given by human rights advocate Evgeny Zhovtis to Radio Azattyk.

Obviously, in his Assembly speech, the President said nothing about the fact that he needs the nationwide referendum not so much to change the Constitution by taking out the amendments related to Nursultan Nazarbayev (the amendments that provide the latter with huge favours and benefits) as to make the Kazakhs vote. And cast their votes for him. So that, afterwards, resting on the results of this plebiscite, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev may start doing what he wants or needs.

However, the President could not have said so directly. So, as per usual, he chose to hide behind big words. 

Here is a quote from Akorda’s press-release.  

“When we were at the very beginning of these reforms, the legislature on the Constitutional amendments was supposed to be examined by the Parliament. The said procedure is enshrined in the current legislation. The coming large-scale and important reforms will have a significant impact on the future of our country. In view of this, I propose to hold the nationwide referendum on making changes and amendments to the Constitution. 

Referendum is a very important democratic institution. However, in Kazakhstan, the latest referendum was held in 1995 when the current Constitution was at issue. Then, we adopted the law on “the republic referendum”; nonetheless, it has never been applied practically. And this is in spite of the fact that the changes to the Constitution have been made four times since then.   

I believe that changing the Constitution via the nationwide referendum will serve as a clear manifestation of the people’s will. The referendum will let every citizen participate in a direct making of our country’s future and strengthen our course towards comprehensive democratisation and building New Kazakhstan”, said Kassym-Jomart Tokayev”.

One must give credit to Akorda’s political strategists. By choosing to change the Constitution not through the Parliament but via the nationwide referendum, they may be able to kill three very important birds with one stone. 

First of all, to deadlock all the internal political opponents, from the rightists to the leftists.

For, it would be very hard and dangerous for them to vote against the amendments by which Nursultan Nazarbayev gets stripped off the Elbasy title as well as a great deal of his privileges and favours. Therefore, Akorda’s opponents will have to either support the said amendments or try to undermine them in some way which, in either case, will work in Akorda’s favour since it will help attracting the public’s attention towards the referendum.

Second, to make most Kazakhs take an active stand. For, the latter are used to voting in the way they are told by the authorities. And the fact that, by coming to the referendum and marking the “yes” box on the ballot one can get back at Nursultan Nazarbayev and his clan, is going to be the X factor for a great many citizens.

So, we believe that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s future unofficial plebiscite is guaranteed the favourable results.

Third, to make the ruling elite acknowledge the new rules of the game and the existence of the new “super-khan”.

For, if Tokayev and his team manage to strip Nursultan Nazarbayev off not only the Elbasy title but almost all of this privileges, it will serve as an indication that power in the country has not only changed but changed for a long time to come (if not indefinitely). Therefore, those who wish to stay in the country will have to take this into consideration and begin to cooperate (conform).

By the way, judging by the fact that Tokayev came down on the latter with yet another diatribe, the lack of support on the part of the ruling elite worries Akorda to a great extent.

To confirm it, let us give you another lengthy quote.

“New Kazakhstan represents a path towards strengthening our national identity in the fast-changing world. Without involving all the citizens in our common cause, neither the state apparatus not any kind of political decisions and economic tools will be able to bring us closer to reforming the country.

In order to build New Kazakhstan, we must completely remold the system of the individual and social values. We will decisively stave off nepotism and paternalism, corruption and compradores.

New Kazakhstan should become a land of fairness. To achieve that, we must follow not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law as well. Laws are not dogma, they must be perfected in order to be able to solve the vital problems of the citizens. Law, fairness and order will become the true factors governing our prosperous life”, said the Head of the state”.


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