How are numerous political, economic and social reforms in Kazakhstan to transform the relationship between citizens and state?


Since his first election in 2019, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan has initiated a range of reforms aimed at political, social, and economic modernisation of the country.

Four comprehensive packages of political reforms have been successfully implemented over 2019-2021. The first package (December 2019) aimed to liberalise the political landscape. The second package (September 2020) focused on local governance and human rights. The third package (January 2021) included lowering the entry threshold for political parties in the Mazhilis (lower house of Parliament) from seven to five percent, adding an “against all” option in election ballots, and introducing elective district akims. Continuing the previous initiatives, the fourth package (September 2021) emphasized the inclusion of marginalized groups in politics, among other initiatives.

Furthermore, in a 2022 national referendum, the first since 1995, a solid majority of voters approved amendments to the Constitution that decentralised decision-making, among other major changes. The constitutional reforms, affecting one third of the main law, transformed Kazakhstan from a super-presidential system to a presidential republic with a stronger parliament. This included provisions to restrict the president’s powers, changes in the parliamentary election system, re-establishment of the Constitutional Court, and measures to simplify the registration of new political parties.

Significant changes have been made to the legislation concerning democratic participation and the rule of law. The aim is to balance the presidential powers with a strong parliament and more independent judiciary, along with encouraging local governance and greater public participation in the decision-making process in line with the “Listening State” concept. In addition, the reforms have contributed to a more balanced political system and enhanced accountability, ensuring the irreversibility of the political transformation towards a ‘Just and Fair Kazakhstan.’

The implementation of these reforms, which are interlinked with economic and social reforms, has been well-received by the international community and has set a foundation for continued modernisation in Kazakhstan.

Key Reforms:

  1. Democratic Participation:
  • As part of the country’s political modernisation, the registration procedure for political parties has been simplified, and the electoral process has been enhanced. The threshold for party registration has been reduced fourfold, from 20,000 to 5,000 members. Similarly, the threshold for political parties to gain seats in the lower house of Parliament has been lowered from 7% to 5%. Additionally, the requirement for the minimal number of members in citizens’ action groups to create a party has been cut by almost a third, from 1,000 to 700 members. This has led to the registration of new political parties, namely Respublica and Baytaq.
  • Political reforms introduced a 30% quota for women, young people, and persons with special needs, first, on electoral party lists and, later, in the very allocation of parliamentary mandates.
  • The constitutional reform has enacted a limit of a single seven-year term for presidents, prohibiting their re-election. This initiative offers several advantages: Firstly, a period of seven years is sufficient for implementing any ambitious programme. Secondly, limiting the presidential mandate to a single term ensures that the head of state is maximally focused on addressing the strategic tasks of national development. 
  • Presidential power over local office-holders has been reduced; now the President can appoint akims (mayors) of cities and regions only with the approval of local deputies, and he cannot fire those appointees. Also, the presidential quota in the Senate has been reduced. Close relatives of the President are banned from senior roles in government and quasi-state companies.
  • The powers of the Mazhilis have been expanded according to a new electoral model based on party lists and single-mandate constituencies. In the 2022 general election, six parties were elected, three of which received parliamentary mandates for the first time.
  • In 2023, Kazakhstan conducted its first-ever elections for akims (local mayors of districts and cities of regional significance). Over more than two years, voters have directly elected akims in rural districts, resulting in the appointment of nearly 1,700 akims to date.
  • A new generation of individuals in politics, public administration, business, science, and culture has emerged. In 2019, the Presidential Youth Personnel Reserve was established. Through a competitive selection process, 400 reservists (300 reservists in 2019, 50 in 2021 and 50 in 2023) were chosen from a pool of over 10,000 applicants. More than 75% of these reservists have since been appointed to various positions.
  • The National Council of Public Trust, a consultative body instrumental for developing the four reform packages in 2019-2021, was restructured into the Ulttyq Quryltai (National Congress) to enhance public participation in governance and decision-making processes. The National Congress consists of 117 members, representing all regions of the country, various fields of activity, and different generations.
  • On June 17, 2023, President Tokayev convened the second meeting of the National Kurultai, which culminated in the adoption of a Plan for implementing presidential initiatives. It includes projects for supporting the youth of the country, renovating rural schools, and improving the work of children’s youth and volunteer organisations.
  • The third meeting of the National Congress took place on March 15, 2024, in Atyrau, in the West Kazakhstan region. In his address, the President outlined his vision for a modernized society and succinctly outlined the strategic goals of establishing an open market economy, advancing digitalization, fostering the growth of artificial intelligence, enhancing transit and transport capabilities, supporting entrepreneurship, and encouraging innovation.
  1. Human Rights Mechanisms:

In addition to democratisation efforts, Kazakhstan has been actively implementing measures and reforms aimed at enhancing human rights and strengthening the rule of law. They include:

  • On December 8, 2023, President Tokayev signed a decree endorsing an Action Plan dedicated to the advancement of human rights and the rule of law in the country. To bring the decree into effect, Kazakhstan has undertaken several significant actions, including the adoption of seven laws aimed at addressing issues such as domestic violence, labour safety, and the establishment of regional child rights ombudspersons. A significant component of the Action Plan involves collaboration with the UN and OSCE in implementing its measures.
  • Kazakhstan has enshrined the constitutional status and responsibilities of the Human Rights Ombudsperson by adopting a special Constitutional Law. Under this law, the Ombudsperson is vested with the authority to appeal to the President, the chambers of Parliament, and the Government with proposals for improving legislation and law enforcement practices related to human rights.
  • The establishment of representative offices of the Human Rights Ombudsperson in Kazakhstan’s regions increases access to legal remedies.
  • The Ombudsperson’s office has provided numerous assistances, including protecting rights during the transfer of prison healthcare from the penitentiary system to the Ministry of Healthcare.
  • Kazakhstan has also appointed an Ombudsman for Children’s Rights and an Ombudsman to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. The country has ratified international protocols on the rights of children and persons with disabilities.
  • The Constitutional Court has been re-established to further protect rights and freedoms by enabling citizens to appeal directly to the court. This Court ensures the supremacy of the Constitution. Its decisions are final, and cannot be reversed by anyone, including those related to the constitutional rights of citizens.
  • More than 5,300 appeals from citizens were received since the launch of the Court in 2023, indicating an increase in civil interest in participating in governance through the Constitutional Court.
  • In 2023, the Constitutional Court issued 39 regulatory decisions. Additionally, 24 norms of normative legal acts were declared consistent with the Constitution, while 8 norms were found to be inconsistent, particularly in relation to the right to judicial protection, access to public service, and non-discrimination.
  • The Constitutional Court provided consultations to more than 750 citizens in 2023.
  1. Human Rights and Rule of Law:
  • A new law on peaceful assemblies has been adopted, featuring notification procedures that has led top the significant increase in the number of peaceful meetings and rallies in Kazakhstan.
  • Kazakhstan has completely abolished the death penalty, and transferred some civic functions from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the Ministry of Health to better protect prisoners’ right to health.
  • The list of jobs where women’s work was restricted has been abolished. Kazakhstan has also adopted a National Action Plan for the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security.
  • Legislative measures have been implemented to combat torture, ensure objective investigations, and hold those responsible accountable. These measures include criminal penalties for the mistreatment of detainees, establishing clear definitions of ‘torture’ and ‘ill-treatment’, and shifting torture investigations to the Prosecutor General’s Office.
  • Administrative and criminal liability for domestic violence has been strengthened, including the elimination of the possibility for repeated reconciliation of the parties in such cases.
  • In February 2024, the Mazhilis, the lower house of the Kazakh Parliament, approved legislative amendments to promote the safety of women and children and prevent crimes against them. The amendments introduce criminal liability for sexual harassment of children under 16 years of age. The changes propose measures to ensure the safety and protection of children, including the opening of family support centers in each district, the deployment of mobile groups for early identification of families in difficult life situations, the creation of a 111 contact centers to provide psychological and other assistance, and the development of programs to help minors who have been subjected to violence, abuse, and bullying.
  • The media law is being reformed to create a safer digital space. Proposed changes include shortening the timeframe for reviewing media requests, transitioning to grant funding, setting a limitation period for defamation suits, clarifying journalists’ rights, and simplifying accreditations through press cards.
  • The Social Code, aimed at providing support for vulnerable groups of citizens, has been introduced. A special payment has been approved for persons employed in dangerous working conditions.
  • On October 2, 2023, the ‘Law on Public Control’ was enacted to enhance public oversight of governmental and quasi-public sector entities, authorising citizens and public organisations to conduct independent oversight of these entities through public discussions, expert evaluations, and monitoring. Furthermore, the law introduces online petitions, to come into force as of April 1, 2024, enabling citizens to engage in discussions on draft regulatory laws, access information, and communicate with the government on important issues.

IV.     Economic Reforms:

  • In his state-of-the-nation address on September 1, 2023, President Tokayev unveiled plans for transitioning to a new economic model, including further demonopolization and diversification of the economy.
  • Tokayev emphasised the transition to a new economic model that prioritises fairness, inclusiveness, and pragmatism. For context, in 2023, the economy grew by 5.1%, and the GDP per capita increased from $11,500 to $13,300.
  • The country is prioritising industrial and economic self-sufficiency, particularly developing the manufacturing sector and diversifying the economy. The aim is to reduce reliance on imports and establish high-value-added clusters in various industries.
  • Support for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) is another priority. Policy reforms have been implemented to create a more favourable business environment for SMEs. These reforms include reducing bureaucratic barriers, simplifying tax codes, and improving the overall ease of doing business. Since March 1, 2023, young entrepreneurs have been offered microloans at an annual rate of 2.5% through the Agrarian Credit Corporation.
  • As part of the goal to employ over 3.3 million citizens by 2029, efforts are being made to create 450,000 new jobs, including 200,000 (44%) for young people. To liberalise labour legislation and develop new forms of employment (such as remote work, flexible hours, and part-time employment), appropriate amendments were introduced starting July 1, 2023.
  • Starting from January 1, 2023, 50% of the National Fund’s annual investment income is allocated to special savings accounts for children. Upon reaching adulthood at 18 years of age, these funds can be used for purchasing housing or obtaining education. The National Fund aims to enable children to pursue higher education at both domestic and foreign institutions.
  • In 2022-2023, Kazakhstan attracted $41.3 billion in direct foreign investments. The goal is to attract $150 billion over the seven years from 2022 to 2029.
  • Kazakhstan aims to reduce the shadow economy to 15% of the GDP by 2025, aligning with OECD country levels. In 2022, the country’s hidden economic activity was approximately 18.7% of the GDP, below the target of 19.9%. A Comprehensive Plan of Action to Counter the Shadow Economy for 2023-2025 has been updated.
  • President Tokayev has signed a law concerning the reclamation of illicitly withdrawn assets by the state. This legislation facilitates the channelling of recovered assets into the Special State Fund, which is used to finance socio-economic projects. A Commission on the Return of Illegally Acquired Assets to the State has been established under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. To date, assets worth around 1 trillion tenge have been returned to the state, including approximately $600 million in assets repatriated from foreign jurisdictions.
  • A new Tax Code is currently under development, having received approximately 1,000 proposals from experts, economists, and representatives of the business community. Additionally, the potential introduction of extra excise taxes on luxury items is being considered.
  • Kazakhstan plays an important role as a key link in Asia-Europe transit traffic. Cargo transportation via the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (Middle Corridor) saw an increase to 274,200 tonnes in January this year, a 147% rise from January 2023. In 2023, the volume of goods transported via this corridor reached 2.76 million tonnes, a 65% increase from 2022, when it doubled compared to 2021. The goal is to achieve an annual throughput capacity of 10 million tons by 2027.
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