A spark of democracy in Central Asia
After recent protests, voters in Kazakhstan overhaul their constitution with reforms that run counter to the autocracy in neighboring Russia.
A country that has the longest border with Russia just took a big step to distance itself from its neighbor’s autocratic ways. In a June 5 referendum, voters in Kazakhstan approved changes to more than a third of their constitution. Coming five months after mass protests, the new amendments are aimed at bringing transparency and equality in a virtual one-party state.
One particular change may lead to an explosion of new political parties in the Central Asian nation. Perhaps like Ukraine before it, Kazakhstan could be moving toward a healthy democracy outside Moscow’s orbit of influence.
Until this year, much of the politics in Kazakhstan – the world’s ninth-largest country by area – involved competition among a political elite vying for the nation’s vast resources. That began to change Jan. 2 when thousands of young Kazakhs, angered by a sharp rise in fuel prices, took to the streets to demand more political freedom, greater opportunity in business, and an end to crony corruption. One activist, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, called the protests an assertion of “natural rights” for each individual.
Pushed to speed up his reform efforts, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said last March: “Those who were used to relying on behind-the-scenes schemes are panicking about losing their privileges and their sources of income.”
Many of the constitutional changes, such as greater judicial independence, don’t go far enough for some activists. Nor has the president done enough to hold to account those responsible for the killing of some 200 protesters in January.
Yet the referendum has formalized popular demand for change. One key reform would push more authority to local government, an important check on centralized power. Just before last Sunday’s referendum, President Tokayev said implementing the changes would depend “on the consciousness and creative participation of all citizens, because democracy is the daily painstaking work of each of us.” He has called on the people to embrace “patience, wisdom and endurance.”
Just as Ukraine’s growth in democracy has come in fits and starts – and now a Russian invasion – Kazakhstan has set its own path toward fully representative government. Its neighbors, in both China and Russia, might well be watching.