Kazakhs back post-Nazarbayev reforms, hope for more democracy

·4-min read

Kazakhs overwhelmingly voted for constitutional changes in a referendum that marks the end of founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev's three-decade grip on Central Asia's richest country, authorities announced Monday.

The amendments will finally bury  "super-presidential" rule, according to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev -- a claim that has been greeted with scepticism from local political observers.

The incoming constitution removes special privileges for 81-year-old Nazarbayev and prevents Tokayev and future leaders from having relatives in government posts.

The central electoral commission said 77 percent of voters had backed the move and claimed a turnout of 68 percent.

Widespread violence in January -- which grew out of peaceful protests over a spike in car fuel prices -- left more than 230 people dead and prompted authorities to call in troops from a Russia-led security bloc.

- 'New Kazakhstan' -

The drive for a "New Kazakhstan" in the wake of the violence has come from the man that Nazarbayev hand-picked to replace him as president in 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Tokayev, 69, on Sunday said that the referendum was only the beginning of his reform bid and that "the paradigm of relations between the state and society is changing".

Prior to January's crisis, Tokayev was widely seen as ruling in the shadow of Nazarbayev and his super-rich relatives.

Even after stepping down as president, Nazarbayev retained the constitutional title of "Elbasy", or "Leader of the Nation" -- a role that afforded him influence over policymaking regardless of his formal position.

Another amendment prevents relatives of the president from holding government positions -- a clear nod to the influence of Nazarbayev's family and in-laws, who lost powerful positions in the aftermath of the violence.

Sergey Duvanov, a rights defender living in the largest city Almaty, called the changes cosmetic and said reports of students being forced to vote showed little has changed.

"There is nothing to stop him going beyond a second term as president and becoming a second Elbasy," Duvanov told AFP by telephone.

Although Tokayev promised that would not happen, Duvanov warned that "a person's appetite grows while he is eating".

Kazakhstan's New Year crisis began in the oil-producing west with protests over a New Year fuel price hike, but it was largest city Almaty -- 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) away -- that became the epicentre of armed clashes, looting and arson.

The capital Nur-Sultan -- re-branded in Nazarbayev's honour in 2019, remained largely untouched.

- 'Changes for the better' -

Tokayev has blamed the violence on "terrorists" seeking to seize power and issued a "shoot-to-kill" order to Kazakh troops.

But the arrest on treason charges of a Nazarbayev ally who served as national security chief at the time fuelled speculation that a leadership struggle was at the heart of the violence.

Both the former and current presidents are allies of neighbouring Russia, and the arrival of a 2,000-plus detachment of peacekeepers from a Moscow-led security bloc bolstered Tokayev's control over the situation in January.

The Kremlin claimed the intervention requested by Tokayev did not extend to any political settlement, which was "the internal affair of Kazakhstan".

Nazarbayev on Sunday cast his vote in the capital that was named in his honour after he stepped down. In a rare interview last week he expressed support for Tokayev and the changes.

He also said that his relatives should be "held accountable" if they committed crimes but were entitled to a fair trial -- an apparent reference to nephew Kairat Satybaldy, a businessman presently detained on embezzlement charges.

Since January Tokayev has indulged in come criticism of his predecessor's policies, while hailing his nation-building achievements.

In the capital on Monday lunchtime scores of visitors queued for the viewing deck of the Bayterek observation tower, where they placed their hand in Nazarbayev's handprint and look out over the city built in his image.

Arman, a 26-year-old creative hurrying to work in the city centre said that only "time will tell" if Kazakhstan can move past its former president.

"They say he ruled well for 10 years, but after that we became this very corrupt country. Now we wait for something new," he said adding that he had not voted.

dr-cr/ach

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