Political reform in Kazakhstan is also an answer to a global problem

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File photo. Kazakhstan's President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev (L) speaks during his meeting with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov (not pictured), in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 27 November 2019. [Igor Kovalenko/EPA/EFE]

The recent reforms introducing more democracy in Kazakhstan are also an answer to a global problem – how to respond to the lack of public confidence in leadership around the world, writes Shavkat Sabirov.

Shavkat Sabirov is Director of the Institute for security and cooperation in Central Asia.

The damaging lack of public confidence in political leadership around the world has many causes. But perhaps none is more important than the widespread belief – fairly or unfairly – of citizens that their wishes, concerns and hopes are being ignored or taken for granted by those they have put in power.

It is a charge that Kazakhstan’s new President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has shown in his first months in office that he is determined to avoid. Since his election last year, he has made his main priority reforming state and government services so they are more responsive to the needs and ambitions of its citizens.

This, he has made clear, is the best way to build on the legacy of his predecessor President Nazarbayev who, until he stepped down last year, has led Kazakhstan since independence. Thanks to his vision, the country is now the most economically successful and socially stable country in Central Asia.

To deliver on his promise and lead Kazakhstan to the next stage of its development, President Tokayev has positioned himself as a ‘hearing President’ and opened new channels of dialogue with the country and its citizens. Within weeks of his election, for example, he set up the National Council of Public Trust which brings together a wide range of opinions including dissenting voices to discuss challenges and identify solutions.

The Council and similar listening exercises are already having an impact on government policies and reforms. Over the last few weeks, President Tokayev has announced a series of significant reforms to strengthen the criminal justice system, accelerate political reform and ensure opportunity is extended to all.

To increase protection for women and bring Kazakhstan into line with other developed nations, President Tokayev, with the agreement of Parliament, has toughened penalties for those found guilty of sexual and domestic violence. Jail sentences for people traffickers have also been increased to underline Kazakhstan’s determination to stamp out this evil trade.

Growing public worries over the accidents and injuries caused by drunk-driving have led to stronger prison terms. Those convicted of selling drugs to children now know they could face the rest of their life in jail.

Last summer, there was a public outcry when poachers hunting the endangered Saiga antelope shot and killed a wildlife ranger. The increasing threat from these criminal gangs to Kazakhstan’s precious wildlife and those tasked with protecting it has also led to sentences being increased.

But at the same time as toughening jail sentences including for serious crimes against children, President Tokayev is also formally abolishing the death penalty. A moratorium on executions has been in place since 2003 but it remains on the statute book as a punishment in exceptional cases. This will now end as the Government is to begin the process of signing the international treaty on the end of capital punishment.

The last few weeks have also seen a whole raft of political and social reforms. In future, women and younger candidates must make up 30 per cent of party candidates to ensure more diverse voices in national and regional politics. Diversity is also being strengthened in parliament by allowing those from outside the ruling party to chair important committees.

Regulations over organising and attending peaceful rallies are being relaxed and made clearer. The existing 40,000 membership threshold for registering political parties is to be halved, while political debate will also be helped by decriminalising defamation. President Tokayev is acting on his promise to accelerate political reform and pluralism.

He has wasted no time, either, in extending as he promised opportunity to all and increasing support to those who need it most. Along with substantial extra investment to improve health care, there are extra funds for special rehabilitation centres across the country. Companies are, from now on, also expected to create more opportunities within their workforce for those with disabilities.

There is extra help, too, for Kazakhstan’s children and young people. Children from low-income families are to receive a guaranteed social package, including free school meals and transportation to and from school.  At the same time, university scholarships are being increased by 25% to help develop the rich potential of the country’s younger generation.

It is a packed agenda. And President Tokayev is promising there will be no slow-up in reforms. There is much more to do if the shared ambition of First President Nazarbayev and his successor of Kazakhstan joining the ranks of the world’s most developed 30 countries is to be achieved. But this nation, from the most difficult beginning, is already among the top 50 nations. Building a truly responsive state where the voices of its citizens are heard and understood will help close the gap.

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