By Dmitriy Nurumov
On 20 March 2016, the day of parliamentary elections, President Nazarbayev, answering a question from a journalist regarding possible changes to the Constitution, stated: “Changes should be made. The Presidential system of governance exists in Kazakhstan. We can only talk about re-distribution of power between the branches – President, Parliament and the Government. We are thinking in this direction.” Signals that changes were being mooted had also come earlier, in 2015, both before and after the early presidential election. At that time the potential of the Constitution to absorb some changes was hinted at by high-ranking officials, in order to move to “the next stage of development of the political system”. These hints suggested the Parliament and the Government shouldering more responsibility along with the dominant figure of the President, who continues to retain an unqualified right to dissolve the Parliament, decide the fate of the Government or relieve any member of the Government of his/her duties.
The detailed analysis of why these changes were needed now lies beyond the scope of this post, but it is commonplace to link them one way or another with the looming transition dilemma, which may lead to political upheavals that are not in the interest of the ruling elite. Therefore, what emerged after a speedy process of amendments in early 2017 is that the President retains or even increases his control over the political system in hypothetical situations when his political dominance and, more importantly, the political system he created comes under threat. At the same time, the President relieved himself of the responsibilities or relinquished rights that are no longer used or deemed unimportant, as control is exerted in the uncontested political space by other means, often more effective or less straightforward. In some cases, this responsibility for preserving the current system became “shared” with the Parliament or Prime Minister through introducing the requirement of consultations (e.g. if the President would like to dissolve a regional representative body) or assigning a more active role in legislating certain public domains (e.g. in the justice sector or the status and competencies of regional governors).
The President had an option to put the changes to a national referendum, but opted for the adoption of amendments through parliamentary procedure, which is more predictable as the Parliament is essentially composed of the President’s loyalists whose political future is fully in his hands.
After the constitutional reform, the President will not have powers to establish executive bodies that are not part of the Government. The Prime Minister will, after consultations with the Majilis of the Parliament, appoint members of the Government. The President will continue to directly appoint the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defence and will lose the right to appoint the Minister of Justice, whose appointment will go through a regular procedure, the same as for other members of the Government. The President will not have the responsibility to preside over the most important meetings of the Government, but this right will be at his discretion, depending on necessity. The President will also no longer have the right to suspend fully or partially the legal acts of the Government and Prime Minister. However, the President will retain the right to do so in the case of legal acts of Regional Governors who are appointed by him upon approval from regional representative bodies (although as previously the option for their election will be retained in the Constitution). As mentioned above, the President will also have to consult with the Prime Minister or Speakers of the Parliament if he decides to dissolve a regional representative body.
The President will not be responsible any more for approval of state programmes or have the authority to approve the funding allocation and salary scales for the state servants of all state bodies that are funded by the state budget. However, some consultations are possible between the President and Prime Minister on this matter.
At the same time the President will have a new right “in the interest of protection of human rights and citizen’s rights, provision of national security, sovereignty, and unity of the state to request the Constitutional Council to consider a law that has entered into legal force or any other act in compliance with the Constitution of the Republic, as well as requesting a ruling in cases of amendment of the Constitution.” In theory, the President may also ask the Constitutional Council to review legal acts of the Government and the Prime Minister, which he could previously suspend. The President continues to play a crucial role in the formation of the Constitutional Council.
Some changes are purely symbolic. The amendment was also made that the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan is the supreme representative body that exercises the legislative power. Previously, the Parliament exercised “legislative functions”. The President under certain conditions could also “legislate”. These powers have not been used recently and it seems that they became obsolete in the current system, where any parliamentary elections consistently produce a pliant Parliament. As the President’s party fully controls the Parliament it is not deemed to be as important as in 1995, when the President had to confront a recalcitrant Parliament and legislate by decree to enact some unpopular economic reforms that benefited mostly the ruling elite.
The role of the Government was also slightly recast by introduction of the requirement of consultations between the Prime Minister and the Majilis of the Parliament, before the Prime Minister submits candidates for posts in the Government for approval to the President. Therefore, the Government is defined as the collegial body which is accountable not only to the President, but also to the Parliament. In this way, the requirement of consultations is a symbolic competence, rather than an increase of Parliament’s competences.
The Senate is now given the right to appoint or relieve the Ombudsman of his/her duties, the authority previously exercised by the President. The President proposes the candidate for this position. This scheme allows the President to effectively control the appointment of the Ombudsman.
One-third of each Chamber of the Parliament may ask a member of the Government to report to the Chamber about his/her performance. Two-thirds of the total number of members of the Chamber, after the report has been made, may ask the President to relieve this member of the Government of his/her position in case of non-compliance with the laws of Kazakhstan. The President should then dismiss such a member of the Government. The previous wording of this provision allowed a simple majority to make such a request to the Parliament. If rejected, this request can be made by the simple majority within six months. In this case, the President should dismiss this member of the Government. Such a situation is highly unlikely in the current political system, but if a more diverse parliament body were to be elected at some distant point in the future, it would be very difficult to get two-thirds of the total number of MPs to vote to ask the President to dismiss a minister. This is a typical new provision that gives some power to the Parliament to control the Government, but at the same time makes it difficult to exercise it in practice.
The Parliament is also becoming more flexible as to how it organises its legislative process. The President retains the power to assign certain draft laws a priority status. However, these priority draft laws should be considered during the current session, not within one calendar month, as was the case previously, when non-compliance of the Parliament gave the right to the President to adopt the law by his decree.
A revised provision also requires that the report of the Government is made not only to the President as before, but also to the Majilis (lower chamber) of the Parliament.
According to another amendment, the Government will have to be dissolved when a newly elected Majilis of the Parliament is convened. Previously, the Government had to be automatically dissolved when the new President is elected.
The Parliament now has more power to legislate over the criteria regarding judicial posts and the scope of the prosecutorial powers. All requirements will be decided at the level of Constitutional Laws. In fact, this is where the Parliament gains more real powers, in contrast to symbolic adjustments on control over the Government.
The 2017 constitutional reform also introduces amendments limiting the scope of immediate application of international treaties, requiring in all cases adoption of respective enabling national legislation. There are also changes that would lead to deprivation of Kazakhstani citizenship where a citizen commits a terrorism-related crime or threatens important interests of the state, which were only introduced in the very last draft of amendments. The application of these new changes may have a chilling impact on the exercise of human rights in Kazakhstan, but the scope of such impact depends on how far the authorities are willing to operationalise the new provisions. For example, calls to change the presidential system may also be considered as a threat to the interests of the state. In this sense, read together the 2017 amendments are aimed both at preserving the current political system, while at the same time making it more stable by re-distributing some powers that may lead to better capacity of the system to absorb potential shocks of the future transition of power in Kazakhstan.
Of interest is also the amendment introducing a special legal status for the Astana Financial Centre, which should lead to the creation of a parallel legal system dealing with foreign investments based on a common-law system for commercial matters. This amendment, which is viewed with mistrust by Kazakhstan’s civil society, is proposed by the Kazakhstan authorities as a measure to boost the investment climate in Kazakhstan. It is also seen in the context of another amendment that did not make it to the final draft, giving foreigners full protection of their property in Kazakhstan. It was dropped due to fierce opposition from Kazakhstani civil society, which saw it as a way to sell the most sacred thing – the land – to foreigners by the corrupted ruling elite. Actually, this draft amendment was the only one that led to an overwhelming negative reaction from the civil society, which a few years ago had witnessed a failed attempt to introduce amendments to the land code with the effect to allow foreigners to rent agricultural land for extended periods.
The constitutional amendments also include new language of the current article that stipulates that unitary organisation, territorial integrity and the form of governance cannot be changed. Currently, the revised article reads “Established by the Constitution, independence of the state, unitary organisation and territorial integrity, the form of governance as well as the fundamental principles of activity of the Republic, that were established by the Founder of independent Kazakhstan, the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Elbasy, and his status are permanent.” All proposed changes, according to the new article, should be assessed by the Constitutional Council with regard to whether they comply with the above provision. This provision is designed to further guarantee the long life of the political system created by the President.
The new revised text of the Constitution was signed by President Nazarbayev on 10 March 2017 and it entered into force on 14 March, the day of official publication.
 “Elbasy” (Kazakh) means “Leader of the Nation”