Kazakhstan: Parliament Rams Through Vague Constitution Fix

Kazakhstan (EAN) – Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament has hastily adopted amendments to the constitution following weeks of largely cursory public consultation.

Following parliament’s adoption of the reforms on March 6, the amendments will have to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, but that procedure is likely to be a formality.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev has described the reforms, which ostensibly should lead to his power being shared with the executive and parliament, as a historic development, although critics argue they will change little in reality.

Nurlan Abdirov, a member of parliament and the chair of a joint commission on the reforms, said that legislators approved 26 amendments to 19 articles of the constitution. That suggests that what the government says were the 6,000 proposals offered by the public and the feedback provided during 10,000 public events over the past weeks have largely been disregarded.

The speed with which the reforms have been pushed through parliament is remarkable, even by the normal standards of Kazakhstan’s rubber stamp legislature. The first reading was wrapped up on a single day on March 3.

Among the 10 changes approved on March 6 during the second reading, lawmakers agreed that any acts that could lead to “inter-faith conflict” should be deemed unconstitutional and lead to offenders being stripped of their citizenship.

Despite the many challenges confronting Kazakhstan down the road, one of the main demands made by the public in the nationwide consultation was, apparently, for language to be inserted into the constitution that would properly reflect Nazarbayev’s historic contributions. The president is already officially designated Yelbasy — Kazakh for “leader of the nation” — a title that affords him lifetime immunity from prosecution and ultimate say over core matters of state, even in the event of his retirement.

“Representatives of Kazakhstani society repeatedly raised the issue of bolstering recognition of Yelbasy’s legacy in the building of our state,” Abdirov said.

A section of Article 91 that now dwells on the inviolability of Kazakhstan’s territorial unity will accordingly be rejigged to recognize the permanence of the Yelbasy status.

Quite why this particular amendment was required — since the title will, one assumes, die along with Nazarbayev — is anybody’s guess.

Indeed, the reforms appear at first glance to sow more confusion than clarity.

Along with those disrupting inter-faith harmony, those committing terrorist acts or “causing serious harm to vitally important interests” of Kazakhstan will be stripped of citizenship. What the phrase about harming “vitally important interests” actually means is another mystery.

One MP, Aigul Nurkina, thinks it could describe anybody sowing instability — itself a loose and catch-all offense that could be readily deployed against government critics. Another deputy, Yevgeny Kozlov, said that it was unlikely the Constitutional Chamber would clear this matter up and that the constitutional provision might simply refer to a very serious offense.

“Terrorism, plus these kinds of things with serious consequences for the state. The loss of, for example, well, if, like in Ukraine, part of our territory,” Kozlov said somewhat tentatively.

These are the lawmakers that will now be given greater powers.
Speaking last week, Nazarbayev said that parliament would now become a legislative authority, where it previously only “fulfilled legislative functions.” The distinction is not immediately clear.

Nazarbayev said the executive will also be granted greater responsibilities to run the economy — this at a time when Kazakhstan is entering a period of extended stagnation amid depressed prices for oil.

The president will, however, retain responsibility over national security and foreign policy and reserves the right to veto laws.

All in all, those cynics that note that the president will continue to wield the real levers of power while delegating the more unpleasant business of running the economy to other branches of government may be onto something.

This report prepared by Aigerim Toleukhanova for Eurasianet.org