On May 31, the Kazakhstani Senate approved a bill on reforming the National Security Council (NSC) of Kazakhstan. This move marked the official end of a months-long legislative process, to be followed in the days to come by a presidential endorsement, which is the precondition for its becoming law. The NSC was initially formed in August 1991, less than half a year before Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union. In June 1993, this state organ acquired its current status as a consultative body under the presidency. In ordinary times, a new law regulating the activity and legal responsibilities of the NSC would have barely attracted any public or media attention. This time was different. The concluding paragraph of a statement issued by the Senate Committee for Constitutional Legislation, Legal Reform and Law Enforcement reads as follows: “It is established that the First President of Kazakhstan [incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev]—Elbasy [“head of state” in Kazakh language]—is entitled to the life chairmanship of the National Security Council by virtue of his historic mission” (Tengrinews.kz, Informburo.kz, Inform.kz, May 31).
When the draft law was initially introduced to parliament in February, Justice Minister Marat Beketayev made the case for its smooth passage through both chambers. “This bill is another reminder of the fact that the head of state has a special status and enjoys the full trust of the population. We need stability more than ever in current circumstances, when terrorist and extremist threats are especially high. This bill is about strengthening the mechanisms that ensure stability in our country,” he said. The NSC in its revised shape will officially serve as the “coordinating constitutional body.” The first chapter of the law focuses on its legal attributions, such as examination of key directions of state policy in the field of national security, defense and combat readiness. In addition, the NSC will assume overall supervision of all state bodies entrusted with national security tasks (KJursiv.kz, February 9; Informburo.kz, February 8).
According to the second chapter, President Nazarbayev will chair all meetings of the NSC, distribute instructions to its members and approve internal regulations, organizational charts and operating guidelines. Interestingly, while it may seem—based on Minister Beketayev’s earlier statements and the conclusions of parliamentary deliberations—that the president will become lifelong chairman only upon endorsing the bill, he has already legally enjoyed this prerogative since the end of last year. In December 2017, the parliament passed amendments to the law “On the First President,” thereby granting Nazarbayev this additional right, along with the preexisting lifelong chairmanship of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. The other statutory members of the NSC include, in order of seniority: the speaker of the Senate, speaker of the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament), prime minister, secretary of state, head of the presidential administration, secretary of the NSC, prosecutor general, director of the National Security Committee, as well as ministers of foreign affairs, defense and interior (News.tj, May 31, 2018; Zakon.kz, December 22, 2017).
Nazarbayev’s expanded role at the helm of a more powerful NSC appears to be part and parcel of ongoing preparations for a presidential succession. Still, the president has consistently refused to make his specific intentions known, groom a successor or set a timetable for an orderly transition of power. Despite this uncertainty, work has been underway since at least 2016 to reform Kazakhstan’s constitutional makeup so as to render the presidency less overwhelming and the distribution of policymaking duties more balanced. In March 2017, the Mazhilis and Senate approved, and President Nazarbayev signed into law, a bill introducing 26 changes to 19 articles of the constitution. They have formally resulted in a stronger legislature and judiciary. For example, the parliament can now ask the president to relieve cabinet ministers of their duties if their actions are deemed to be in breach of law and before an investigation or judicial proceedings, if any, are launched (Akorda.kz, March 10, 2017; Tengrinews.kz, March 7, 2017; Total.kz, Vlast.kz, March 6, 2017).
It should be noted, though, that while President Nazarbayev can no longer issue decrees having the force of law (that is, not subject to parliamentary oversight or authorization), he has retained important prerogatives under the new constitution. Thus, he can single-handedly appoint ministers of foreign affairs, interior and defense but must rely on suggestions from a prime minister to appoint the rest of the cabinet. The head of government is to be picked from the ranks of a ruling party, which can technically be any political force with the highest popular backing. In practice, given Kazakhstan’s short and rather limited track record of post-Soviet democratization, that means that the ruling NurOtan party will preserve its monopoly for the foreseeable future. This will enable it to continue dispatching loyal cadres into high positions in government. The legislature also has to accommodate the president’s requests for the priority examination of certain bills, according to the constitutional reform (Matrica.kz, Kapital.kz, March 6, 2017).
The reform of the NSC is a clear step in the direction of a post-Nazarbayev era in which the “Elbasy” still intends to remain in a position of national leadership. Presiding over the NSC and keeping a loyal aide, former prime minister Karim Massimov, as head of the National Security Committee, which is the most influential law enforcement agency in the country, should deliver such an outcome. In mid-2010, the parliament bestowed upon Nursultan Nazarbayev the title of “Leader of the Nation” and, with it, substantial guarantees of personal immunity from prosecution, the right to address the legislature at any time, a senior advisory role to future presidents and other perks. The experience of neighboring Uzbekistan, whose late leader, Islam Karimov, was peacefully succeeded by his long-time prime minister in 2016, is a positive precursor for Central Asia’s largest economy. Unsurprisingly, Kazakhstan’s stability will largely determine the stability of the entire region, hence the importance of laying a solid foundation for the successor administration.