Mass Political Unrest in the Streets Underscores Need for Kazakhstan’s Long-Overdue Police Reforms

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 100

(Source: The Astana Times)

Kazakhstan celebrated Police Day, on June 23, 2019, marking the 27th anniversary of establishing the country’s own law enforcement structures (, June 23). First declared in 2007 by then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, the holiday continues to resemble similar professional/vocational celebrations that were prevalent in the Soviet era. And although Kazakhstani Police Day is meant to publicly honor those who, in principle, maintain stability and rule of law in the country, planned political changes in the Ministry of Internal Affairs visibly changed the tenor of this year’s event.

The tragic murder of Denis Ten, a Kazakhstani Olympic figure skating bronze medalist, in summer of 2018, in downtown Almaty (see EDM, August 9, 2018), produced a heated debate on social media, generating severe public pressure on the authorities to reform the interior ministry (, July 21, 2018). Specifically, civil society activists in Kazakhstan sought an improved law enforcement environment in which the police would focus on fighting criminality and protecting people’s lives instead of ostensibly devoting vast resources to arresting peaceful protesters. Since then, the Kazakhstani government has been trying to shake up the police sector.

To address social grievances and the lack of trust between citizens and law enforcement, the government of Kazakhstan developed a roadmap to modernize its police forces for 2019–2022 (, December 27, 2018). The document puts forward 54 concrete objectives within nine thematic blocks on how to better organize transparent, accountable and uncorrupted law enforcement in the country.

According to the plan, the Kazakhstani police will receive new uniforms (modeled after the operational uniforms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), an increased salary and benefits, as well as improved national standards regulating the conditions of service and the format of training, to be developed by 2022. The ambitious plan to reform the least digitized and least transparent agency in the country pays particular attention to anticorruption measures and financial incentives in order to restore police prestige and trust (Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, December 7, 2018;, October 15, 2018).

Kazakhstan’s police forces have long been seen as extremely corrupt. As a result, the key component of the reforms is to aggressively fight corruption among law enforcement officers throughout the country, based on the success of similar efforts in the Republic of Georgia. The National Agency for Civil Service Affairs and Anti-Corruption will supervise and assess the performance of law enforcement in fighting corruption as well as in communicating with the public and using social media platforms. Additionally, 80 percent of public services provided by units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs will be transferred to an open online portal, thus minimizing the chances of ministry officials accepting bribes (, March 13).

Regarding professional skills, police training will shift from a bachelor program to a dedicated law enforcement academy. Interior Minister Erlan Turgumbayev has already cut higher education in half, leaving Karaganda Academy (in the central part of Kazakhstan) as the only institution to offer an investigator specialization. And in May 2019, other training centers in Almaty, Kostanay, Aktobe, Karaganda and Shymkent introduced police courses lasting between three and six months (, May 25). However, shorter courses are also available. For instance, Kostanay Academy will host Zhusan, a new training center for police officers, psychologists and inspectors to work with extremists in prisons (, June 18). This two-week training program is designed to teach skills in psychological correction, conflict and legal studies, and profiling.

Another significant challenge is police certification, which officers must complete once every three years. This measure allows the Kazakhstani authorities to assess the level of proficiency of law enforcement personnel using standards of physical education, marksmanship, legal knowledge, along with psychological examinations and polygraph tests (, March 13). The planned 2018 certification was apparently postponed due to the reforms themselves as well as the presidential elections; it has been rescheduled for the end of 2019. Additionally, certification will allow officials to reduce the overall number of police officers in the country, currently believed to be among the highest per capita in the world. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has already cut 10,592 officers from the police and penal system, saving 16 billion tenge ($42 million). But going forward, both the intended final numbers as well as the certification program itself will need to be explored in greater detail to make sure that the modernization process is not simply introducing cosmetic changes.

Finally, the Kazakhstani government in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) is considering the proper budget necessary to effectively implement the aforementioned reforms. Along with the importance of local financial support, the central authorities will assign 21.4 billion tenge ($56 million) to increase police wages (, February 18). Overall, a 65 percent salary growth is expected for patrol officers, a 55 percent increase is anticipated for operational and investigative units, and other units, including district and juvenile inspectors along with teaching staff, can expect a 20 percent wage increase (, March 13). Other incentives, such as housing and preferential mortgages, will also be considered as a part of social support.

While the proposed changes look significant, they nonetheless continue to lack a clear long-term vision of what kind of national police force Kazakhstan actually intends to develop. It is also unclear whether the reforms will have a significant impact on the core issues affecting law enforcement and its relationship with the citizenry. Current public antipathy toward the police runs so deep in Kazakhstan that it will be extremely difficult to rebuild its reputation, and none of those changes can be expected to happen overnight. Meanwhile, the protests and mass arrests in several cities across the country before and after the presidential elections in June (see EDM, May 16, June 12) have again cast doubt on the effectiveness of the government’s ongoing police reforms. Dynamic implementation of the proposed police reforms may help calm the domestic situation, but this process continues to be hampered by the sheer number of stakeholders involved. To address this institutional and bureaucratic obstacle, Kazakhstan’s interior ministry will likely need to take up fuller responsibility for monitoring and assessing its performance with other agencies and, more importantly, with the public through a regular and well-established dialogue based on trust and mutual respect.