On June 27, Kazakhstan’s bicameral parliament adopted in the second and final reading a constitutional bill which confers lifetime political and legal “rights” on President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The bill passed with fifty-nine votes in favor, five opposed and three abstentions in the Majlis (lower house) and thirty-six in favor and one abstention in the Senate. The bill is now law, but requires the president’s signature in order to go into effect. The action is timed to Nazarbaev’s 60th birthday, which falls on July 6.
The law confers on Nazarbaev, upon the expiration of his presidential powers, the lifetime “rights” to: address the country at any time, issue “policy initiatives” to state bodies and government officials, attend and address sessions of the parliament and the cabinet of ministers, hold a seat on the Security Council and one on the Constitutional Council, chair the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan [interethnic accord forum, made up of officially selected representatives of the country’s ethnic communities], and award the annual Prize for Peace and Progress. Under the same law, Nazarbaev gains lifetime retirement privileges for himself and his immediate family, as well lifetime immunity from legal liability for any of his actions as president, with the hypothetical exception of “high treason.” The immunity extends to Nazarbaev’s person, dwellings and offices, documents, means of communication and all personal possessions.
The Civic Party–led and funded by industrial managers, the second-largest pro-presidential party after Otan (Fatherland)–initiated this bill. The parliamentary debates took place mostly during Nazarbaev’s absence from the country. The president has consequently claimed having learned about the event from mass media reports. He was attending the CIS summit in Moscow during the bill’s first reading and was paying a visit to the European Union and NATO headquarters in Brussels during the second reading of the bill. Nazarbaev’s only comment thus far is a double disclaimer: first, that he has “no intention to become Khan [Turkic ruler’s title] or president for life;” and, second, that he has “no right to oppose legislative initiatives” even when they are “unhelpful.” Nonetheless, the overwhelming approval margins suggest that the presidential staff had pushed the bill through the legislature. That body is docile but less than totally so. By the same token, hands more skilled than those of the Civic Party diluted some of the bill’s most ostentatious features during the final reading in parliament. The terms “prerogatives” and “Leader of the Nation” were replaced by “rights” and “Leader of the People;” and the military prerogatives were dropped from the final draft (Kabar, June 23-27).
The political intent behind this legislation will become clearer when it reaches the president’s desk for his signature. Nazarbaev has led Kazakhstan since 1990. He was overwhelmingly reelected in January 1999 for a seven-year term. The margin of Nazarbaev’s electoral triumphs has been seriously questioned, but his ability to outpoll challengers has never been in doubt. Nazarbaev and his staff have indicated that he plans to seek reelection in 2006. The conferral of a life-time political role, rights and privileges can serve at least one of three possible purposes: as presidential reinsurance against any political or health hazards between now and 2006, as an exercise in the Central Asian combination of Soviet and Oriental flattery, or as an opportunity for Nazarbaev to veto the law and distance himself from the personality cult practiced by the neighboring presidents.
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