Category Archives: Kazakhstan

Maryia Rohava and Fabian Burkhardt – “Modernizing” the constitution to preempt a succession crisis? Belarus between Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Armenia

This is a guest post by Maryia Rohava, University of Oslo, and Fabian Burkhardt, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen

During the annual state-of-the-nation Address to the Belarusian People and the National Assembly on 24 April 2018, President Aliaksander Lukashenka fiercely rejected the notion that a referendum to amend the country’s 1994 Constitution was imminent. Belarus’ long-time ruler accused the foreign-funded press of peddling constitutional amendments. Opposition politicians calling for a referendum just wanted to provoke a fight and eventually a Ukrainian Maidan. Acting “against the People” by holding a referendum “tomorrow” could lead to the worst-case scenario, “just like in Armenia”, Lukashenka argued. The day before, on 23 April, the Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan had resigned in the wake of street protests later called the Velvet Revolution[i].

Lukashenka’s lengthy digression into the intricacies of constitutional politics in the course of his Presidential Address is remarkable. Insofar as it had been precisely Lukashenka – and not the opposition which has been forced into a permanent state of “ghettoization”[ii]– who has been talking about the need to amend the current constitution – or even pass a new one – for the past four years. What does explain Lukashenka’s flirtation with potential constitutional amendments which peaked in the first months of 2018 until mid-April, on the one hand, and the almost complete turnaround on 24 April, on the other?

After all, his current presidential powers are virtually unconstrained, and the term limit was abolished after the 2004 referendum on the constitutional amendments, which turned him in a de facto president for life. Moreover, aged 63, Lukashenka is still relatively young compared to other post-Soviet leaders for life: Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev, for example (just as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov when he died in 2016) aged 78, is 15 years older than the Belarusian leader. In other words, even if we accept that authoritarian leaders outside of monarchies with hereditary succession rules, or without a hegemonic party such as Mexico’s PRI or China’s communist party with institutionalized rules for rotation, need to take care of succession for the sake of their own safety, there is no obvious reason why the succession issue was that urgent as to justify the frequency of references with regard to the Constitution.

Therefore, one might assume that the Belarusian Constitution does have a particular function even though it does not limit executive power and has been violated on numerous occasions. It can be argued that just as in comparable authoritarian regimes,[iii] the Belarusian Constitution has information-related properties which contain a political vision, which defines the nature of the political community, and therefore shapes the identity of the community’s members by signaling and disciplining allies and opponents of the autocrat.[iv] Judging by the discourse on the Constitution in the past four years, there are several tenets at the core of this political vision: the supremacy of the presidency in all spheres touched upon in the Constitution; state sovereignty with regard to the outside world including neutrality in foreign policy, while maintaining constitutional order and stability in domestic politics; Belarus as a social state which guarantees social rights in a paternalistic way, but places the needs of the state and political community over those of the individual; and sovereignty of the people who need to be consulted (at least formally) by referenda if any substantial change was to be probed. However, given the external pressure of a volatile and fast-paced geopolitical environment, and the stalling, or even the end, of the Belarusian model of economic growth[v], Lukashenka and other state actors have recognized that adapting to ever-changing circumstances was necessary.

Calling for a change without changing anything

In the course of the past years, Lukashenka has built up public expectations that sooner or later, constitutional amendments were inevitable. On the 20thanniversary of the Constitution on 15 March 2014, for instance, Lukashenka declared that Belarus had fully “established itself as a sovereign state” by “realizing the aspirations of the Belarusian people of becoming the rightful masters of their home country”. At the same time, “sooner or later, a new constitution needs to be adopted,” – he argued insinuating that the current Constitution is a document of Belarus’ “transitional period”. During his speech addressed to the members of Parliament on 7 October 2016, the head of state went even a step further by calling for the formation of a “group of wise men and lawyers to analyze the Basic Law”. Although in 2017 and early 2018, Lukashenka frequently mentioned how rapidly the world was changing and that the time asked for adaptations[vi] and “something new,” he never really expanded on whenand what kindof changes were expedient.

Moreover, contradictions between the Constitution as theguarantor, core, and foundation of Belarusian statehood, on the one hand, and ever more frequent calls of the regime for amendments to this very pillar became increasingly evident. Discursively, Lukashenka attempted to dissolve this apparent contradiction by distinguishing between the “Constitution” and the “Basic Law” in reference to one and the same legal document. While the Constitution was this very pillar of stability and sovereignty, rhetorically, the Basic Law was not much different from ordinary laws: “We need to understand that law-making is an ongoing lively process. Like all laws and other regulations, it [the Basic Law] is a living organism which is bound to evolve and not to fall behind the pulsating life out there in the world”, he remarked during his annual meeting with the Constitutional Court’s judges on 15 March 2018.

How pliable the official rhetoric was became most obvious in statements of Lukashenka’s mouthpiece Lidziia Iarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission. In January, she conceded that the Constitution needed to be “modernized”, but this kind of “cosmetics” or “renovation” could only be tackled once the basic question of the overall “construction” was decided upon, of course, by the President. But on 28 April 2018, just after Lukashenka had excluded that amendments were to be launched any time soon, Iarmoshyna admitted that the Constitution contained “a lot of obsolete norms” but that stability was much more important than modernizing these norms as they do not harm and obstruct the Belarusian society.

Also, no working parliamentary group or even a constitutional commission was set up to debate constitutional amendments or reforms in a systematic manner. Lukashenka did mention constitutional issues when addressing the Parliament, the Constitutional Court or the Central Election Commission, but separately. Naturally, this line of action retained the President’s full organizational and informational control over the process by preventing potential collective action or coordination among other state bodies with regard to discussing changes. The Constitution, therefore, served as an ideal issue to debate and signal a desire for evolution while any attempt of revolutionary change could be dismissed and blamed on oppositional and hostile foreign actors.

Cementing the supremacy of the presidency?

After the constitutional overhaul in 1996 and the abolishment of term limits in 2004, presidential power has been de jureand de factounconstrained. The position of the President above all other state organs is bolstered by a “theory of legal laws”[vii] propagated within the presidential administration and accepted in the judicial community. Laws were constitutional if they follow both the will of President Lukashenka and “the People”. They were considered unconstitutional and subsequently ignored by scholars if they did not.

When swearing in Viktar Rabtsaŭ as new constitutional court judge on 2 February 2017, Lukashenko addressed a critique frequently put forward by Belarusian NGOs and international actors that Belarus needed a human rights ombudsperson. In his view, such a position would be entirely redundant, since the President should be the “main inspector” of compliance with human rights principles in the country. Following this logic, the Constitutional Court was ascribed a supportive, but not constraining or limiting function of the presidency.

The law-making process is controlled by the Presidential Administration, and virtually all bills are initiated by the executive. Presidential decrees (dekrety, as opposed to the more mundane ukazy) are frequently used as policy initiatives and policy programs. Among others, this practice has been criticized by the OHCHR Special rapporteur on human rights in the latest report: “The legal framework continues to be amended and governed by presidential decrees, which overrule constitutional law”. Two recent examplesare the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment.

First, in an effort to foster the Eurasian integration, Lukashenka used his presidential mandate to introduce the judicial reform of 2013-2014 (Decree No. 6 accompanied by ordinances [ukazy] No.529 and 530) via presidential decrees bypassing the legislature and public debates. The presidential decree No. 6 dated 29 November 2013 made explicit reference to Article 101 of the Constitution. Article 101 stipulates that the President can issue temporal decrees, which have legislative validity, but they require approval of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic. Such temporal presidential decrees should not include changes, additions and interpretations of the Constitution and changes and additions of the legislative program. However, Article 97 clearly assigns the constitutional right to propose legislative bills amending the judicial system, judicial procedures and the status of judges to the House of Representatives.

The judicial reform resulted in the incorporation of the Supreme Economic Court into the Supreme Court despite the fact that the autonomy of the Supreme Economic Court is granted by Article 34 of the Constitution, and references to the Supreme Economic Court still remain in the Constitution.[viii] In the review of the judicial reform, the Constitutional Court confirmed the validity of these acts referring to Article 109, Paragraph (3): “The judicial system in the Republic of Belarus shall be determined by the law.” Thus, the interpretation of the law and legislative acts was de facto expanded to temporary presidential decrees. The Constitutional Court has also recognized that the judicial reform would require constitutional amendments. Thus, it appears that it was this somewhat hurried judicial reform that has opened up the Belarusian leadership to the debate on the Constitution back in 2013-2014.

The second example was the Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social parasitism” from 2 April 2015 which introduced a tax for citizens who did not contribute to funding state expenditure, or did so less than 183 days per year. Therefore, the decree was targeted at unemployed and those employed in the informal economy to prop up state revenue. The reasoning to legitimize the decree was the notion of Belarus as a social state, i.e. contributing financially to social services was portrayed as obligatory. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee argued that the decree violated at least five articles of the Belarusian Constitution, most importantly Article 41, Paragraph (4) (de factointroducing forced or obligatory labor), but also articles 32, 56, and 101.

On the grounds that Decree No 3 violated Article 41 as well as the ILO Convention No. 29 “Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor, 1930” and 105 “Abolition of Forced Labor”, the oppositional Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Assembly) filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court in July 2015. The Court, however, rejected to review the complaint on the merits as citizens and legal entities are formally not entitled to file a complaint. In the wake of street protests inMinsk and some regions in February and March 2017, the Constitutional Court did react to electronic citizen complaints. While the Court refused to start a constitutional review based on the complaints, it cited legislation and previous decisions of the Court and, therefore, indirectly confirmed the legality of the decree. It made reference to Article 56 of the Constitution and equaled state taxes, duties and other payments to an “unconditional demand by the state” that citizens must comply with following their duty to “contribute to funding public expenditure”. Hanna Kanapatskaia, one of the two independent MPs elected into the House of Representatives in 2016, tried to petition her chamber to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court, but her request got stuck for three months and was formally declined by the House in July 2017.

Decree No 3, therefore, once more highlighted the enormous powers of the presidency to make inroads into key tenets of the Constitution – in this case the notion of the social state. As the state bodies entitled to file complaints with the Constitutional Court are loyal to the president, citizens and other legal entities such as parties are de facto barred from checking the presidency, leaving the street as the only option to vent anger. Lukashenka did not repeal the decree, but complaints and protests did have some results. Among the 470,000 citizens obliged to pay the tax by mid-February 2017, only slightly more than 10% had complied. In March, Lukashenka decided to suspend and reconsider some terms of the decree until 2018. An amended Decree No. 1 was passed on 25 January 2018 which will come into force on 1 January 2019, which, however, also contradicts international and domestic norms on forced and compulsory labor according to an assessment of the Belarusian Congress of Independent Unions.

Overall, there is no reason to doubt that decrees will remain one of the most powerful tools for policy-making by the president. But the apparent lack of feedback mechanisms with the broader population can make its use a costly and, at times, even risky business.

Debating foreign models of constitutional amendments

There is evidence that Lukashenka and his entourage are actively monitoring constitutional amendments in the post-Soviet space aimed at bolstering the regimes of the incumbents, in particular Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. This might indirectly implicate that there are clandestine considerations about how to gradually adapt the current institutional setting and therefore to preempt a potential succession crisis.

In July 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev announced constitutional amendments that were later approved by the Constitutional Court and put to a national referendum on 29 September 2016. The amendments prolonged the presidential term from 5 to 7 years, introduced the post of First Vice President and Vice President, and strengthened the presidential mandate with the right to dissolve the Parliament. Azerbaijan’s model of constitutional changes included even less than a three-month turnaround of amending the Constitution (from announcing the proposal to organizing a national referendum), a package of constitutional amendments presented to the public that removed a number of obstacles with just one plebiscite and a maximized national campaign, opening additional polling stations in Azerbaijani embassies, to legitimize the referendum results.

About the same time, after the Belarusian parliamentary elections in September 2016, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a pro-government party, and its leader Haidukevich proposed changing the terms of office for members of Parliament from 4 to 5 years and extending the presidential tenure from 5 to 7 years by means of a nation-wide referendum which would coincide with local elections in early 2018. Although this initiative evaporated rather quickly, at the time analysts believed that the LDP’s proposal of a referendum had official backing. The prolongation of presidential term limits was discussed with regard to the 2020 electoral cycle when both parliamentary and presidential elections will coincide. Combining a referendum on the extension of presidential term limits with local elections in 2018 could have postponed the next presidential elections until 2025. Another option still in the cards would be an early presidential election in 2019 in combination with a referendum.

The 2017 constitutional reform in Kazakhstan caught Lukashenka’s particular interest. During an official meeting with Nazarbaev in March 2017, just a week after the constitutional amendments were signed into law, Lukashenka commented: “Very often, I observe, analyze and try to learn from the experience and activities (especially during last months) of your government, and above all the President. […] I think that you are making important steps for Kazakhstan to sustain stability and independence of your country. You are trying to reinforce your reforms, especially those with regard to the government and constitutional amendments, with concrete economic steps. This is a great example for others.”

Contrary to previous constitutional amendments aimed at expanding presidential powers, the 2017 reform redistributed 34 presidential powers between different branches of government, strengthening the role of the Parliament and enhancing the separations of powers principle. Moreover, procedurally the process was much more open and at least formally consultative than the Azerbaijani maneuver. Draft constitutional amendments in Kazakhstan were originally formulated by a special working group, comprised of the members of the government, Parliament, Supreme Court, Constitutional Court, academia and civil society, and were discussed publically prior to the approval of the final draft law by a joint session of Parliament. From the Belarusian perspective, this might indeed look like a viable “operation successor” as part of a Kazakhstani “sustainable system,” where Nazarbaev could at one point take over another position – e.g. as a chairman of the National Security Council – whilst a designated successor would secure his safety until the final power transition.

Lukashenka, himself has alluded on multiple occasions that presidential powers should be distributed among other state organs, most importantly the government to strengthen the “power vertical” for the days “when Lukashenka will be no more”. But this power redistribution, he emphasized, is not going to happen anytime soon.

Lastly, with Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in April 2018, the dangers of tinkering with the country’s institutional design clearly outweighed the perceived advantages. Given that Lukashenka had done away with the presidential term limit long ago, the “Armenian model” of switching from semi-presidentialism to parliamentarism with the President indirectly elected by the Parliament was the least relevant in any case. Besides the more obvious lesson that an allegedly popular president can be toppled by street protests rather quickly and unexpectedly when constitutional amendments are perceived as overt manipulations and feedback mechanisms, such as media and polls, are flawed, the Armenian case might have contributed to shelving once again reforms of the electoral code and the party system.

After all, it was the Armenian ruling Republican Party that had nominated Serzh Sargsyan and later lost power to a coalition of parliamentary factions around the new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. From the perspective of Lukashenka, transforming the pro-regime platform Belaia Rus’ into a proper party of power now accompanied by a change of the electoral system from majoritarian first-past-the pole single member districts to a proportional system with party lists carries more disadvantages than simply maintaining the status quo. The Central Election Commission’s Iarmoshyna has made it clear on numerous occasions that amendments to the election law to a proportional or a mixed system would also require constitutional amendments such as the removal of citizens’ right to recall elected deputies (Article 72). Finally, Lukashenka remarked that firmly grounding the notion of the multi-party system in the Constitution would precede any steps of turning Belaia Rus’ into a party. A proper party system, however, would result in “endless debates”, and it was far from clear whether Belarus was ready for this sort of “fist fight”.

Conclusions

Over the last years, the Belarusian President, Aliaksander Lukashenka, has been building up public expectations that amending the Constitution was inevitable.

The reality is different. Despite numerous statements, the Constitution has remained unscathed since 2004. The discussed two examples of the 2013-2014 judicial reform and the infamous 2015 Decree No 3 establishing a new tax on unemployment are just the tip of the iceberg of the law-making done by presidential decrees. However, they showed that touching the Constitution is unnecessary as presidential power can be expandedby laws or decrees. Nevertheless, as the cases of Kazakhstan and Armenia revealed, dealing with the succession issue would involve a decrease and redistributionof presidential powers to other state organs, mainly to the legislature and the government. In the presidential discourse, however, the Constitution is firmly associated with stability, state sovereignty, security, and an evolutionary path of state-building. Opposition groups who have been campaigning for a constitutional referendum such as Gavary Praūdu (Tell the Truth) can thus easily be denigrated as subversive and anti-Belarusian.

In the absence of independent public opinion surveys, there is a vacuum of reliable comparative data that measures regime support. This is not only problematic for researchers working on Belarus[ix], it seems that the regime also struggles to measure people’s attitudes and support for the government and its policies. Given recent events in Armenia of yet another “color revolution” in the post-Soviet space, freezing the status quo and postponing the successor issue by talking about constitutional changes while changing nothing so far has proved to be a successful recipe, at least from the perspective of the Belarusian ruler.

Notes

[i]In December 2015, constitutional changes were designed to transfer significant powers from the Armenian president to the Prime Minister. The presidential term limit prevented Sargsyan from getting elected as President for the third time. By getting appointed by the ruling Republican Party as Prime Minister on 11 April Sargsyan hoped to remain in power, but in vain.

[ii]Bedford, S., & Vinatier, L. (2018). Resisting the Irresistible:‘Failed Opposition’ in Azerbaijan and Belarus Revisited. Government and Opposition, online first: https://doi.org/10.1017/gov.2017.33.

[iii]Ginsburg, T., & Simpser, A. (Eds.). (2013). Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. Cambridge University Press.

[iv]Ungated version: Burkhardt, F. (2016). Belarus. In Constitutional Politics in Central and Eastern Europe(pp. 463-493). Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

[v]Dabrowski, M. (2016). Belarus at a Crossroads(No. 2016/02). Bruegel Policy Contribution.

[vi]Frear, M. (2019). Belarus under Lukashenka. Adaptive Authoritarianism. Routledge.

[vii]Partlett, W. (2012). The Dangers of Popular Constitution-Making. Brooklyn Journal for

International Law 38(1), p. 228.

[viii]Kazakevich, A. (2008). Belarus. Nations in Transit Country Reports 2018. Freedom House.

[ix]Rohava, M. (2018). Identity in an Autocratic State: Or What Belarusians Talk about When They Talk about National Identity. East European Politics and Societies 32(3), pp. 639–668.

Kazakhstan – A New Move Towards Succession?

Succession in power is the Achilles heel of non-monarchic authoritarian regimes. Since their leaders are not elected through open electoral competition, the incumbent will most probably either die in office or be removed violently. Hence, authoritarian leaders must juggle coping with potential competitors, coopting them into their power pyramid or containing them otherwise, while selecting and preparing an heir.

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has so far been extremely successful in securing his hold on power. The only remaining president in post-Soviet Eurasia who came to power during the old communist days, he is now the seventh in a global list of non-royal long-term leaders alive. Appointed by Gorbachev to the position of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic in June 1989, he has been popularly elected and re-elected since December 1991 for five times. Last time this happened, in April 2015, official sources reported that nearly 93 of every 100 voting-age citizens in the country had cast a ballot for him at the polls. However manipulated these figures may be, domestic and international observers all concur that most people indeed see no alternative to the almost 78-year-old “First President-Leader of the Nation.”

Some of the more competitive regimes in the post-Soviet region, such as Georgia (“Rose Revolution” 2003) and Ukraine (“Orange Revolution” 2004), have been hit hard by the inability of “lame duck”-presidents to pave the way for successors enjoying elite consensus and mass support. By contrast, the two most repressive regimes, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, survived the unexpected death of their former leaders in 2006 and 2016, respectively, without the breakdown, clan wars and chaos some pundits had feared. Instead, new presidents Berdymukhammedov and Mirziyoyev, formerly having only been persons of trust but not designated successors to their deceased predecessors, both managed to renegotiate the commitment of influential elite networks. During the first one or two years, they consolidated power by removing potential rivals and winning elections by the same margins as their precursors.

On the one hand, Kazakhstan is in a similar situation as were these two countries when succession was looming. Nazarbayev sits firmly in power. The political regime is centered on him. Speculation about succession has been rampant for years, but there is no obvious heir, even if rumors circulate about his daughter Dariga or his son-in-law Timur Kulibayev and others. On the other hand, there are significant differences compared to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, especially regarding the structure of the elites. Thanks to a more developed economy, in Kazakhstan there are more numerous groups of vested interests having much to win or to lose when policies or politicians change.

Nazarbayev is a master at balancing these elite networks. One of his visible reactions to their hidden competition is a policy of frequent personnel rotation. While some members of the political elite fall out of the president’s favor, most are simply appointed to other positions just to return after a couple of years being awarded for loyalty and devotion. Observers, stressing the high risk of political instability due to intra-elite quarrels, see these personnel reshufflings as a means to create the conditions for a smooth power succession within the extended Nazarbayev family.

The President himself has addressed the question on several occasions. In 2013, during an interview for a national TV channel, he declared that “one who initiates reforms always faces risks,” and “therefore (…) always thinks of what might follow later on.” He suggested creating “a sustainable system” that would not be shaken by a new leader’s arrival, citing Singapore and Malaysia as role models. In a 2016 interview, he revealed plans to retire by 2020 without handing over power to his children.

In fact, in addition to a “cadre policy” that is hard to decipher from the outside, Nazarbayev also tinkers with the institutional foundations of his regime. He seems to carry out piecemeal constitutional reforms aiming at a smooth transition of power that ensures regime continuity.

During the first two decades of post-communist Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev invested in the postponing of any succession problem to the farthest possible future. Initially, he had faced a restriction to two five-year consecutive terms in office as most of his post-Soviet fellows did. However, in 1995, he orchestrated a referendum, which substituted re-election with an ad hoc prolongation of his tenure. Gradually, Nazarbayev’s enduring overstay in power became institutionalized. In 2000, the Constitutional Court ruled that his 1999 re-election effectively started his presidency anew, since the first post-Soviet Constitution, adopted in 1993, had been replaced in 1995. Finally, a 2007 Constitutional Law exempted the First President-Leader of the Nation from any term constraints at all, paying tribute to his merit for Kazakhstani state- and nation-building. A 2011 constitutional reform added the competency to declare preterm elections to the office at will. As a result, Nazarbayev became entitled to run for the presidency as long as he wishes to, but also to retire at any convenient point in time.

Recently, signs have multiplied that the “operation successor” is about to be set in motion. First, constitutional amendments in 2017 redistributed some powers to the Majilis, the Kazakhstani parliament, and strengthened the role of political parties, at least on paper. Still, even if pitched as an important measure to further democracy, these amendments did not abolish presidential supremacy, the cornerstone of the political system. However, the reform might narrow the formal scope of action for a future office-holder of less political weight than Nazarbayev. For example, the president became obliged to interact with the parliamentary parties when the cabinet is to be formed or the assembly to be dissolved. In the same vein, the upgrading of the Majilis as well as that of political parties could be seen as an attempt to enhance the attractiveness of these arenas for elite cooptation. Possibly, it allows for some degree of interest group pluralism, thereby channeling competition over power on the eve of and during transition.

Second, in June 2017, amendments to the Law on Elections were introduced. Most notably, they demand that any would-be candidate to the presidency prove having no less than five years of work experience in public service or as an elected politician. Apparently, this rules out any regime outsiders from the competition, if there will be any at all.

The third dimension of law-making addresses Nazarbayev’s position after a possible retirement. In addition to lifelong legal immunity, the 2010 revision of the Constitutional law on the Presidency assigned the First President-Leader of the Nation the eternal right to submit “initiatives on major issues of state construction, domestic and foreign policy and national security” for mandatory review by the power branches. Also, he got entitled to personally address parliament, government and other bodies for “important issues.” Reciprocally, these bodies will be obliged to coordinate their activities “in key areas of domestic and foreign policies” with pensioner Nazarbayev.

The most recent move of “operation successor” is currently under parliamentary consideration. It consists of a draft Law on the National Security Council. Founded by presidential decree in 1991, the Council has been reformed since 2006 as many as seven times without gaining major attention or importance. However, in early 2018, Nazarbayev proposed to transform it from a presidential consultative council into a constitutional body, consisting of the President, the Prime Minister, the Chief of the Presidential Administration, the Speakers of both Chambers of the Parliament, leaders of the law enforcement system and several ministers.

Most importantly, Nazarbayev himself shall be appointed Chairman of the Council. He will be entitled to give instructions to all members of the body, including the elected president-to-come. Thus, the First President will have the “final say” on all major political issues, no matter who serves under his guidance. Consequently, Nazarbayev’s future position has already been compared with that of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei.

Obviously, the new Law is meant to be an important building block within the imagined Kazakhstani “sustainable system.” It will create an institutional tool for implementing the somewhat lofty prerogatives of the First President enshrined in the 2010 Law on the Presidency. If that plan works out, Nazarbayev could retire from his post as president in the not-so-far future, proclaim early elections, back a candidate for succession, and then groom him or her until the end of his days. With his death, Kazakhstan would return to “normal” presidentialism, since Nazarbayev’s super-presidency is a constitutional position tailored exclusively to him.

If adopted and executed, this institutional reform may perhaps secure Nazarbayev’s lifelong dominance over politics in Kazakhstan and help to introduce a successor who will learn to run the country under the First President’s supervision. However, it is questionable whether the new Council can effectively secure the survival of the regime: should a crisis emerge, Nazarbayev could be tempted to turn the Council into a kind of junta if he is still strong and popular enough by then. Even if this were not to happen, the new incumbent could face a “real” succession crisis and “clan war” the moment the First President will eventually be gone for good.

Thus, the new design of the Council would probably help to solve Nazarbayev’s individual problem, i.e., how to retire without giving up power. It might also allow gaining time to accustom the elites to a new leader. However, whether this will guarantee regime continuity depends on whether the new president can generate credibility under the restricted conditions of “supervised learning,” being simultaneously forced to remain completely loyal to Nazarbayev while striving for building a genuine power base.

Dmitriy Nurumov – Super-Presidentialism, Revised Edition: Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Amendments

This is a guest post 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[1], 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.

Notes

[1] “Elbasy” (Kazakh) means “Leader of the Nation”

Weaker Presidents, Better Semi-presidentialism?

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Sophia Moestrup and I have just published another edited volume on semi-presidentialism. This time the focus is on Semi-presidentialism in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are contributions from Alex Baturo on vertical power in the post-Soviet space, Alexander Markarov on Armenia, Jody LaPorte on Azerbaijan, Malkhaz Nakashidze on Georgia, Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka on Kazakhstan, and Matto Fumagalli on Kyrgyzstan. Sophia and I contribute two chapters. The first addresses some misconceptions about the notion of semi-presidentlaism, such as the idea that semi-presidential regimes must have quite powerful presidents but never very powerful or very weak presidents, and also that autocracies cannot be semi-presidential – they can, not least because semi-presidential regimes do not have to comprise only countries with quite powerful presidents. Our second chapter sums up the contributions to to the volume and argues that weaker presidents make for better semi-presidentialism. This is a brief summary of this second chapter.

The main attraction of institutional analysis is that it has the potential to generate better political outcomes. Given the assumption that institutions matter, we may be able to craft them so as to mitigate or even eradicate some of the negative outcomes that would otherwise be caused by the behaviour of political actors. We wish to draw one institutional policy recommendation from this book. All else equal, countries with weaker presidents are likely to experience better outcomes than countries with stronger presidents.

There is evidence from Armenia, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan that weaker presidents have been associated with better outcomes. In Kyrgyzstan the decline in the president’s constitutional powers has been dramatic. That said, the shift to a weak president is relatively new, dating back to 2010. Kyrgyzstan also has a history of democratic reversals. So, we should avoid any definitive judgement at this early stage. More than that, the shift occurred in the context of the collapse of the previous regime and the desire on the part of the constitution builders to trammel the power of the presidency, which was seen as one of the main obstacles to democratic consolidation under the previous regime. This suggests that any positive effects of the weak presidency may be endogenous to the choice of the new institutional framework. All the same, we note that the early period of the new constitutional framework has been marked by less presidential posturing, less executive/legislative conflict, and, for now at least, less democratic backsliding. These are positive signs.

In Armenia, the decline in presidential power has been less dramatic. The president’s constitutional powers were never as great as the other countries in the region. Moreover, even after the passage of the 2005 reforms, the president still enjoyed some not inconsiderable constitutional powers. What is more, as in Kyrgyzstan, the context in which the president’s powers were reduced in 2005 means that we have to take account of the problem of endogenous institutional choice. Further still, Armenia remains a hybrid democratic regime in which there is plenty of political competition, but where democratic procedures have been manipulated to the advantage of incumbent power holders, although perhaps less so in the most recent elections than previously. In this context, we have to be careful about any lessons that we might we wish to draw from the Armenian case. Even so, we might benefit from thinking counterfactually. What would be the situation if there were now a super-president in Armenia? Would the situation be worse? We cannot know. Yet, we do know that in practice there was a form of super-presidentialism after the passage of the 1995 constitution. We can also confidently claim that this period marked the low point of democratic performance in Armenia to date. Armenia has not experienced a weak presidency, but it has experienced very strong presidents. It is not unreasonable to conclude by comparing the experience of the 1995-2005 super-presidency and the post-2005 period that the latter was less problematic.

By far the strongest evidence, though, comes from Georgia. Here, there were two periods when the problem of endogenous institutional choice was at least partly offset because of a dramatic change in the political context. In the first period there was a very strong president. In the second period, there was a very weak president. In this latter case, it is tempting to think in terms of quasi-experimental conditions. In the same historical, cultural, economic, and social context, there was an institutional treatment, namely the move to a weak presidency. The result has been much better political performance. The period of cohabitation under the previous president-parliamentary form of semi-presidentialism was marked by intense president/prime ministerial conflict as well as conflict between the president and the government and legislature generally. By contrast, the recent period under the weak presidency and a premier-presidential form of government has, to date, been characterized by much calmer relations. Indeed, this latter period is doubly interesting because the president distanced himself from his former political allies immediately after his election. The resulting situation should not be classed as a period of cohabitation, but it is certainly not a period where the president’s loyalty to the ruling party has quashed, perhaps artificially, any political competition within the executive branch. While there have been major disagreements between the president and the government, they have not become regime threatening. Indeed, arguably, post-2013 president/government relations in Georgia resemble those in countries like the Czech Republic or Slovakia where weak but directly elected presidents act as a counterweight to the government, but where there are no serious attempts to assume real presidential power.

If we are right to conclude that weaker presidents are better presidents, then we also wish to assert that the party system is an important intervening variable, as indicated above. It is perhaps no coincidence that in Georgia there has been a solid parliamentary majority since 2013. In other words, the president has not had the opportunity to try to offset his weak constitutional powers by building an alternative and potentially destabilizing pro-presidential coalition within the legislature. We might add that there has also been a relatively stable legislative majority in Kyrgyzstan since the 2010 reforms. Again, the president has not had the incentive to craft a majority that is personally loyal to him and that often requires the distribution of state resources in a geographically skewed and perhaps even corrupt way. In Armenia, by contrast, presidents have not always enjoyed a parliamentary majority and have been forced to forge coalitions in the legislature. This perhaps helps to account for the continued presence of a patronage president in a way that harms the rational functioning of the regime and democratic performance. Indeed, the recent constitutional reform that will introduce a parliamentary system after the next electoral contests might confirm this suspicion. The introduction of a parliamentary system and a weak president should be a positive development on the basis of our logic, but it may merely be a way of maintaining patronage politics in the context of an uninstitutionalized party system.

So, we acknowledge that many economic, social, and political factors affect political performance. We also believe that the party system is a particularly important variable for determining the practice of presidential politics. Even so, we claim that political performance is likely to be better when presidents have fewer powers. This suggests that constitution makers should consider the benefits of reforms that reduce the power of their presidency. We are aware that our conclusion assumes that institutions matter and, therefore, is susceptible to the problem of endogenous institutional choice, but we would like to address the endogeneity problem by arguing that even endogenously chosen weak presidents are better than endogenously chosen strong presidents. In other words, we believe that there are benefits to be gained from the endogenous selection of weak presidents. We should endeavour to create the conditions for decision makers to calculate that their system would benefit from a weak presidency. Fundamentally, if we are right that weak presidents bring benefits, we are unconcerned whether this outcome comes about endogenously or exogenously. That said, even if institutions are chosen endogenously, political actors still have to interpret the institutions with which they are faced. At some point, the economic, social, or political context is likely to change. At that point, if not before, institutions may have at least a partly exogenous impact. In those circumstances, it is better to have a weak presidency in place than a strong one. In other words, we would encourage upstream efforts to create the conditions for a constitutionally weak president. We believe that there are benefits to be gained from a system in which actors are willing to work without the presence of a super-president and that these benefits are likely to be both endogenous to institutional choice and at some point exogenous too.

We wish to make one final point. We promote the idea of a weak presidency, but we also wish to promote a weak presidency in the context of a wider constitutional and political system in which there is a genuine separation of powers and checks and balances. For example, we are not convinced that there are benefits to be gained from replacing a system in which there is a super-president and a weak prime minister by one where there is a weak president and a super-prime minister. This merely shifts the problem. It does not replace it. And it may characterise what is about to happen in Armenia. Let us express this point differently. We are not opposed to weak but directly elected presidents. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, semi-presidential constitutions are consistent with both very strong and very weak presidents. We prefer the latter. Let us make the same point in another way. We do not believe that parliamentarism with a weak but indirectly elected president is necessarily a guarantee of better political performance if there are no checks on the prime minister in the parliamentary system.

To sum up, we are happy to recommend a directly elected president as long as the president’s powers are weak and are exercised in the context of a system in which power is not concentrated in any political actor.

Kazakhstan – March 2015 early parliamentary elections: unexpected predictability

This is a guest post by Dmitry Nurumov and Vasil Vashchanka

The 20 March 2015 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan did not surprise seasoned observers. Yet again, elections attested to the President’s Nazarbayev’s firm grip on the political life of the country and the absence of real political opposition. Like many previous parliamentary elections, these were also called early after the parliament’s unanimous vote to dissolve itself. The decision to hold elections followed a recent pattern when (early) presidential elections precede (early) parliamentary elections. This cycle serves to ensure the President’s full control of the political process. The “unexpected predictability” allows taking by surprise any potential opposition and the voters, leaving little time to contemplate these decisions or organize and run an effective campaign.

Six of the seven political parties registered in Kazakhstan contested 98 seats in the lower chamber of parliament, elected from party lists. The opposition Azat party, which remains formally registered, decided not to participate in these elections. Following the announcement by Azat leader, Bulat Abilov, his withdrawal from politics in 2013, the party has not been visible. The remaining nine seats in the lower chamber of parliament are elected by the unelected Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, whose members are nominated by President Nazarbayev.

The six parties, as in the previous elections, displayed choreographed labels ranging from the communists to social democrats, aimed to demonstrate diversity and dynamism of the political life in Kazakhstan.  But this show yet again exposed the well-honed and practiced art of controlled political environment, where only players loyal to President Nazarbayev are admitted on the political stage. Kazakhstan’s political parties largely exist on paper and command little support among the population, with the exception of the ruling Nur Otan party. Nur Otan is led by the President and is inseparable from his vertical power structure. Its dominance reinforces the message that stability of the country is dependable on the incumbent’s continuing rule. President Nazarbayev did not miss opportunities to publically endorse Nur Otan and call for voters’ support.

Muted criticism of the ruling party came only from the Nationwide Social-Democratic Party (NSDP), which positioned itself as “opposition” and was for several years in merger talks with the Azat party. Thus, the number of registered election contestants did little to inject pluralism in the election campaign.  International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) and Council of Europe found that “the parties’ campaign platforms and rhetoric were complementary to and aligned with the president’s long-term strategies and refrained from proposing political alternatives”.

Shortly before elections, on 22 February, a well-known journalist and influential media personality, chair of the Union of Journalists, Seitkazy Mataev was arrested and criminal proceedings were launched against him on charges related to his business. The case stunned many in Kazakhstan, as Seitkazy Mataev was not known as a prominent opponent of the regime.  At the same time, the criminal case against a well-known figure sent shock waves among the ranks of public activists. Earlier, several criminal cases against political bloggers were opened in the second half of 2015. These moves sent a clear message that any political activism diverging from the official position will not be tolerated.

However, even if dissenting voices were allowed to contest elections, getting their message to the voters would be difficult. Years of suppression left Kazakhstan’s media landscape devoid of critical views to the president’s policies. Major media outlets are either in loyal hands or exercise self-censorship to avoid the fate of their critical predecessors that were forced to change ownership or close down. In the words of international observers, “the lack of independent sources and a restrictive legislative framework […] have profoundly challenged freedom of expression.” Compliant media paved the way for smooth and unchallenged campaigning by Nur Otan and its satellite parties.

With all conditions in place for a safe electoral victory of the ruling party, it might seem that there would be no special need to resort to mischief at the ballot box. But in the stage-managed process nothing is left to chance and election machinery is programmed to deliver the expected result. The core of election administration is formed from reliable ruling party supporters and public sector employees who have much to lose from an insufficiently convincing victory of Nur Otan. It is hardly surprising then, that international observers found that voting proceeded “with significant violations in the process”, while counting and tabulation of votes were marred by serious irregularities and “an honest count […] was not safeguarded”.

Official results announced by the Central Election Commission on 22 March gave Nur Otan 82.20% of votes, resulting in 84 seats; while the Communist People’s Party and Democratic Party “Ak Zhol” received 7.14% and 7.18% respectively, giving them 7 seats each. Other parties reportedly failed to cross the high 7% threshold.  These results were not very different from the previous elections in 2012, when Nur Otan received 83 seats, Ak Zhol 8 seats and the Communist People’s Party 7 seats. The nearly identical results in 2012 and 2015 show that holding early elections became a part of “political ritual” that successfully secures reproduction of the ruling elite and serves to demonstrate President  Nazarbayev’s uncontested and unyielding dominance on the political landscape of Kazakhstan.    

Some commentators linked the timing of these elections with the deteriorating economic situation, which may worsen later this year and negatively affect electoral moods. This may be true insofar as orchestrating a smooth electoral process goes. Given the parliament’s largely decorative functions, it is hard to see how it could seriously contribute to solving the country’s economic woes.

After casting his vote, President Nazarbayev hinted at possible changes in the distribution of power between the president, the parliament and the government. Such changes, if and when they are introduced, are likely to offer little more than “recalibrating” the existing system that leaves the 75-year-old President Nazarbayev with all leverages to remain in control and have the necessary time and flexibility to decide on his succession.

In this context, the trajectory of President’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, is  important to follow. After 2012, Dariga Nazarbayeva became an MP and led the work of the Committee on social and cultural development. In April 2014, she was unanimously voted Deputy Chair of the lower chamber of parliament and leader of Nur Otan faction in the parliament. In September 2015, she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan. She was on the list of Nur Otan for these elections and some expected her to become speaker of the lower chamber. However, she remained in her post in the government. Dariga Nazarbayeva is seen as a likely, but not the only prospective successor to her father. A pliant parliament would play an important role in a succession plan that would approve her as Prime Minister or support her as a presidential candidate. No risks are therefore taken with parliamentary elections, which serve to remind the President’s circle that their political survival is in the President’s hands and depends on their continuing loyalty. In other words, these elections were held within the existing model of “superpresidential republic” and they were not intended to send signals of democratic transition.

Dmitry Nurumov served as Legal Adviser and then as Senior Adviser to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (OSCE/HCNM) from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked at the ODIHR Rule of Law Unit as OSCE/ODIHR Rule of Law Coordinator in Central Asia. Before joining the OSCE/ODIHR he was a Legal Expert for the OSCE Centre in Almaty from 2001 to 2003. In the past, he also worked for a number of other international organisations. He holds a PhD degree in International Public Law from Moscow State Institute (University) of International Relations (MGIMO).

Vasil Vashchanka (LL.M.) was a Rule of Law Officer (2002-2009) and Deputy Chief of the Rule of Law Unit (2010-2012) at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Poland) before joining the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Sweden) as a Programme Officer (2012-2014). Currently, he consults international organizations on rule of law and democracy-related issues.

Rico Isaacs – Twilight of the Patriarch: Charismatic Presidentialism and Charismatic Routinisation in Kazakhstan

This is a guest post by Rico Isaacs, Senior Lecturer in International Studies at Oxford Brookes University

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Nursultan Nazarbayev’s enduring presidency in Kazakhstan (25 years and counting) has been defined by what Max Weber would have understood as charismatic authority.[i] The presidency is dominated by his personal authority and the belief in the unique qualities and special attributes of Nazarbayev himself rather than the specific office of president. There is also a religiosity to charismatic presidentialism as the president is often depicted as being the ‘chosen one’. While power in Kazakhstan is conditioned by some elements of legal-rational authority (e.g. elections, separation of powers) and traditional authority (e.g. patronage, clientelist networks), presidentialism remains very much defined by charisma.

Given the centrality of Nazarbayev to the political system in Kazakhstan what are the prospects for a stable transition to a post-charismatic order? While there are a number of mechanisms available to Nazarbayev to transition to a non-charismatic political order, these potential pathways feature considerable risks and problems, especially elite instability and the further personalisation of power. This post, based on a larger article published in the journal Studies in Transition States and Societies, conceptually locates the politics of succession in Kazakhstan within the notion of charismatic routinisation and considers the challenges and pitfalls of charismatic presidential succession in the Kazakh case.

Any student of Max Weber would know that personalised charismatic leadership is ephemeral and lasts only as long as the charismatic leader. The process of transitioning from charismatic authority to one legitimated by legal-rational rules or traditional conventions is conceptually known as ‘charismatic routinisation’.[ii] ‘Designation’ and ‘charisma in office’ are two forms of ‘charismatic routinisation; which could play out in the case of Kazakhstan. Below I will deal with each of these potential processes in turn.

‘Designation’ is when a presidential successor is designated the role of leader, either by the charismatic leader, if still alive, or by administrative staff or elite followers if the leader is dead. In Kazakhstan any ‘designation’ of a successor requires their position as leader to be legitimised through an election. Yet this legal-rational component of the process can lead to a dilemma for charismatic followers as it endows the successor with a legitimacy separate from that given to the leader by the elite who put the successor in power. This additional legitimacy enables the successor the opportunity to reconstitute a form of charismatic presidentialism, as we have seen in the case of Turkmenistan (see below).

‘Designation’ is frequently seen as the most likely scenario for succession in Kazakhstan and many commentators suggest there will be a ‘hand-picked successor’ model to replace Nazarbayev.[iii] Occasions in the former USSR where a successor was designated in advance of the leader dying or stepping down has led to regime instability such as in Georgia, Ukraine and to an extent Kyrgyzstan. With power seen to be drifting away from the leader, elites become disgruntled and uncertain of the extent to which their interests will be met under the new leader. Dissatisfied elites can then draw on popular discontent with the existing leader to mobilise against the regime and take power.[iv]

Despite the persistent speculation over the last decade that Nazarbayev has been planning to hand power over to a designated successor, he has failed to do so. Instead he has concentrated power further into his personality which perhaps suggests concern regarding the consequences for political instability of a ‘chosen successor’ model, as the experience of other former Soviet states has demonstrated. The fact Nazarbayev has not provided, at least publicly, any indication for a preferred successor or a model or mechanism for a transfer of power, has led political analysts to consider the potential scenarios for a post-Nazarbayev order.

The first scenario depicts a model where the vacuum created by Nazarbayev’s exit (either through death, incapacity or voluntary exit without a clear plan of succession) creates a collapse of the system where the elites (or charismatic followers) under Nazarbayev fight amongst themselves, leading to conflict and potential civil war.[v]

The second scenario suggests elite groups under Nazarbayev will coalesce and attempt to rule collectively with a designated successor chosen as the figurehead of some kind of oligarchic power structure. However, the danger of such a ‘puppet’ is demonstrated in the case of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhamedov was chosen as successor by powerful Turkmen elites in the aftermath of Saparmurat Niyazov’s death in 2006. Berdymukhamedov ‘designation’ was confirmed by a national election in March 2007. The election, however, endowed Berdymukhamedov with a legitimacy separate from those key elites who placed him in power. After the election those elites were ousted and Berdymukhamedov quickly reconstituted a form of charismatic presidentialism not unlike his predecessor. Naturally, we should not read too much into a comparison between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Elite groups in Kazakhstan have far greater financial and political autonomy than those in Turkmenistan, and thus stronger foundations for a personal political base, which could serve them well in holding off any attempt by a designated successor to erode their power.

In the aftermath of an election victory this year in which he collected 97.75% of the vote, Nazarbayev spoke of strengthening the powers of the parliament and the government at the expense of presidential power.[vi] Such proclamations, while being made countless times before to little effect, are an example of the second mechanism of charismatic routinisation – ‘charisma in office’. ‘Charisma in office’ can be understood as the transmission or attempted transmission of personal charismatic power into formal legal-rational political institutions. In Kazakhstan we can see this in the divesting of power to the Mazhilis (legislature) (and their constituent political parties) through constitutional reform.

As noted above, there have been previous attempts at divesting power to the government and the legislature, the 2007 constitutional reform being but one major example. The set piece of that reform was that the Prime Minister would be appointed by the president only after consultation with parliamentary factions and with the consent of a majority of deputies. The problem is that the 2007 reform process led to a concentration of, rather than a diluting of, charismatic presidentialism. While Nazarbayev gave away the power to appoint the prime minister to the leader of the largest party faction in parliament, that largest party faction was Nur Otan (Light of Fatherland), his political party, which since its inception has dominated and controlled the legislature.

‘Charisma in office’ in Kazakhstan has also been further problematised by Nazarbayev finding it difficult to lay down the reins of power. Despite attempts to arrange a succession, aware that making plans prior to dying improves the prospects of their legacy remaining intact, charismatic leaders find it difficult to pass on the mantle to a successor. Instead there is a further consolidation of their charismatic leadership. The case of Nazarbayev and Kazakhstan neatly exemplifies this key dilemma. This was perhaps most evident with the introduction of the ‘leader of the nation’ legislation in 2010, in which loyal deputies in the Mazhilis proposed legislation conferring the title ‘Elbasi’ (leader of the Kazakh nation) on Nazarbayev. The legislation ensures that should Nazarbayev transfer power to another leader, or downwards to the parliament, he will still possess personal oversight of the political system. If anything, the leader of the nation legislation only entrenched charismatic presidentialism, embodying Nazarbayev’s unique and special status in the political system.

‘Charisma in office’, therefore, remains challenging as a potential pathway for post-charismatic succession in Kazakhstan. Despite continued proclamations that the process of constitutional and political reform will lead to the divesting of charismatic presidential power to political institutions such as the parliament and political parties, this has not occurred. This is primarily because formal institutions lack autonomy and because of a further personalisation and strengthening of power in Nazarbayev.

This means that it is ‘designation’, underpinned by the legal-rational element of elections, which remains the most likely scenario for presidential succession in Kazakhstan. It is not difficult to imagine that there would be a collective effort by elites to install a figure who could maintain the economic interests of competing elite groups. As the case of Turkmenistan demonstrates, however, there is a danger that the legitimacy engendered by putting a designated candidate through an electoral process could lead to the reconstitution of charismatic presidentialism. Nonetheless, this is somewhat offset by the financial autonomy of powerful elite groups in Kazakhstan who might be better placed to ensure a successor does not emulate the charismatic nature of Nazarbayev’s presidency.

[i] This is a revised version of a larger paper, ‘Charismatic Routinization and Problems of Post-Charisma Succession in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan’ published in Vol 7 (1) of Studies of Transition States and Societies available: http://publications.tlu.ee/index.php/stss/

[ii] Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Trans. Ephraim Fischoff, et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[iii]Roberts, S. (2012). Resolving Kazakhstan’s Unlikely Succession Crisis, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo, 231 (September 2012).

[iv] Hale, H. (2005). Regime Cycles: democracy, autocracy and revolution in post-Soviet Eurasia. World Politics, 58(1) pp. 133-165.

[v] Satpayev, D. et al (2013) Sumerechnaya zona, ili lovushki perekhodnogo perioda. Almaty: Al’yans Analiticheskikh Organizatsii, Gruppa otsenki riskov.

[vi] See Radio Azattyk, Nazarbaev Vyskazalsya za ‘oslablenie’ prezidentskoi vlasti, 29 May 2015, http://rus.azattyq.org/content/news/27042815.html

Rico Isaacs is a Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests focuses on the comparative political sociology of authoritarianism, regime-building and nation-building in Central Asia.

Kazakhstan – Nazarbayev re-elected as president. What’s ahead.

Hardly surprisingly, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been re-elected as Kazakhstan’s president on Sunday April 26. According to the Central Election Commission of Kazakhstan, there had been a record turnout of 95.11% for the poll and the votes in favour of Nazarbayev have been almost 98%. His two token-opponents gathered 2.3% the vote. The president, who is 74 years old and has ruled the country since independence in 1991, is now starting a new term, his fifth, in office. The Central Asian country has a semi-presidential system, and several constitutional reforms have been passed in order to ad hoc extend presidential terms or allow Nazarbayev to run for consecutive terms. Despite not being surprising, this election features some elements of interest to the observers. Kazakhstan has indeed gone through tough times recently, with both the economic situation being worsening as an effect of the Russian economic crisis; and an unclear future plan in terms of the post-Nazarbayev succession being increasingly a concern for the national elite and foreign investors. A sign of the impact of such growing concern and uncertainty was given by the government itself in first instance, when in March it called for early presidential election. During a TV appearance, Nazarbayev explained that ‘In the interests of the people… and for the sake of the general and strict implementation of the law, I have taken a decision and signed a decree calling an early presidential election for April 26.’ A more attentive analysis reveals how the Ukrainian crisis, the falling of the oil prices internationally, the constant devaluation of the national currency and the calls for the implementation of economic reforms can better explain the rush to re-confirm Nazarbayev as the leader of the executive in the country. Nazarbayev’s re-election has the benefit of solving all issues in one time, delaying the question of succession and reassuring the international finance community that the leader is firm in power and will keep the situation, politically and financially, stable.

Strengthening the economy and reforming the political system

The economic crisis in Kazakhstan has hit badly and the future is rather unclear considering the enduring difficulties that Russia, to whom Astana is diplomatically and economically very close, is currently going through. In January, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development cut the country’s growth projection for 2015 to 1.5% from 5.1%. In the meanwhile, prices of goods are rising, producers are having hard time in competing with foreign products from Russia and China and the national central bank is rumoured to be likely to devaluate the national currency, the tenge, again. It is worth mentioning that the tenge has lost almost 20% of its value in one day last year, triggering popular protests in a country known world-wide to be protests-free. Considering this situation, the decision of calling for early election has the goal of avoiding preparing for election in 2016 in order, on the contrary, to focus on strengthening the economy and prevent the crisis to further hit the country. Nazarbayev has acknowledged this difficult situation, and declared in November 2014 that “Kazakhstan, as a part of the global economy and a country close to the epicentre of geopolitical tension, is feeling the negative effects” adding that “the next years will be a time of global tests for the world, and for us too,” concluding that “not all the states will be able to adequately go through this stage. This frontier will be crossed only by the strong, united nations and countries.” The strategic plan that will constitute the backbone of the Kazakh exist strategy from the crisis is advanced in a document titled “The Path into the Future” which was presented by Nazarbayev in November and that involves the diversification of the economy and the active development of the non-oil sector as the main goals to be attained.

Nazarbayev also intend to reform the political system by the means of pro-democracy and meritocratic reforms after the economic situation will be stabilised. He is proposing a well-known rhetorical pattern sweeping through Central Asian authoritarian systems, whereby political pro-democracy reforms are to be carried out once the economy is strong enough. For instance, Karimov in Uzbekistan has adopted a number of liberal and democratic-minded documents, which set out the need of strengthening democratic and accountable good governance, civil society and the rule of law – liberal buzzwords that usually constitute authoritarians’ international discourse. Karimov, who ironically was re-elected last month and who is as old as Nazarbayev and faces similar succession challenges, has been an inspiration to Nazarbayev who declared that “first – a strong state and economy, and then – politics”. At the right time, then, Nazarbayev intends to tighten requirements for judges and law-enforcement bodies, and secure the rule of law. Also, he plans to create a modern, professional and autonomous state apparatus, with no room for nepotism, protectionism and corruption. Along with such changes, a new system will be introduced for paying the wages of officials in line with the efficiency of their contribution to the administrative process; and talented expatriates will be called back in Kazakhstan and offered a position in civil service. In order to start implementing these reforms, Nazarbayev intends appoint a special commission. Along with such themes, Nazarbayev’s electoral campaign has been much characterised by usual refrains of national harmony, celebration of national identity and condemnation of ethnic sectarianism.

Nazarbayev’s re-election also helped to easy the concerns for another issue, namely succession. The question of “who will come next” is particularly pressing now since no clear leadership is emerging. Many candidates have passed by, such as the president’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev, but the appointment of Karim Massimov as Prime Minister in April 2014, may signal an ambition of succeeding Nazarbayev. In fact, his nomination could indicate Nazarbayev’s willingness to counterbalance the growing power of Astana mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, or an attempt to weaken Timur Kulibayev’s influence, his son-in-law, another likely candidate for succession. After all, Turkmenistan has opted for this pattern of succession, with the former president Niyazov appointing the then little known Prime Minister Berdimukhamedov as his successor. Nevertheless, the president Nazarbayev has consistently avoided indicating any preference and he is still doing so: in a recent piece in the Financial Times, he portrayed Kazakhstan as a country navigating from despotism to democracy and therefore referred to the polls as the appropriate venue to select the national leaders.

Kazakhstan – Explaining the early presidential election

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In mid-February, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan, a constitutional body chaired by the 74-year-old Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, aired the idea of an early presidential election. The election, originally scheduled for the end of 2016, will now take place on the 26th April 2015. Under constitutional law, which allows Nazarbayev to seek re-election however many times he wants, an early presidential election is set by the decision of the acting president. It needs to be held within two months of such a decision. In addition, the Constitution requires holding separate presidential and parliamentary elections, which according to the previous calendar, could have ended up scheduled at the end of 2016.

Support for the initiative has been voiced throughout the country by all institutions, with different reasons being cited. Experts widely agree on the fact that a general concern with stability is at the core of the change of date of the presidential election.

‘Snowballing’ support

The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK) was the first institutional body to call for early elections. The institution, representing more than 800 ethnic associations throughout the country, cited ‘numerous appeals of citizens,’ and the need to give the president ‘a new mandate’ to implement his economic programme. The council then called on MPs in the Majles, the lower chamber of the Parliament, to take on and support an early presidential election. Indeed, nine out of the 107 members of the Majles are elected by the APK, according to national law. The lower house of the parliament backed the proposal with 107 votes in favour, while the ruling party Nur Otan also echoed the call. In an interview with national TV Khabar on February 14th, the poet Olzhas Suleimenov declared that ‘in these difficult times, the leader bears special responsibility. It is then important to support Nursultan Nazarbayev now … Kazakhstan needs to go through several very tough years. We will preserve the country, preserve the people, and develop. .. I am confident our people will support this proposal.’

On February 25, Nazarbayev accepted the invitation and set the date for the early election. During a televised address to the nation, he announced that ‘In the interests of the people… and for the sake of the general and strict implementation of the law, I have taken a decision and signed a decree calling an early presidential elections for April 26’.

Nazarbayev said that he had received numerous messages from citizens expressing their anxiety about the country’s future in light of growing instability and escalating conflicts in the region. The incumbent president quoted a letter from Nina Misochenko, a resident of one of the country’s central provinces. She wrote to the President that she ‘prays daily for our children, for peace and concord in our country, so that no confrontation and no war will come to our home.’ The woman said she cherished the fact that the people of Kazakhstan live quiet and confident lives, dedicating themselves to hard work and raising their children in an atmosphere of peace and stability. Also, citing national security concerns in light of current geopolitical tensions, the president said he felt there is a growing demand among his compatriots for a ‘continuation of balanced domestic and foreign policies.’

Addressing the other concern of the Kazakh population and of the elite as well, Nazarbayev also mentioned the negative effect that political stability might have on the national economy. With the negative consequence that the global economic crisis and falling oil prices are having on Kazakhstan’s economy, the people of Kazakhstan, the president said, need ‘confidence in their future … maintaining jobs, stability, welfare benefits, salaries, scholarships.’

A few days later, on February 28, the country’s Foreign Ministry invited the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE to observe the early presidential election in Kazakhstan.

Explaining early election: economic and regional stability

Stability is at the core of growing political concerns in Kazakhstan. From geo-political and strategic points of view, the Ukrainian crisis has re-ignited anxiety in Central Asia, where significant Russian minorities are present and where the national populations are very diversified with the possibility of ethnic conflict; the discord between Moscow and other Central Asian capitals, among which is Astana, over the Eurasian Economic Union and sanctions against Western produces; and the recent eruption of the jihadi threat in Central Asia – an area in which, however, Astana and all of the other Central Asian capitals are heavily dependent on Moscow when it comes to anti-terrorism measures, make the general regional context far from being stable and safe.

However, it is mainly economic stability that motivates the call for an early election in Kazakhstan. On February 11, in a speech to the government, Nazabayev admitted that the republic was facing economic difficulties and that the government would need to cut spending for 2015-2017. In addition, in the recent months, the oil-exporting country has been heavily affected by falling oil prices, which have lowered from around $120 per barrel in June 2014 to $50 – $60 per barrel currently, and also from the unstable economic situation in Russia, itself hit by lower oil prices and the West’s sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. Nazarbayev said that he did not plan to devaluate the national currency again, as he did in February 2014, causing protests all over the country. However growth forecasts are not encouraging, with Kazakhstan downgraded to 1.5% growth this year, from a 5.1% forecast in September by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In such a context, the ambitious economic strategy developed by the government called ‘Nurly Zhol’ seems to set unreachable targets. Precisely because of this, ‘we fully support the initiative to hold early elections and we hope that Head of State will continue the fruitful work in the best interests of our people,” said the head of Almaty Association of Entrepreneurs Viktor Yambayev talking about the necessity of implementing the Nurly Zhol – Path to the Future new economic programme and the long-term Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy’ despite uncertainties.

Considering the relevance of economic stability, Dosym Satpayev, director of the Kazakhstan Risks Assessment Group, declared that it is likely that the decision to call for an early vote had been building for some time. After an assessment of the unpopular economic measures to be taken, it is likely that the elite and Nazarbayev himself decided to implement them after an election to counteract the likely loss of support for the government. Similarly, Yang Jin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences declared that ‘Nazarbayev wants to reduce uncertainties by winning presidency again, and to ensure the consistency of his policies’.

Whatever the reason, no one really doubts that Nazarbayev will be re-elected.

Kazakhstan – New ministers and new Prime Minister appointed

On 2 April the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Serik Akhmetov, resigned. He had managed Central Asia’s largest economy since September 2012. According to national legislation, the resignation of the Prime Minister means the resignation of the whole government. Last Friday, President Nazarbayev signed the decree nominating the ministers of the new government led by Karim Massimov, the new Prime Minister. Massimov’s candidacy was announced in a statement on the presidential website after Nazarbayev held consultations with parliamentary factions. The Parliament, where Nazarbayev’s ruling Nur Otan party controls more than 80% of the seats, voted unanimously to approve the president’s choice.

Akhmetov’s resignation was not backed by any official explanation. Akhmetov, who is 55 years old, is a devoted loyalist of Nazarbayev. He started his career at the same steel plant in Temirtau as the president and later rose through the ranks of the Soviet Communist party. However, earlier in February Nazarbayev heavily criticised the Cabinet for its inability to attract foreign investment. Despite being eventually ‘fired’, Akhmetov has however been nominated as the new Defence Minister.

The reasons behind Akhmetov’s resignation and Massimov’s nomination as new Prime Minister are however quite evident if we consider the recent economic crisis in Kazakhstan – recently, the government devalued the national currency by nearly 20% in the hope of ensuring economic growth of 6% this year – and the role that the country plans to play when it comes to the future of economic development in Central Asia. The new Prime Minister will face the challenge of preparing Kazakhstan’s integration into the Eurasian Economic Union, which will be established in Astana in May and will unite Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The union, to be formed by 2015, is widely seen as a regional counterbalance to the European Union. Massimov is considered to be the right man for this job. He has indeed already served as Prime Minister between 2007 and 2012, studied in Moscow, is considered to be an expert on China, and is believed to have high-level connections with the Kremlin. But, more importantly, president Nazarbayev trusts him.

The other question is whether Massimov’s return to a dominant position in the government hinders his ambition of succeeding Nazarbayev. Although it would be difficult for him to become president because of his Uighur ethnicity, his nomination shakes the balance of power among the many players who seek to control the issue of succession. It could indeed indicate Nazarbayev’s willingness to counterbalance the growing power of Astana mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, or an attempt to weaken Timur Kulibayev’s influence, his son-in-law, another likely candidate for succession. Nevertheless, the 73-year old president has consistently avoided indicating any preference.

Among the most relevant ministers, Nazarbayev agreed to appoint the following individuals: Bakhyt Sultanov, as Minister of Finance; Berik Imashev, as Minister of Justice; Uzakbai Karabalin as Minister of Oil and Gas; Yerlan Idrissov as Minister of Foreign Affairs; Zhanar Aitzhanova as Minister of Economic Integration; Kalmukhanbet Kassymov, as Minister of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan; and Yerbolat Dossayev as Minister of Economy and Budget Planning.

Kazakhstan – President’s order to devalue national currency causes protests

The Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev took the decision to devalue the national currency, the tenge, against the US dollar by nearly 20 percent of its original value in order to boost economic growth and exports. This move, announced on the 11th February, was aimed to prevent large-scale foreign exchange speculation after the value of the Russian ruble fell by 10 percent earlier in January. The goal is to increase the competitiveness of the Kazakh economy, the president declared, with no negative impact on ordinary citizens. However, protests against this decision have been widespread in a country which is well-known for its political stability.

Nazarbayev has been ruling Kazakhstan since its independence in December 1991 and enjoys popular support because of his track record of improving  national economic performance by attracting foreign investments, notably in the energy sector. However, according to the Prime Minister, Serik Akhmetov, and the National Bank’s Chairman, Kairat Kelimbetov, recently imports have been growing faster than exports. The country had already devalued its national currency in 2009, a move which resulted in a significant increase in the flow of capitals towards Astana and in limited inflation. To contrast possible negative effects of devaluation, Nazarbayev urged national companies in the metal and oil industry to increase salaries by 10 percent. He also ordered a 10 percent increase for the salaries of state employees in various sectors (education, health care, social protection), as well as increases to pensions and other social payments. In addition, he ordered a raid on the country’s strategic oil reserve fund to finance manufacturing and industrialization in 2014 and 2015, in an effort to prevent growth rates from slipping.

Despite these measures, protesters raced to three banks in an effort to withdraw their savings. In Almaty, protesters gathered on Sunday 16th February, staging the seventh protest since the announcement of the devaluation, in a country well-known for its lack of political mobilisation. Furthermore, last week an anonymous message circulated on WhatsApp warning that three of the country’s private banks (Kaspi Bank, Alians Bank, and Centrcredit Bank) were on the verge of bankruptcy, causing mass panic. In reaction, on Friday the president declared that the initiators of the information campaign against the banks will be punished and Kaspi Bank announced a reward of 100 million tenge for identifying them. The perpetrators have been already arrested by the General Prosecutor’s Office. In several cities, protesters have also demanded the revision of their mortgage loans, which were taken in US dollars when the tenge’s exchange rate against the dollar was much lower than today. The protesters complained that since their salaries are in tenges, their mortgage debts have increased dramatically. A National Bank spokesman told the protesters that the bank had established a commission to revise the request.