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Kazakh leader vows sweeping reforms, 2 months after unrest

March 16, 2022 GMT

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) — Kazakhstan’s president vowed Wednesday to implement sweeping political reforms and share more powers with a bolstered legislature, two months after his country was rocked by deadly nationwide unrest.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev told a joint session of the oil-rich former Soviet nation’s parliament that a transition away from its super-presidential system was needed to avoid deepening “stagnation.”

Protests over rising car fuel prices that broke out in the west of the vast Central Asian nation at the start of the year spread within days to dozens of cities and towns. The country had never seen rallies on that scale in its three-decade history.

The initially peaceful demonstrations eventually degenerated into violence that left at least 230 dead.

Tokayev’s proposed changes include easing rules for registering new political parties, allowing for 30% of parliamentary deputies to be elected in single-mandate districts, and scrapping the president’s ability to fire regional officials at will.

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Kazakhstan’s authoritarian leaders have made pledges to democratize before, but progress has in the end usually proven negligible. Mounting public anger at the government’s inability to close the wealth gap between the nation’s richest people –- many of whom include close relatives of Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev –- and the rest of the country have added urgency to the government’s need to be perceived as accountable.

The uncertainty of Kazakhstan’s political trajectory has been compounded in recent weeks by concerns that the widely predicted imminent economic collapse of its neighbor and chief trading partner, Russia, could cause its own economy to shrink as a result. The countries share a 4,750-mile (7,600-kilometer) border.

One dominant worry is that many in Kazakhstan, where average monthly salaries stand at around $600, could be driven into food poverty.

“Events in Ukraine led to a sharp jump in food prices,” Tokayev told lawmakers. “It is likely that they will soon break all records.”

Tokayev said that the government was adopting a package of anti-crisis measures to prevent a sharp downturn in living standards.

Immediate attention has turned to stabilizing the national currency, the tenge. On Monday, the government slapped a ban on amounts of foreign currency exceeding $10,000 in value from being taken out of the country.