Kazakh leader pledges reform after referendum win

NUR-SULTAN, June 6 (Reuters) - Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pledged on Monday to make good on plans to push through democratic reforms in Kazakhstan, after a clear majority of voters approved constitutional amendments he had laid out in a referendum.

The Central Election Commission said that 77.18% of Sunday's votes were in favour of the amendments, which decentralise decision-making in the oil-rich country and strip former strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev of his "national leader" status. Turnout was 68.06%.

"We have shown that we are united in building the new, just Kazakhstan," Tokayev said in an address on Monday.

"We must review the legislation which allowed a small group of people to concentrate the country's economic resources in their hands and enjoy preferential status."

Long prized for political stability by Western investors who have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into its energy and mining industries, the Russia-allied Central Asian nation experienced deadly civil unrest in January that included an attempted coup by security officials.

Analysts said the referendum was in part a response to those upheavals, which started as a protest against a fuel price increase but grew into a broad display of discontent by citizens who have been increasingly vocal in calling for change to an elitist political system.

"Tokayev understands this and that is why, to a certain degree, he tries to position himself using this referendum as a man who is trying to change something," political analyst Dosym Satpayev said before the vote.

Tokayev, who also called for higher taxes on the extractive industries and on high-income individuals, proposed the reforms after putting down the coup attempt and removing former patron Nazarbayev and his entourage from important public sector positions.

Nazarbayev ran the country for three decades before giving up the presidency in 2019 and picking Tokayev as a successor.

Securing domestic support will also help Tokayev, a 69-year-old career diplomat, navigate the Ukrainian crisis which has destabilised Kazakhstan's economy and put it in a difficult political position.

While many Kazakhs have welcomed Tokayev's emergence as leader, some have criticised his decision to ask a Russia-led security bloc for help in quelling January's unrest, putting the Kazakh leadership in Russia's debt, in the eyes of many, weeks before it invaded Ukraine.

Western sanctions against Russia have also impacted Kazakhstan. Its tenge currency plunged almost as much as the rouble did in March before recovering, and logistics have become much harder for Kazakh companies dealing with European counterparties.

Tokayev has been very circumspect in commenting on the Ukrainian crisis, although he has urged all sides to act in line with the U.N. charter.

Reporting by Tamara Vaal; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Robert Birsel and John Stonestreet

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.