In March 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev replaced long-serving President Nursultan Nazarbayev to become independent Kazakhstan’s second head of state. Apparently recognizing the scope and scale of Kazakhstan’s corruption problem, President Tokayev made combatting corruption a central focus of his agenda from the get-go. And he has continued to emphasize that the fight against corruption is a top priority.
Although it’s not unusual for heads of state to deploy anticorruption rhetoric, often without action to back it up, there are indications that President Tokayev is serious. Over the past year and a half, the Kazakh government has implemented several concrete anticorruption measures—both large-scale and quotidian. Perhaps most prominently among the former category, in January 2020 Kazakhstan joined the Group of States against Corruption, a corruption-monitoring organization run by the Council of Europe. Additionally, a law enacted in December 2019 provides for the dismissal of public officials in managerial roles if their subordinates are convicted of corruption-related charges. Most recently, President Tokayev himself announced a new policy under which high-ranking officials and their family members will be barred from keeping bank accounts abroad. Among the more “everyday” measures, the government has created “anticorruption centers” where citizens can speak directly with employees of Kazakhstan’s anticorruption agency. And to prevent price-gouging during the COVID crisis, the government has required pharmacies to post QR codes that allow customers to easily check the legal prices of medicines.
It remains to be seen whether these measures will be effective in helping to address Kazakhstan’s corruption problem. One additional measure, however, appears unlikely to make much difference: a new system of “universal” property and income declarations that the Kazakh government is beginning to implement (see here, here, and here). Kazakhstan has required public officials to declare their assets and income since 1996, but the new initiative will extend this requirement to all citizens and foreign permanent residents of Kazakhstan in a phased rollout over the next several years. By 2025, all Kazakhstanis will be required to file, in addition to their standard income tax return, a declaration listing the value of their assets and liabilities, including real estate, cars, bank accounts, and jewelry. According to the government, this new system of universal asset declarations will help counteract the shadow economy, increase compliance with tax laws, and reduce corruption.
The new disclosure regime may well be justified as a matter of tax policy or as a measure to combat the shadow economy. However, evaluated purely as an anticorruption measure, the policy is misguided, for two main reasons: Continue reading