Authorities in Kazakhstan have reported overwhelming public support for constitutional amendments proposed in a referendum held almost six months after President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev was forced to request military support from Russia to quell protests that turned into violent street riots.

According to preliminary data from the country’s electoral commission, around 68% of registered voters went to polling stations, easily exceeding the 50% turnout threshold for a valid referendum.

Preliminary returns suggested that over 77% of voters, or about 6.1 million people, supported a long list of amendments, with 1.5 million voters rejecting the amendments.

Core changes to constitution included a bar on the president of Kazakhstan and other top members of the executive from owing affiliation to any political party, while close relatives of the head of state will also be banned from taking posts in the government or in state-controlled companies.

Also proposed is the establishment of a new constitutional court as the highest legal authority in the country, the prohibition of the death penalty and the expansion of parliamentary powers to override a presidential veto by a two-thirds voting majority.

The proposed amendments are expected to take effect once final results of the referendum are officially published.

The referendum was called after a wave of unrest early in the year, when several hundred people were reportedly killed during widespread protests against corruption and worsening living conditions in major cities across the country.

At the height of the unrest, Tokayev asked Russia to send military units to Kazakhstan, blaming the unrest on foreign mercenaries and provocateurs.

Speaking to Kazakh news agency Tengrinews on Sunday, Tokayev recanted his former claims about the foreign cause of the protests, stating that he had received erroneous intelligence from law enforcement officers since fired from their posts.

Natalya Sadykova, an exiled opposition journalist who founded BASE, an opposition non-governmental organisation and YouTube channel, continued to criticise Tokayev this week, claiming that the referendum proposals have not been put to an open debate.

Sadykova said that the Kazakh referendum aped the procedures preceding constitutional amendments to extend presidential terms in Russia and Belarus in 2020 and 2021 respectively.

Kazakhstan will hold its next presidential elections in 2024, with Tokayev widely expected to run for a new term in the office.

Jobs threat

While Kazakhstan has not seen any major street protest since January, tensions are still running high in major oil producing regions of the country where industrial decline has pushed up rates of unemployment, according to BASE.

Some 37,000 Kazakh builders are expected to lose their jobs by the end of this year as the Tengiz oilfield expansion project in the Kazakh largest oil province of Atyrau comes to its conclusion, according to estimates by Kazakh oilfield service association KazService.

Tengizchevroil’s $45 billion Future Growth and Wellhead Pressure Management projects were reported as exceeding the 91% completion mark at the end of the last week.

The operator said that it achieved another key milestone with the launch of an Integrated Operations Control Center at the deposit, currently the largest oil producer in the country.

Tengizchevroil and two other major foreign led developments, Kashagan and Karachaganak, were expected to send their rising output through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, where their partners are shareholders.

Risks to oil exports

Other producers in Kazakhstan depend heavily on the country’s transit connection to the Russian pipeline network and two of its ports, Novorossiysk on the Black Sea and Ust-Luga on the Baltic Sea.

Kazakh oil shipments via this link are threatened by international sanctions imposed on Russia in attempt to compel Moscow to halt its invasion of Ukraine.

In a symbolic move, Kazakhstan has renamed crude oil exported from these two Russian ports so buyers and western banks can differentiate it from Rebco, the benchmark name for the Russian heavy sour blend that is shipped from Novorossiysk and Ust-Luga.

The new non-Russian benchmark names are Kebco or Kazakh export blend crude, according to Reuters.

Last week, the European Union approved an embargo on Russian oil exports and prohibited EU companies from providing cargo insurance for tankers that carry Rebco and other blends of Russian oil.