After three decades in power, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only president ever to hold office in independent Kazakhstan, is stepping down. Nazarbayev’s cession of power follows five widely criticized electoral victories. His last victory in 2015, for example, saw Nazarbayev win a somewhat suspect 98 percent of the vote. Nazarbayev has further demonstrated autocratic tendencies in suppressing political dissonance. Kazakhstan has effectively become a single party state and political opponents have ended up in exile, jailed, or killed. Despite this, Nazarbayev’s supporters have praised his ability to maintain stability, particularly in the post-Soviet political climate. Still Nazarbayev will retain the honorary title of “Elbasy” or “Leader of the Nation,” which confers both immunity from future prosecution and considerable veto powers in governmental affairs.
Nazarbayev reflected on this continuing role in public affairs. “I will stay with you, as a citizen, a man who loves our country,” he said in a public statement “I will serve you until the end of my days.” Others have offered a less romantic assessment of Nazarbayev’s actions. As Dosym Satpayez, a Kazakhstan based political analyst, reported to Al Jazeera, “A political spectacle took place – formally Nazarbayev is not president, but in reality he is at the helm.” Accordingly, most analysts do not expect a great deal of change to occur in Kazakhstan so long as Nazarabayev is still alive and wielding influence. This is particularly salient in regards to Kazakhstan’s relationship with its two most powerful allies, Russia and China, with whom the former president was able to walk the fine line of loyalty very carefully. As Satpayev said “after his death Beijing and Moscow will be very worried, very much.”
All things considered, Nazarbayev’s move seems less a cession of authority and more a means by which to re-entrench himself in personal power. Although abdicating official office, Nazarbayev has far from left the political scene. Rather, he has assumed the more ambiguous title of “Leader of the Nation.” Not only will he still wield actual governmental power with the ability to veto, but also this position may afford him the opportunity to foster a sort of personality cult in the manner of past Soviet autocrats. Nazarbayev has even designated his own successor, choosing Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to be acting president until the next vote, which Tokayev will now surely be favoured in. The current situation in Kazakhstan is reminiscent of recent Russian elections, in which Vladimir Putin has exhibited a great degree of flexibility regarding title. In 2008, for example, Putin effectively ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, assuming instead the role of prime minister. Still Putin retained all meaningful authority and no change he did not support occurred. For Kazakhstan, a nation that has experienced three decades of undemocratic rule, the creation of similar circumstances is a significant concern. Other than democratic concerns, Nazarbayev’s exit from the presidency presents a challenge to regional stability. Without his steady, though undemocratic, rule, it is possible that relations with global superpowers Russia and China may sour.
Nazarbayev made a name for himself politically with his comparatively honest assessments of the Soviet Union’s flaws. This approach helped to elevate him to office in the late 1980s, with the ascendancy of reformist minded Mikhail Gorbachev. Nazarbayev further reinforced his more moderate stance by opposing the attempted coup of Gorbachev by communist hardliners. Kazakhstan’s massive hydrocarbon reserve, coupled with its strategic location in the heart of Eurasia, has elevated the nation’s political relevancy and has further triggered competition for influence between Russia, China and Western powers.
Nazarbayev has for decades remained as one of the last elements of Soviet rule in central Asia, his tenure having begun before Mikhail Gorbachev brought about the end of the USSR. Although criticized, perhaps fairly, throughout his rule for authoritarian tendencies, Nazarbayev was successful in maintaining a degree of stability in Kazakhstan. Now, as he departs, Kazakhstan’s future has become a degree more uncertain than at any point in the previous decades. Complex alliance networks must be balanced and governance must be maintained in a nation that’s has stymied political opposition for 30 years.
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