The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down this week after 30 years in the country’s highest office. His resignation has drawn unprecedented international attention to Kazakhstan after newly named interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced that he would rename the capital city from Astana to Nur-Sultan to honor Nazarbayev. Public unrest has increased in the wake of this decision and has many in the international community wondering about the sociopolitical implications of authoritarian leadership in the former Soviet states.
Nazarbayev announced his resignation in an unscheduled public address on national television on Tuesday, stating, “I have taken a decision, which was not easy for me, to resign as president.” Although this decision may have been unexpected, it most likely does not indicate any policy shifts within the country any time soon. According to Al Jazeera, Tokayev announced days later that “the opinion of [Nazarbayev] will be of special, one can say priority, importance in the development and adoption of strategic decisions” in the country. In addition to this expressed support from Tokayev, Nazarbayev will also retain copious legal power as the chairman of the country’s security council, leader of the Nur Otan Party, and the “leader of the nation.”
While there will not likely be immediate changes to the political structure or policy opinions of the Kazakh government, Nazarbayev’s resignation may provide some insights into the future political developments. It seems that Nazarbayev may be adopting an exit strategy known to political theorists as the “golden parachute” strategy. Under this type of agreement, the authoritarian leader of a country decides to step down from leadership, but still desires self-preservation and notoriety. To allow for this, the government provides the leader with a specially created position for them in the new government that allows them security and some continued political power. When the leader eventually dies, the special permissions they were allotted are eliminated and the transition to a more democratic government has greatly advanced. One notable example of this strategy’s successful use was at the end of the Chilean military dictatorship lead by Augusto Pinochet from 1974 to 1990. Pinochet made a slow exit from Chile’s political spheres and allowed the country’s tradition of democratic, partisan politics reemerge. Hopefully, there will be a similar emergence of democratic institutions in Kazakhstan, which currently ranks 144th in the global Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
Kazakhstan as well as much of Central Asia is currently at a political, social, and economic crossroads. For the nearly 18 million Kazakhs, Nazarbayev’s resignation could lead to a more prosperous future with more civil rights and economic opportunities. The country will also likely benefit from China’s One Belt One Road Initiative as a result of its strategic position between Europe and east Asia.
Although Nazarbayev’s resignation by no means guarantees improvements to the governmental structure of Kazakhstan, there is potential for citizens and lower level officials to fight for more rights if they take the initiative. During this period of uncertainty, it is essential that the international community closely watch developments in Kazakhstan and the rest of central Asia to protect against the rise of new authoritarian regimes to replace the deteriorating ones. Furthermore, the international community must also contribute responsible investment that helps to lift up central Asian economies for their benefit and not just the benefit of the developed investor nations.
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