In a televised address on 19 March, Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation. Nazarbayev was president for 30 years, and was the only president independent Kazakhstan has ever known. He was the last Soviet-era leader still in power, and this controlled transition of power allows him to leave office in good standing and to still maintain a significant amount of influence and power, unlike other Soviet-era autocrats who were forced out or died in office. Nazarbayev will remain the head of the Nur Otan party and chairman of the Security Council, and will hold the title ‘Leader of the Nation’ given to him by parliament.
There are two main explanations for why Nazarbayev chose to resign now. One is to give himself the ability to retain power and organize a controlled transition. According to Marlene Laruelle, the director of the Central Asia Program at George Washington University, “He thought it would be good to be remembered as a president who stepped aside and did not die in power.” There was speculation for the past few years that Nazarbayev had been preparing to step down, because in July 2018 the Security Council’s authority increased when it was changed from consultative to constitutional. Furthermore, when announcing his resignation, Nazarbayev stated that by remaining chairman of the Security Council he will have “serious powers to determine the country’s domestic and foreign policy.”
With his remaining powers, Nazarbayev says he can focus on his goal of “facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country.” A day after the resignation announcement, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in as acting president and Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga was elected to succeed Tokayev as Senate speaker, suggesting she may be part of the “new generation of leaders.” Another explanation for the timing of Nazarbayev’s resignation is to avoid increasing public discontent about economic stagnation. Nazarbayev “did not want to become the punching bag” for the failure to address social problems, said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group.
Although the resignation of Kazakhstan’s president of 30 years is a big adjustment for the country, it seems that fundamental government policies will remain the same. While in office, Nazarbayev won five elections, always with nearly 100% of the vote, and was accused by rights groups of jailing political opponents and journalists who criticized him. The lack of challenges from political opponents allowed him to control the transfer of power to Tokayev, who says he will continue Nazarbayev’s policies and rely on his opinion on key matters. Even though he has officially stepped down, the positions Nazarbayev retains will allow him to continue to exert control over government policies and actions.
However, “Nazarbayev is such an institution in Kazakhstan,” and the transition still “creates uncertainty because the president who ruled Kazakhstan for 30 years is leaving,” said Joanna Lillis, a foreign correspondent based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. On 21 March, there were already people protesting Tokayev’s first official initiative – renaming the capital from Astana to Nursultan in tribute to the former president. The protesters were also expressing frustration over the corruption and suppression of civic freedoms prevalent under Nazarbayev.
During the turbulent years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev was able to create a unified sense of national identity between the ethnic Russian and Kazakh portions of the population, and used the country’s vast oil and gas reserves to strengthen its economy. With a peaceful leadership transition occurring, hopefully Kazakhstan’s next chapter will have more respect for human rights and democracy. However, it does seem that Nazarbayev will attempt to maintain his position of power for the rest of his life, and this controlled transition of power could provide a framework for how other autocratic leaders can manage succession.