On March 19th, the only leader independent Kazakhstan has ever had, Nursultan Nazarbayev, confirmed his decision to end his presidency after 30 years at the helm. He was the last Soviet-era president still in power and his resignation during his televised address came as a shock to many Kazakhs with Nazarbayev being the only leader that many of them had ever known. The former head of the government praised his country’s achievements since independence and called on the next generation to build a brighter future. This brighter future, however, will likely only be built within the system which Nazarbayev has created, a system which restricts civil liberties and suppresses political opposition. The shocking resignation raises more questions than answers as to the future power dynamics in Kazakhstan and there is the potential for power to become more dispersed as the country loses its figurehead leader affectionately referred to as ‘Elbasy,’ a Kazakh word meaning head of the people.
Nazarbayev’s resignation should by no means be considered a full farewell as he is by not exactly leaving the political scene. He will remain the chairman of the ruling Nur Otan Party as well as the government’s Security and Constitutional Councils. As per Kazakhstan’s constitution, the speaker of parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, becomes the interim president until the next election that is due in December 2020. Analysts are viewing Tokayev’s new position as temporary until to allow for the choreographed and managed transition of power to Nazarbayev’s ultimate successors.
Max Hess rightly argues that “Nazarbayev’s resignation should not be seen as a sign that he wants that system he developed in Kazakhstan to change.” Indeed, evidence points more toward him seeking to institutionalize it. He will be able to retain his influence from outside the presidential palace and, in doing so, will remain the nation’s key political actor. If this is the case, then there are several factors that point toward Tokayev being the perfect man for the job. He is a career diplomat and widely respected by Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s other allies. He is also fiercely loyal to Nazarbayev. Because of this, it seems only fitting that one of his first acts with his newfound power was to rename the country’s capital, Astana, to Nur-Sultan after the former president.
Tokayev becoming interim president was an easy answer for Nazarbayev, but the real question is who will replace him in the long term and what will this mean for Kazakh citizens. A senator that many consider a potential successor could be Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga. Dariga became the speaker of parliament after the former one became the current president and now she has a platform from which she can assume a more vocal role in Kazakh politics. When analyzing her career, it is clear she is ambitious, having at one time led her own political party. Internationally, she is considered an acceptable option. However domestically, she struggles for broader support. Selling a female candidate to Kazakhstan’s largely patriarchal society could prove difficult with a large segment of the population being tired of the Nazarbayev family’s rule. Other potential candidates for presidency include deputy head of the Kazakh National Security Service (KNB), Samat Abish, but among him and the other possible candidates, there exists no clear-cut replacement. Because of this, it is likely alternative centres of power will develop in the absence of the clear vertical hierarchy that the former leader has provided.
Nazarbayev may have resigned as a means of protecting his legacy. Evidence demonstrates that his authority and capacity to govern effectively decreased over the past few years. International organizations are also reporting rising dissatisfaction, in part, related to an uncertain oil market and a stagnant economy. Kate Mallinson, an analyst at London-based Prism Political Risk Management, argues that the former president’s decision to step down is because he did not want his legacy marred by a broken economy and a depleted power base. While there does not appear to be any clear demands for democracy just yet, there is growing frustration with social injustices. One needs only to look to the protest that broke out following the decision to rename the capital of Kazakhstan. What matters right now is that the nation currently has no means of channelling and addressing the population’s grievances. Protests and demonstrations are illegal without the express consent of the government. Freedom House, in its assessment of Kazakhstan, considers that its elections are neither free nor fair and that a consistent curtailment of civil liberties combined with the economic downturn is very likely to lead to civil unrest and instability. How well Nazarbayev can manage the transition may not contribute to his lasting legacy but will likely decide whether his ultimate successor brings about positive change or succumbs to the building pressure.
Nazarbayev’s legacy and contributions will always be remembered. He successfully managed the transition to independence and developed a strong commodities sector that sparked sustained economic growth, making Kazakhstan a leader in Central Asia. His supporters point to his success at managing sectarian and ethnic relations over a 30-year period and with helping to modernize the country in the post-Soviet era. Critics, however, point to the lack of freedoms afforded under his reign. Economically, he may have brought his nation forward, but socially, there is much work to be done. Nazarbayev has long engaged in frequent political reshuffles, preventing others from establishing their own power bases.
Because there is no genuine opposition, the option of public participation in a healthy debate is removed and this will only likely lead to unrest and underground revolutionary movements. Nazarbayev’s successors will be the ones who are left to deal with these developing issues, and there is the potential for significant social change over the next decade as Kazakhs come to terms with a new source of leadership.
While Nazarbayev’s resignation came as a shock to most who saw his press conference, the fact that he will remain firmly within the halls of power comes as no surprise to most in the international community. Rather than seeing his empire crumble and his family destroyed, he is stepping down and, in doing so, is preserving his legacy and institutionalizing the system of political rule he developed. Kazakhstan will oversee a tightly managed transition with the Nazarbayev family retaining considerable influence for many years to come. Significant challenges will likely arise as power increases among the Kazakh elite who will be forced to respond to growing social unrest and possible demands for greater civil liberties. Responding to these challenges positively and constructively will be essential in allowing Kazakhs to experience the kind of social and civil liberties they deserve.
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