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After three decades, Nazarbayev is quitting Kazakhstan’s presidency, but the ‘national leader’ will retain enormous influence

Source: Meduza
Azizzhan Mamirov /

On March 19, Nursultan Nazarbayev addressed the nation of Kazakhstan and announced that he is stepping down as president — a title he’s held since 1990. “As the founder of the independent Kazakhstani state, I see my future task as ensuring that a new generation comes to power that will continue the country’s ongoing transformation,” Nazarbayev said.

The new head of state is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the speaker of the Senate and a professional diplomat who headed the Foreign Ministry from 1994 to 1999 and again from 2002 to 2007, before serving as U.N. deputy secretary general from 2011 to 2013. According to Kazakhstan’s Constitution, Tokayev will take over Nazarbayev’s current term, serving until the next scheduled elections in the spring of 2020. The only formal limit Tokayev faces on his normal presidential powers is that he cannot initiate constitutional amendments before he is elected.

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev
Denis Balibouse / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In practice, Tokayev’s authority will be restricted by the constant need to consult his predecessor. It’s now clear that Kazakhstan’s recent constitutional reforms were designed to facilitate Nazarbayev’s early resignation without robbing him of political influence. In 2017, Nazarbayev significantly reduced the president’s powers, making the government responsible to the parliament. This new arrangement, however, was drafted to take effect only when the next president entered office.

When announcing his resignation as president, Nazarbayev didn’t hide the fact that he will retain enormous influence on the country’s political life. “By our laws, I have been granted the status of first president, elbasy [national leader],” he reminded everyone. Nazarbayev will also remain the chairman of Nur Otan, Kazakhstan’s ruling political party, which enjoys an overwhelming majority in parliament. Thanks to constitutional reforms, moreover, the legislature’s role will soon grow.

Nazarbayev also keeps his lifetime seat as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, and he stays a member of the Constitutional Council, which operates as a constitutional court, resolving conflicts between branches of the government, and effectively enjoys the right to veto any law.

Nazarbayev’s resignation sets a precedent

In 1986, Kazakhstan witnessed its first major nationalist unrest of the Perestroika years. The protests started when Moscow violated an unspoken tradition by appointing an ethnic Russian to serve as the first secretary of the republic’s Communist Party. Three years later, the job went to an ethnic Kazakh man — a successful functionary of the USSR’s Communist Party named Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 1990, running unopposed, he was elected president of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.

In the final months of the USSR’s existence, Nazarbayev was considered a potential candidate to head the union government. When the country collapsed, he was one of the old party leaders who established personal rule in a former Soviet republic.

Early in his rule, Nazarbayev consolidated power and dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament, replacing it with a significantly defanged substitute. Since the early 2000s, the opposition has barely been allowed to compete in parliamentary elections. Western observers say Kazakhstan’s elections fail to meet democratic standards. Nazarbayev extended his presidency multiple times, before eventually abolishing term limits outright. Critics have repeatedly accused Nazarbayev of suppressing political dissent.

In his announcement on Tuesday, Nazarbayev argued that “it’s impossible to build democratic institutions with a weak economy and a citizenry in poverty,” which is why he says he’s prioritized “economic development and improving public welfare.” The outgoing president claimed that Kazakhstan’s authorities have managed to raise the country’s economic output by 15 times and citizens’ incomes nine-fold, reducing poverty almost ten-fold. Nazarbayev also credited his administration with transitioning Kazakhstan from an agrarian economy to an industrial-service-based economy.

Even though it isn’t a full-fledged departure from power, Nazarbayev’s voluntary resignation sets an important precedent. Other post-Soviet authoritarian leaders have remained in office either until they die, like Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan or Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, or until they’re forced from power into exile by mass protests, like Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev effectively inherited power from his father, Heydar Aliyev. Nazarbayev is experimenting with an alternative approach to transitions of power.

Dmitry Kartssev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock