Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev will turn 79 in July, and talk of an impending succession has significantly intensified since the end of last year. Numerous local experts noted the harsh criticism that the president leveled at domestic utilities companies during a November 2018 session of the Security Council. The choice of the topic was, indeed, unusual for a governmental institution entrusted with upholding public order and domestic security. Following the meeting, the government announced a reduction in utilities tariffs starting in January 2019. It is a well-established tradition in the post-Soviet space to make generous promises on socially sensitive issues ahead of a general election—for the obvious purpose of pleasing the electorate (Radio Azattyk, November 26, 2018; Akorda.kz, November 7, 2018). The next presidential election is officially not scheduled until late 2020.
The rumor mill had received some fresh grist even earlier, in June 2018, when Senate Speaker Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s current constitutional successor, was interviewed by the BBC’s “Hard Talk.” He notably declared, “Frankly speaking, I do not believe President Nazarbayev will stand for reelection in 2020. He is a wise and absolutely pragmatic man. I think that we will see other candidates in the 2020 presidential election.” Tokayev carefully added some caveats to his statement: first, the decision to run again would be made by Nazarbayev himself; second, it was his personal opinion; and third, “even if Nazarbayev is no longer president, he will still exercise tremendous influence over [Kazakhstan’s] domestic and foreign policies.” Tokayev’s frankness seemed almost surreal given his always reserved demeanor as a career diplomat and, more importantly, the taboo nature of any public pronouncements about the succession as such (Zakon.kz, Kursiv.kz, June 21, 2018).
Nursultan Nazarbayev has rarely commented on the prospect of passing the baton to a successor. In November 2016—the last time he broached the topic in public—he told a Bloomberg journalist that he had no intention of handing supreme power down to his children. “This is not an issue for us. The order of succession is written down in the Constitution,” he said before adding jokingly, “I plan to work until 2020, so see you again.” This time, following months of renewed speculation, the president had to reinforce his earlier message by dismissing allegations of a supposedly planned snap election in which he would presumably step down after almost 30 years in office. “There are no issues with the parliament. [Deputies] are exercising their legislative duties as intended. The parliament will serve until 2021 and will then again be up for election. The next presidential election is in December 2020. It is two years from now. What are we talking about?” Nazarbayev said to a gathering of Kazakhstani journalists in December 2018 (Tengrinews.kz, December 28, 2018; Vlast.kz, November 24, 2016).
The last two presidential elections, in 2011 and 2015, were both held early. So the general expectation among the population is that the next presidential vote will be held in 2019 rather than in 2020. Nazarbayev’s recent moves, including the lowering of utilities prices, have only added more fuel to the fire of conjecture. Moreover, on February 5, he asked the Constitutional Council to provide a legal opinion about article 42(3) of the main law, which stipulates that the previous presidential term ends upon the assumption of office by a new president as well as in the event of the incumbent’s resignation, impeachment or death. In response to a new outburst of speculation over social media, Nazarbayev made a special televised address the following day in which he called his referral “an absolutely routine issue” and warned against “all the fuss.” “As per the Constitution, the president can call a snap election but nothing similar is being planned. Everyone should keep calm and go about their everyday business,” he stressed (Zakon.kz, February 5; Liter.kz, February 4).
On February 15, the Constitutional Council rendered its much-awaited opinion. According to its findings, the president can resign at any moment for any reason, by virtue of his presidential authority and his right as a common citizen. It has been most recently rumored that Nazarbayev might want to announce his decision to leave the presidency and even to introduce his hand-picked successor at the forthcoming congress of the ruling Nur Otan party, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary on March 1. At any rate, there is considerable room for manoeuver as Kazakhstan prepares for a post-Nazarbayev period, which will likely be ushered in as part of a deliberate strategy aimed at maintaining internal stability. In the past few years, the Nazarbayev administration has laid down the foundation of a yet-to-be-enacted transition. The 2017 constitutional reforms bolstered the government and the legislature at the expense of the presidency, namely by enabling members of parliament to remove ministers and by stripping the head of state of the position’s extraordinary lawmaking powers. In December 2017, a constitutional amendment granted Nazarbayev lifelong chairmanship of the Security Council, which suddenly became transformed from an obscure consultative organ to a constitutional body (Informburo.kz, February 15, 2019; Interfax, July 12, 2018).
Nazarbayev’s status as the chair for life of the Security Council is spelled out in a new constitutional law, which was adopted by both chambers of parliament in May 2018. One of the Council’s principal prerogatives is its power to veto appointments and dismiss key government functionaries at the central and regional levels. In practice, this means that once Nazarbayev is out of the presidency, he will still be able to influence his successor’s decisions, as well as to block them if needed. At the same time, owing to the constitutional amendments passed in 2010, Nazarbayev already has the status of Yelbasy (“Leader of the Nation” in Kazakh), which grants him, among other things, full immunity from prosecution for any wrongdoing committed in office. The same level of protection extends to his family members (RIA Novosti, July 12, 2018; Kursiv.kz, May 13, 2010).
Recent developments credibly point to the probability of a succession within the next 12 months or so. The positive experience of Kazakhstan’s more autocratic neighbor, Uzbekistan, whose strongman Islam Karimov was succeeded upon his death in 2015 by his loyal prime minister, demonstrated to the world that a peaceful and smooth transition was possible in Central Asia. Yet, unlike Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan might need an even more carefully orchestrated changing of the guard, under the watchful eye of its long-time ruler, in order to preserve stability and investor confidence in the region’s leading economy and indispensable security player.