Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev Steps Down but Remains the Power Behind the Throne

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 43

Nursultan Nazarbayev (L) and acting president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev (Source: The National)

The Nursultan Nazarbayev administration has been—progressively since 2010 and, more recently, since 2017—laying the basis for a smooth presidential succession. And based on those developments, Nazarbayev’s replacement by a handpicked successor increasingly looked likely to occur before the end of February 2020 (see EDM, February 27, 2019). However, this seminal event ended up taking place significantly earlier, on March 19, 2019. On that day, the long-time leader of Kazakhstan, who had already headed the country for six years before its independence in 1991, made a special televised address from the presidential palace (Tengrinews.kz, Inform.kz, March 19).

Nazarbayev calmly announced his resignation from the presidency with the following words: “As the founder of the independent Kazakh state, I see my task in making sure that a new generation of leaders accedes to power to continue the ongoing transformation of our country.” He added, “My generation and I have done everything we could for our homeland. You know the results. The world is changing, and generations come and go. This is a natural process. The new generation will tackle the challenges of its time.” The announcement came as a shock to most Kazakhstanis and as a surprise to many outside observers who, while expecting Nazarbayev to orchestrate his own succession at some point, were objectively unsure of the timing (Akorda.kz, Nur.kz, Kapital.kz, March 19).

In his speech, the now-former president designated Senate speaker Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev (65), a veteran of Kazakhstani politics, skilled diplomat and undisputed Nazarbayev loyalist, as his successor. Therefore, the succession has perfectly followed the constitutional prescription (Article 48), with the speaker of the parliament’s upper chamber taking over from the incumbent. Tokayev officially took office the following day, on March 20. He thanked Nazarbayev profusely for his service to the country and immediately put forward several proposals aimed at perpetuating his predecessor’s legacy. Notably, he suggested renaming the capital city of Astana (which had dropped its previous name, Akmola, in 1998) as Nur-Sultan, in honor of the departing president (Vlast.kz, Lsm.kz, Total.kz, Informburo.kz, March 20).

Although Tokayev is banned by the Constitution from effecting constitutional amendments during his rump term, ending in 2020, a workaround was promptly found and enacted. The government formally proposed a name change by way of a referendum, but the new president used his authority to substitute a simple vote in parliament for what would have been a nationwide public consultation. Unsurprisingly, not a single parliamentary deputy or senator voted against the proposal, and the name change was signed into law by Tokayev himself, on March 23. In addition, the acting head of state suggested renaming the main avenues of each provincial capital after Nazarbayev, keeping the former president’s official portraits in public places alongside his own and bestowing upon him the title of honorary senator (Radio Azattyk, Zakon.kz, March 23; Matrica.kz, Kursiv.kz, Forbes.kz, March 20).

As the first president and “Leader of the Nation” (Yelbasy), Nazarbayev has automatically retained certain privileges, such as full immunity from prosecution for any wrongdoing committed in office, the right to address the parliament and be consulted on major policy issues, as well as the personal use of state residencies and vehicles. He made a point in his farewell speech of stressing his new status as lifelong chair of the Security Council (a key constitutional body since August 2018), his continued chairmanship of the ruling Nur Otan party, and the additional post of member of the Constitutional Council. With the first stage of the succession now completed, it is obvious that Nazarbayev has only formally stepped down from the presidency and still continues to exercise considerable—perhaps even decisive—influence over a broad spectrum of state matters (Inform.kz, Zonakz.net, Regnum, March 20; Akorda.kz, March 19).

The real question now is how the second stage of the succession will work out. As things stand, Tokayev is unlikely to keep his job beyond 2020. First, he has no power base of his own; second, he is widely and rightly considered a technocrat without significant political ambitions; third and last, he will be 65 this year, only 13 years younger than Nazarbayev. The former president has repeatedly mentioned the need for the younger generation to take over the reins, which seems to reflect more than pure rhetoric in this case. The unanimous election of Senator Dariga Nazarbayeva (55) by her peers to succeed Tokayev as speaker of the chamber, effective March 20, has therefore fueled speculation about her chances of eventually becoming the next head of state. Nazarbayev’s elder daughter has had a long career in politics, also serving as a member of parliament and deputy prime minister; she is young enough to hold the presidency for at least two six-year terms. Yet, her ability to muster the allegiance of rival clans and interest groups without her father’s support is not guaranteed (Inform.kz, Tengrinews.kz, March 20).

Even though the formal succession has finally happened, many questions remain unanswered. Uncertainty will persist well into the next regularly scheduled presidential election, or perhaps an early one, in which Nazarbayev will likely designate a long-term successor, only to groom him—or her—until his own death. A “dark horse” candidate should not be ruled out, coming either from Nazarbayev’s clan, such as his nephew Samat Abish (40), currently deputy head of the National Security Committee (KNB), or from without. Asset Issekeshev, the mayor of Astana in 2016–2018 and head of the presidential administration until March 24, could well be that person. Since March 25, he has served as executive director of the First President Foundation, no longer reporting to Tokayev but directly to Nazarbayev. Whatever the latter’s choice, the leadership succession will almost certainly ultimately aim to preserve the status quo. Hence, no material change of policy is to be expected if all goes according to plan, with Kazakhstan seeking to maintain its multi-vector foreign policy while pursuing, albeit more actively than before, various reform agendas.