Nazarbayev Is Giving Up Presidency, Not Power, in Kazakhstan

The long-time autocrat's shock resignation kicks off an opaque succession process.

Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 7, 2018. (Greg Baker-Pool/Getty Images)
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 7, 2018. (Greg Baker-Pool/Getty Images)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan—Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first and only president, resigned on Tuesday, ending his nearly 30-year reign and setting the stage for an opaque succession process in the oil-rich Central Asian country of 18 million people.

In a lengthy speech that Nazarbayev delivered in a prerecorded televised address to the country that reflected on his lengthy tenure in office, the 78-year-old president said that the decision to step aside had “not been simple.”

“We put Kazakhstan on the map where there was never such a country,” Nazarbayev said during the address. “I see my future task as supporting the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the transformations taking place in the country.”

As his speech hinted, Nazarbayev’s departure from office will not mean giving up the reins of power.

The aging leader, who has led Kazakhstan since 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, said that Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the speaker of the Senate and a trusted political ally of Nazarbayev, will take over as acting president until new elections are held in 2020. Nazarbayev, who holds the title of “leader of the nation” and has painted himself as the country’s founding father, reflected on his achievements in office, particularly navigating the economic and geopolitical chaos during the collapse of the Soviet Union and enshrining Kazakhstan as a member of the international community.

“I think that the key message for people outside of Kazakhstan is that Kazakhstan remains business as usual in terms of its foreign-policy priorities and in terms of domestic-policy priorities,” Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, told Foreign Policy.

While Nazarbayev leaves behind a legacy as an adept statesman who carefully balanced relations with superpowers like China, Russia, and the United States and saw living standards rise in the Central Asian country, his resignation comes against the backdrop of economic stagnation and growing discontent at home with his autocratic government.

Protests in February over the death of several children in an apartment fire while their parents worked night shifts became a lightning rod for simmering public grievances over endemic corruption and dimming economic opportunities in the country. The mounting pressure led Nazarbayev to publicly rebuke his cabinet before announcing its dissolution in late February in a move designed to head off growing public resentment towards the government.

In announcing his resignation, Nazarbayev again appears to be getting out in front of popular anger over Kazakhstan’s dimming domestic future.

“An era closes today for Kazakhstan,” said Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow. “It was clear that Kazakhstan had entered an irreversible time of policy stagnation, where every meaningful decision had been postponed until the end of [the Nazarbayev] years.”

By exiting the office of the president willingly, said Anceschi, Nazarbayev is able to play a central role managing the behind-the-scenes process of determining his successor, especially given the array of powers he will continue to command. This means that Nazarbayev can still play a substantial role in directing Kazakhstan’s future, especially in foreign affairs, where he maintains strategic working relationships with the leaders of the country’s powerful neighbors—Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Nazarbayev also has good relations with Washington and was invited to the White House by U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018.

“I don’t think the system can reinvent itself,” said Anceschi. “Kazakhstan is in an inevitable period of authoritarian decline. The focus of the elite will be on consolidating power, not liberalizing or reforming the country.”

Nazarbayev, the son of a shepherd, worked his way up through the Communist Party and became a rising star in politics in the 1980s, when the country, then part of the Soviet Union, was ruled by a gerontocracy. As the leader of a newly independent Kazakhstan beginning in 1991, he managed to successfully navigate a series of crises that threatened his fledgling state. The new country was the world’s ninth largest and was rich with oil reserves, but Kazakhstan also inherited a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev helped solidify Kazakhstan’s independence by transferring the nuclear stockpiles to Russia, with help from the United States, and later negotiating a series of crucial energy deals with Chevron, Mobil, and other corporations that helped build pipelines to the West.

“In retrospect, he was clearly the most skillful of the leaders who assumed power in the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said William Courtney, who served from 1992 to 1995 as the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan. “He gained lots of legitimacy through denuclearizing and it was a savvy way to get others to respect Kazakhstan’s independence.”

Navigating a tough international landscape will be a top priority for whomever is chosen as the next president, who will need to rely on Nazarbayev in his new role to deal with Kazakhstan’s neighbors.

“There is no clear No. 2 that is next in line, so whoever is picked will need to get experience in international affairs,” said Courtney, who is now a senior adjunct fellow at the Rand Corp. “It has to be someone who has the stature and skill to sit down with Putin and Xi.”

Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led military bloc. Astana has also positioned itself as an integral part of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan maintains strong relations with both Moscow and Beijing despite more revanchist and nationalist foreign policies from both countries in recent years. Both countries, analysts say, will be watching closely to ensure that Kazakhstan remains compliant moving forward.

“Russia has shown the world it will be aggressive when it needs to be, especially in the former Soviet Union,” said Paul Stronski, the former director for Russia and Central Asia on the U.S. National Security Council under President Barack Obama. “Kazakhstan doesn’t have protection from anybody, and the consequences for Russia mucking around would be less than they have been elsewhere.”

Despite cooperating closely with Moscow, Nazarbayev has shown an independent streak at times in the face of Russian pressure. Astana abstained from recognizing Crimea as part of Russia during voting at the United Nations and has resisted Moscow’s attempts to expand the Eurasian Economic Union into a political bloc. Kazakhstan has also walked a tightrope in its relations with Beijing as tens of thousands of ethnic Kazakhs have been caught up in its vast internment camp system in China’s neighboring Xinjiang province, and anti-Beijing feelings are prevalent in the country. Kazakh officials have sought to free some detainees, while targeting and arresting prominent activists who documented the scope of China’s camp system.

While Kazakhstan’s first transition of power comes with major questions for international players, Kazakh officials have gone out of their way to signal that despite the resignation, Astana has no plans for drastic policy changes and that Nazarbayev will play a key role moving forward. Nazarbayev’s first official phone call after his announcement on Tuesday was to Putin, and Tokayev, who will serve as acting president, is expected to address Kazakhstan’s foreign policy when he is sworn in on Wednesday.

“Nazarbayev has credibility and stature with Kazakhstan’s tough neighbors,” said Stronski, who currently works as a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. “The problem is what happens when he is gone.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan