Kazakhstan’s leader steps down, or is it a step up?

    Kazakhstan’s leader for the past thirty years has voluntarily left the presidency, a first in the region.

    In the wild Central Asian mountains, goats have a custom of a head-butting. Younger goats butt heads as a game but older goats do it to establish dominance and determine their position in the herd. This is precisely how politics in five post-Soviet “stan” countries operate.

    An opposition is almost non-existent in these five Central Asian states, which drives the ever-growing authoritarian political culture and an absence of civil society in the region. However, a few days ago, a historical moment left many observers of the region in a state of confusion and shock.

    Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at age 78, unexpectedly announced that he is stepping down after nearly 30 years in power. He is the first Central Asian leader in the post-Soviet era that has left power without the help of a coup, or a coffin.

    On March 19, in a surprising televised address, he made the “difficult” decision to step down from power, which sent shockwaves to all neighbouring Central Asian countries, who have not known any other Kazakh leader, aside from Nazarbayev.

    The decision to resign was a carefully crafted plan that has been in place for the past few years to ensure he pulls strings behind the scenes.

    Significantly Nazarbayev will remain leader of the National Security Council and the chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party, conveying a message to the nation that they shouldn’t expect him to stay completely out of the picture.

    Nazarbayev is considered the most powerful and successful leader in oil-rich Kazakhstan, geographically the largest of the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. His political career began as first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in 1989 when his massive land was once a part of the communist Soviet Union.

    From 1989, when he was elected Communist Party leader in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, until 2019, he’s been successfully extending his reign by nearly 100 percent of the vote in every election.

    In 2010, Kazakhstan’s constitution made Nazarbayev the national leader for life, or Yelbasy, giving him immunity from prosecution from the parliament. He’s made no enemies in the region and or with nations important to Kazakshtan’s trading relationships.

    Due to his Kazakhstan’s strategic location, Nazarbayev achieved international legitimacy neighbouring leaders’ could only dream of. China has been expanding its political and economic influence across Central Asia, seeing the oil-and-gas-rich nation’s economy as a crucial centre for its massive One Belt, One Road global infrastructure programme.

    Chinese President, Xi Jinping, announced the launch of the Silk Road Economic Belt at Nazarbayev University in Astana during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013. The fact that Xi gave his Silk Road speech in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, made Moscow even more uncomfortable, as Kazakhstan is the most prominent and most prosperous country in Central Asia, which shares a long border with Russia and is viewed by Moscow as a key ally.

    Russia offers military prowess, while China provides a mercantilist variant, which is growing increasingly dominant. However, by drawing Chinese investment, Nazarbayev successfully managed to balance Russia’s long-time dominance.

    While Nazarbayev leaves behind a legacy of carefully balanced relations, the speaker of the upper house of Kazakhstan’s parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will serve as the interim head of state until a new election is held.

    Parliament elected Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to replace Tokayev as speaker, technically making her his second ‘favourite’ in the constitutional line of succession.

    Regional implications

    The shift is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Kazakhstan, with a politically assertive Russia and an economically ambitious China. Focusing on the fundamental changes brought by the post-socialist transition is key to making a realistic assessment of the region’s unstable future development.

    Central Asian states have shown a relatively diverging trajectory compared to other post-Soviet regions. These leaders have their features which make it different from other post-Soviet states. They usually don’t resign and have well-consolidated authoritarian regimes. Rigged presidential elections, politically motivated human rights violations, the imprisonment of opposition, the severe limitation of the press is par for the course. The breakdown of the Soviet state raised a number of critical issues for the dynamics of these newly established political orders.

    Throughout his fifth five-year term, Nazarbayev has been carefully observing power transitions in neighbouring states. Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurat Niyazov died, and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov dismantled the previous president’s legacy. Former Uzbek President Islam Karimov was known for brutally incarcerating and torturing his political opponents. His stance toward political opposition and religious groups left chaos after his death.

    n Kyrgyzstan, the first two presidents were overthrown from office by street protests, and neither is remembered with any fondness or sympathy. Nazarbayev obviously wanted to avoid a forceful change of power like in Kyrgyzstan, didn’t want to die on his post like in Uzbekistan, so he chose to avoid a similar scenario, and ensure his family’s security by micromanaging from the bench.

    To resign alive, independently and with honour, this is something that is considered first and unique in the post-Soviet space, which is why it made headlines in mainstream media.

    Nazarbayev likely believes that this sort of transition will secure his family’s wellbeing, however, pressure and negative attention on ageing post-Soviet leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik president Emomali Rahmon seem inevitable, as all eyes are focused on them.

    Nazarbayev once more towered over other Central Asian countries with his strong rule by giving a lesson on how to safely relinquish power in a winner-takes-all game.

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