Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president since 1989, unexpectedly resigned Tuesday — the last Soviet-era president of a former Soviet republic to relinquish power. Many citizens of Kazakhstan, which has a median age of 30, have known no other leader.
1. Nazarbayev promises a managed succession. He may not get it.
In contrast with other Central Asian autocrats — for example, Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev — angry protesters did not chase Nazarbayev out of power. And Nazarbayev did not die in office like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurad Niyazov.
Instead, the Kazakh president ended his 30-year tenure on his own terms. During a televised address, Nazarbayev recounted his achievements and assured his audience that Kazakhstan’s presidential succession would be orderly. Known for making bold promises — not all of which materialized — Nazarbayev may have trouble guaranteeing a managed succession.
Nazarbayev assured Kazakhs that he would retain his roles as chairman of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, member of the Constitutional Committee and leader of the Nur Otan party, Kazakhstan’s party of power. Exercising power through these offices, Nazarbayev explained, will allow him to achieve his goal of “ensuring the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the transformation being carried out in the country.” On Wednesday, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was elected Kazakhstan’s new Senate speaker, offering a hint as to who this new generation of leaders may be.
Nazarbayev is not the first post-Soviet autocrat to attempt to choreograph leadership change while entering semiretirement. Russian President Boris Yeltsin successfully handed power to Vladimir Putin in 2000, and Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev transferred power to his son, Ilham, in 2003.
As political scientist Henry Hale has observed, there are many — if not more — cases in which departing presidents of post-Soviet regimes failed in their bid to anoint a successor. The 2004 electoral victories of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine were not the outcomes their predecessors had wanted.
Even in cases where departing leaders do pass power to a chosen successor, there are few guarantees. Outgoing president Almazbek Atambayev did everything in his power to ensure that his prime minister, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, was elected Kyrgyzstan’s next president. Once Jeenbekov took power in 2017, however, he wasted little time dismissing Atambayev loyalists and launching criminal investigations against members of Atambayev’s inner circle.
Nazarbayev, following provisions of the Kazakh constitution, has handed power to Kasymzhomart Tokayev, chairman of the Senate and someone with whom he has a close working relationship. Tokayev may indeed remain loyal to Nazarbayev. The more pressing question, though, is whether Kazakhstan’s political elites will remain loyal to Tokayev and Nazarbayev.
2. Leadership change will not change Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia and China.
The interim president is fluent in Chinese and, before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Tokayev served in the Soviet Union’s embassy in Beijing. In a September meeting with the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Tokayev pledged that Kazakhstan would work with China to “jointly fight against the ‘three forces’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism.”
Beijing, no doubt, is central to Kazakhstan’s future — the two countries share a 660-mile border. China is the largest buyer of Kazakh exports, and Beijing is steadily expanding investments in Kazakhstan’s transportation, energy and mining sectors. Kazakh transit routes are critical to Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative to speed Chinese goods to markets in Europe and the Middle East.
Economic relations with China will continue to deepen regardless of who Nazarbayev’s successor proves to be. But these deepening economic relations with Beijing are not likely to draw Kazakhstan away from close relations with Moscow.
Russia shares a 4,300-mile border with Kazakhstan, which has sizable ethnic Russian populations in its northern cities. Russia is Kazakhstan’s leading source of imports. The Russian media presence in Kazakhstan is pervasive, as is the Russian language. Nazarbayev delivered his resignation speech, notably, both in Kazakh and in Russian.
Nazarbayev maintained close relations with Russia throughout the post-Soviet period. He was the initiator of the Eurasian Economic Union and, with Russia and Belarus, was a founding signatory of the group in 2014.
Two-thirds of Kazakhs surveyed in Gallup’s 2018 World Poll expressed support for the Russian leadership. Thirty-one percent of Kazakhs in the survey approved of the Chinese leadership — and 25 percent approved of the U.S. leadership.
Ukraine’s effort in the early 2010s to break from Moscow’s orbit and move closer to the European Union, some argue, serves as a cautionary tale for Kazakhstan. Would a more independent Kazakhstan prompt Russia to occupy northern Kazakhstan in a move similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea?
This line of thinking critically overlooks the reality that Kazakhstan’s elected officials and the Kazakh population want close relations with Russia. Kazakhs see greater benefit in the Eurasian Economic Union and deepening bilateral relations with Russia than Russians do. This pro-Russian orientation is unlikely to change, regardless of who ultimately emerges as Kazakhstan’s next elected leader.
3. Nazarbayev’s resignation will change Kazakhstan’s relations with neighboring Central Asian states — and its status globally.
In 2005, Nazarbayev became Central Asia’s ascendant leader. In April of that year that Karimov, the Uzbek president who was also jockeying for the mantle of the region’s greatest statesman, presided over the mass slaughter of hundreds of protesters. Karimov’s image never recovered.
Nazarbayev is an autocrat, but his rule has proved far less bloody than that of his Uzbek counterpart. And in contrast with life under Karimov in Uzbekistan, where poverty remained widespread, Kazakh citizens have enjoyed remarkable economic growth as well as comparative political stability.
Karimov died in 2016. Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, seems to have ushered in an “Uzbek spring,” with promises to transform Uzbekistan’s economic and political fortunes. Although some international organizations have warned of the “dangers of premature praise,” many in Central Asia and the world see Mirziyoyev as a capable and promising leader.
With Nazarbayev’s resignation, Mirziyoyev seems likely to emerge as Central Asia’s leading statesman. Kazakhstan, now under the leadership of an interim and untested president, will need to accept, at least in the short run, diminished influence regionally and globally.
Editor’s note: The article was updated to clarify that the Nazarbayev delivered his resignation speech in both Kazakh and Russian.
Eric McGlinchey is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.