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The step-down by Nursultan Nazarbayev, the long-standing ruler of Kazakhstan took the world by surprise, but the strongman is hardly giving up the reigns of power.
President Nazarbayev, the only leader that independent Kazakhstan, the world’s 9th largest country has ever known, announced his resignation on March 19, following protests in cities nationwide.
In a televised address, Nazarbayev said he had made the “difficult” decision to resign: “As the founder of the independent Kazakh state I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country.”
Perhaps. But successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s obeisance to his master was visible in his first major policy move: He will rename the country’s capital, Astana, after his mentor.
Nation builder or dictator?
Nazarbayev had spent three decades in power, and as the last of Central Asia’s former Communist Party bosses, was the definition of a “strongman” leader.
After the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Kazakhstan, which borders both Russia and China, was an unstable, chaotic state the size of Western Europe. Its population is ethnically divided – ethnic Russians in the north, Kazakhs in the south, plus dozens of other nationalities. It boasted billions of barrels of oil and natural gas reserves but was also home to abandoned biological and chemical weapons factories, and nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Kazakhstan looked like a powder keg. Perhaps fortunately, Nursultan was the man in charge.
Born in 1940, Nazarbayev became secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan in 1989 and was re-elected as president after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Brooking no dissent, Nazarbayev managed to hold Kazakhstan together, forge a new national identity and avoid ethnic violence or civil war.
He led his country into a Russia-dominated economic alliance and built a close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Oil and mineral wealth helped to rebuild a broken economy. Now, 20 years later, according to the World Bank, the country has moved from low to middle-income status. Since 2002, GDP per capita, according to some estimates, has jumped six-fold. Poverty has fallen sharply.
But his tendencies were hardly democratic. Every time he “ran” for president, his “vote” increased – exceeding 97% in 2015. Foreign observers never recognized the results, but the rubber-stamp parliament and obedient media praised the “newly-elected” leader.
Kazakh society was divided. Many favored his iron rule; others strongly opposed him as a dictator. Supporters insist he maintained inter-ethnic peace and stability; critics accused him of corruption, human rights abuses, and fostering a personality cult.
Resign but keep power
It remains to be seen whether his successor can stick to “the path of stability” that Nazarbayev is credited for. But it seems near certain – because Nazarbayev is not going away in any shape or form.
He remains at the helm of the powerful security council and retains veto power over all decisions of the government. He also has special powers to make policy decisions directly, without approval from the government.
After all, he has effectively built a one-party system: His Nur Otan party holds an overwhelming majority of seats in the Kazakh assembly.
And he is bulletproof. A 2010 law established Nazarbayev’s unique status as Yelbasy, “Leader of the Nation” and honored him with the title Halyq Qaharmany, “Hero of the People.” He enjoys lifetime immunity from criminal prosecution, and the secrecy and inviolability of his assets and wealth are guaranteed.
“Nazarbayev has managed to step down as president without relinquishing influence”, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank. “Nazarbayev will continue to rule Kazakhstan as the elder statesman… Nazarbayev’s resignation does not signal any major policy shifts”
On March 20, one day after Nazarbayev’s announcement, former Prime Minister Tokayev was sworn in as the interim president. A long-standing colleague of Nazarbayev, Tokayev was chairman of the Senate and says he will continue his mentor’s policies.
Tokayev, 65, is a Moscow-educated career diplomat and foreign minister who also served as director-general of the UN office in Geneva between 2011 and 2013.
How absolute is his allegiance to Nazarbayev? Immediately after his inauguration, Tokayev announced that the capital, Astana, would be renamed Nursultan in honor of Nazarbayev, his mentor.
Keeping Kremlin close
With another key Russian satellite, Ukraine, spinning out of Moscow’s orbit, the Kremlin is watching developments closely. The sudden resignation appeared to weigh on the Russian ruble, and Putin called Nazarbayev the same night. But Moscow, while wary, has good grounds for assuming Russia and Kazakhstan will remain buddy buddy.
It is highly unlikely that Tokayev will lead Kazakhstan toward other geopolitical forces – such as the Islamic Middle East or the West. Alliance relations – economic and customs unions, military treaties and more – with Moscow look set to remain as firm as ever.
Kazakhstan is also expected to continue close ties Beijing. China buys 25% of Kazakhstan’s oil output, and transcontinental Kazakhstan is critical for China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Astana was historically a key hub on the Silk Road, and Kazakhstan is where the BRI was first announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.
Even so, a new era has dawned in Kazakhstan. Just as Boris Yeltsin resigned as Russian president on Dec. 31, 1999, to make way for Putin, so Nazarbayev’s resignation came two days before Kazakhstan celebrated its New Year holiday.
But why did Nazarbayev decide to depart? Experts in Russia and Kazakhstan believe it’s more about his not-so-subtle succession plan than his advanced age – 78.
“Nazarbayev is not stepping down, he is stepping up; he will oversee a power transition over the next few years,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said, calling it “a version of this model of ‘president mentor’ – copyrighted in Singapore by Lee Kwan Yew.”
If all goes according to plan, Nazarbayev’s maneuver could present the current occupation of the Kremlin with a model, too. The move ”… is likely to be used in due course in Russia by Vladimir Putin,” said Trenin.