Wed, Mar 27, 2019 - Page 9 News List

After three decades of Nazarbayev, what is next for Kazakhstan?

Singapore has always been a major inspiration for the former Kazakh president, but he has not built strong institutions to facilitate a political transition

By Nargis Kassenova

On Tuesday last week, the only president that independent Kazakhstan has ever known, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced his resignation after almost three decades of near-absolute power. In a televised speech, Nazarbayev praised the nation’s achievements and called on its youth to build a bright future.

Yet it was not a full farewell, because Nazarbayev said that he was not leaving the political scene. The big question now is what comes next for Kazakhstan.

Although Nazarbayev’s resignation came as a surprise, his promise to remain in politics was years in the making. He previously received the titles of First President (2000), Leader of the Nation (2010) and, in 2017, Elbasy, a Kazakh word meaning head of the nation or people.

Because of his “historic mission,” he was given the lifelong right to present initiatives on state-building, domestic and foreign policy, and national security. What is more, Kazakh state bodies are obliged to consider his proposals.

The “First President” also heads the Assembly of the People of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Security Council (which was elevated from an advisory to a constitutional body last year), and is a member of the Constitutional Council. Nazarbayev, his family, and their property and bank accounts have also been given full immunity from prosecution. In addition, he is chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party.

This exit without leaving resembles the semi-departure of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), and is very different from the resignation and full political retirement in 1999 of Boris Yeltsin, independent Russia’s first president.

Singapore has always been a major inspiration for Nazarbayev, who held Lee in the highest regard. Effective and highly respected at home and abroad, Lee tops the short list of leaders who made authoritarianism look good.

Nazarbayev would like to follow Lee in becoming an elder statesman, thereby avoiding the less pleasant fate of other authoritarian rulers. He is certainly well aware of the fragility of power. He became Kazakhstan’s leader amid the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union and has witnessed the downfall of authoritarian peers around the world.

Resigning, and having to trust new Kazakh leaders, must therefore have been a difficult decision. Nazarbayev’s record in office, marred by corruption scandals, is more controversial than Lee’s, and he felt betrayed by his own family when his son-in-law attempted a coup d’etat over a decade ago.

In addition to his personal security, Nazarbayev is eager to ensure his legacy as a statesman and founding father. Balancing these two goals will not be easy.

Nazarbayev could best guarantee his security by maintaining the status quo and continuing to exercise tight political and economic control. Burnishing his legacy, on the other hand, will require reforms that boost further development and prosperity. Adding to the challenge are a build-up of domestic problems and a more dangerous and unpredictable international environment.

The careful preparations for Nazarbayev’s post-presidency suggest that his resignation is most likely part of a long-term strategy. As the Kazakh constitution stipulates, Senate Speaker Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a Nazarbayev loyalist, was appointed president until the end of the current presidential term next year. His daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was elected to be the new Senate speaker.

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