President Nazarbayev’s Resignation | Commentary by Jones, Junisbai, McGlinchey, Roberts, and Schatz

PONARS Eurasia
22 Mar 2019

Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, made a brief statement on March 19 announcing his resignation. PONARS Eurasia members provide context and viewpoints.


Pauline Jones (University of Michigan)

Although the exact timing was unpredicted, President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation prior to the 2020 elections was not unexpected. In hind sight, it is clear that the first and only leader of post-Soviet Kazakhstan had been planning a graciousand partialwithdrawal from power for several years. Indications of this appeared as early as 2011, when Nazarbayev rejected a planned referendum to extend his rule (without elections) to 2020but only after the Supreme Court questioned its constitutionality. He also mentioned the possibility of resigning rather than running for another term when he called for early presidential elections in 2015. More recently, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev formerly speaker of the upper house of parliament and Nazarbayev’s choice to serve as acting president, asserted confidently over a year ago in a televised interview with the BBC that then Nazarbayev would not run for a sixth term in 2020.

The intent behind his resignation is also evident. As others have argued, Nazarbayev wants to control the succession process, and possibly even to stage-manage a dynastic succession that would place his daughter (Dariga Nazarbayeva) at the helm. Most importantly, however, Nazarbayev wants to preserve his own legacy. Until he resigned on March 19, 2019, Nazarbayev was the only remaining leader in the former Soviet Union (FSU) who has been continuously in power since the USSR collapsed in 1991. He has long compared his model of developmentpredicated on stability and prosperity via economic liberalization and soft authoritarianismto that of strongman Lee Kwan Yew, who is credited with Singapore’s economic transformation. Nazarbayev’s legitimacy, moreover, has very much been tied to the perceived success of this modelboth within Kazakhstan and in other parts of the FSU. This is particularly the case in former Soviet Central Asia, which has been plagued by political instability, widespread poverty, and economic decline since independence from the USSR. Compared to these other states in the region, oil-rich Kazakhstan has indeed made significant progress in transitioning to a market economy. But these gains peaked in the mid-2010s. Since roughly 2016, the economic situation in the country has continued to stagnate due to low oil prices, corruption, and constraints on the growth of the private sector. Not unrelated, Kazakhstan has also experienced increased popular discontent and political mobilization, forcing the government to utilize its sovereign wealth fund to both support the economy and increase social spending.

Thus, albeit not surprising, Nazarbayev’s resignation is ironic. The timing of his departure, while seemingly well planned, does not inspire confidence in either his model of development or the future economic trajectory of Kazakhstan. Unless his successors can succeed where he failed, Nazarbayev’s legacy may become nothing more than a cautionary tale.


Azamat K. Junisbai (Pitzer College)

According to 2018 estimates, the median age in Kazakhstan is 30 years for men and 32 years for women. With nearly half of Kazakhstan’s population born during President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reign, the televised spectacle of his March 19th resignation announcement was jarring. While there have been multiple signs of the impending transition, including, most recently, Nazarbayev asking the Constitutional Council about the reasons the president can leave office before his term ends, the timing of his announcement caught everyone off guard.

The reasons behind the exact timing of his resignation are unknown to anyone except Nazarbayev himself and what is likely a very small number of his closest allies and family members. However, the logic behind the decision to step down is, arguably, easier to decipher. Nazarbayev is motivated to avoid the Uzbek scenario wherein family members and allies of late President Karimov quickly found themselves on the defensive after Karimov’s unexpected passing. Nazarbayev’s resignation is a pro-active move designed to ensure that he can personally manage the transition process ensuring that his legacy as well as the interests and well-being of his family members are protected.

That Nazarbayev followed the process outlined in Kazakhstan’s Constitution, vacating the presidency on his own accord and transferring the power to the Senate Speaker Kasym-Jomart Tokayev (who will serve as acting president until elections scheduled for 2020), was immediately touted by Tokayev himself as a sign of Nazarbayev’s commitment to democratic values. Yet, it is difficult to see this transition as a prelude to meaningful political modernization in the resource-rich nation. Nazarbayev retains multiple levers of power even after his resignation. He has been granted lifelong chairmanship of the newly empowered Security Council giving him full control of the nation’s considerable security apparatus. He will continue in his capacity as chair of the ruling Nur Otan party. Last but not least, with his special status as Leader of the Nation, he enjoys lifelong immunity from prosecution for any actions taken in office while his and his family’s assets are constitutionally protected from seizure.

On March 20, in his first address to the joint session of parliament as Kazakhstan’s new president, Tokayev devoted most of his speech to lavishing extravagant praise on Nazarbayev and listing the ways in which his legacy will be celebrated, including renaming Kazakhstan’s capital from Astana to Nursultan, erecting a monument to Nazarbayev in the renamed capital, renaming main streets in all regional capitals in honor of Nazarbayev, and ordering all state institutions to continue using photographs of Nazarbayev as part of their official décor. A few hours later, Tokayev’s nomination of Nazarbayev’s oldest daughter—Dariga Nazarbayeva—to the position of Senate Speaker was unanimously supported by 44 senators who voted via secret ballot.

These developments demonstrate that President Nazarbayev’s resignation is expressly designed to preserve the status quo and protect the long-term well-being of Nazarbayev and his family members.


Eric McGlinchey (George Mason University)

Directing acting President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s moves will not be Nursultan Nazarbayev’s first go at pulling the strings of Kazakhstan’s nominal leader. In December 1986, from his perch as Chairman of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic Council of Ministers, Nazarbayev orchestrated a mass protest against the newly appointed and ethnically-Russian Kazakh first secretary, Gennady Kolbin. The protest discredited Kolbin and allowed Nazarbayev to manage the first secretary like a marionette until June 1989 when Nazarbayev himself became the Kazakh republic’s unrivaled leader.

Three decades later, Nazarbayev is again in the position of directing Kazakh politics from behind the scenes. So far, he seems up to the task. In the 48 hours following his March 19 resignation his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was elected chairperson of the Kazakh Senate—making her next in line to the Kazakh presidency—and the capital city, Astana, was renamed Nursultan in honor of the first president. Nazarbayev’s decision to nominally step down appears wise in comparative context. Unlike Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, Central Asian presidents who died in office, Nazarbayev enjoys the comparative good fortune of being able to devote his attention to curating and solidifying his legacy.

A different episode from Nazarbayev’s own history suggests, however, that it may not all be smooth sailing for the recent retiree. Nazarbayev rose to prominence thanks to the patronage of Kolbin’s predecessor, long-serving first secretary Dinmukhamed Kunayev. Yet it was Nazarbayev’s denunciation of the first secretary that hastened Kunayev’s dismissal. In a blistering March 1986 speech, Nazarbayev faulted Kunayev for “engendering an atmosphere of encomiums and servility” and “the demand for a solicitous attitude toward cadres.” Just as Nazarbayev turned on his mentor, might a Nazarbayev protégé attempt to advance his career by highlighting the first president’s own demands for servility?

Efforts at managed succession often fail. Kazakhstan’s political elite are making bets and not all of the odds are in Nazarbayev’s favor.


Sean R. Roberts (George Washington University)

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s surprise announcement of retirement on March 19 was a very smart move by an extremely adroit politician. I have long suggested that if Nazarbayev was to die in office, it could lead to a much more intense power struggle than we had witnessed in the smooth transitions of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In contrast to these other countries, Kazakhstan has a larger and more diverse economic and political elite, the political influence of which Nazarbayev has carefully managed to contain during his tenure. In a post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan, it is likely that multiple groups within this elite would have designs on influencing the succession process. By stepping down now and retaining a position of authority in the country, Nazarbayev may be able to control the succession process and at least contain any resulting power struggle. He may also be able to protect his family and their assets, at least for the time being.

Given the choice of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as interim president, I do not expect there to be any change in how the government is run until the next presidential election takes place, but this is when things will become interesting. Likely Nazarbayev already has in mind the person he wants to see win that election, and he probably will be able to facilitate that person’s victory. However, that process will tell us much about the country’s future trajectory. On the one hand, if Nazarbayev seeks to promote a family member as his long-term successor, it will set up a dynastic system of rule that risks deteriorating legitimacy over time. On the other hand, if he is able to manage a smooth transition to a technocratic ally who has strong political skills, it could ensure a continuation of his personal vision for the country, especially if it is done with observation of term limits and through the Nur-Otan Party as a vehicle for extended one-party rule in the model of Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party in Singapore. However, in either of these cases, there will remain many wild cards in a follow-up presidential election given the number and diversity of wealthy and powerful actors in Kazakhstan. The questions will be whether Nazarbayev will be able to manage competition within this elite and contain any dissenters. If he is unable to do so, the country could face the same power struggles it would have likely encountered if Nazarbayev had died in office.


Edward Schatz (University of Toronto)

Shortly after Nazarbayev’s resignation, newly installed President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed to rename the capital city of Astana as “Nursultan” and a pliant parliament readily obliged. Cities across Kazakhstan began to rename streets in the first president’s honor. Daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva was selected the new speaker of parliament, second in line for the presidency. Speculation about the possibility of dynastic succession naturally followed. While that outcome is possible, there are reasons to expect something different.

First, much of Nazarbayev’s rule since 1989 has been an ongoing effort image-making. For two decades, this precluded the kind of cult of personality evident in neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; Nazarbayev preferred not to be known for his personality but rather for what he viewed as policy achievements. True, elements of such a cult appeared over the last decade. True, this image belied important degrees of repression, corruption, and kleptocracy. But he went to great lengths to “brand” Kazakhstan as a progressive, enlightened, prosperous, tolerant, and civilized new nation-state, with himself as founding father. There is every indication that he believes the image and does not want to tarnish it.

Second, for decades Nazarbayev adroitly worked to portray himself as moderate and reasonable. He famously pledged to deepen his country’s democratization when doing so helped to secure the rotating OSCE chair in 2010. Democratic reform did not follow. On several occasions, he had his parliament introduce and pass Draconian legislation so that he might veto it for being “too extreme,” thereby projecting the image of a wise, restrained and moderate statesman. A less extreme version inevitably would be signed into law.

Today, Nazarbayev retains much power. He chairs the powerful security council, chairs the ruling Nur-Otan party, and enjoys the title of “leader of the nation.” Putin continued to rule behind the scenes when Medvedev was Russia’s president from 2008-12; the same will certainly be true in Kazakhstan. As long as Nazarbayev is generally in control of his faculties, his preferences—informally conveyed to the whole elite—will hold broad sway. Thus, Nazarbaev can and will engineer a transition to a most-favored successor.

But should we expect dynastic succession? Whatever Dariga Nazarbayeva’s other qualities (she appears to be a capable politician with tremendous resources and significant support), tapping her as heir-apparent would tarnish Nazarbayev’s legacy, conveying the message that political institutions are second to kinship ties. In Kazakhstan, accusations of tribalism can be politically deadly. Nazarbayev knows this. Ever the wily politician, he is surely playing a long game—cultivating appearances that he will support a dynastic transition—so that he can later swoop in and save Kazakhstan from its worst impulses. Transition processes can get chaotic, but so far there is nothing to suggest that Nazarbayev is anything but in control of what will likely be a smooth, managed succession to a new authoritarian president who is not a close blood relative of the country’s first president.