Veteran Kazakh leader ‘not going anywhere’ after resignation

By Agence France-Presse

Nursultan Nazarbayev may have resigned as president of Kazakhstan but analysts say the longest-serving post-Soviet leader will hardly be easing into retirement.

By retaining key posts — as head of the security council and chair of the ruling party — the 78-year-old Central Asian strongman will be in a position to keep ruling the nation behind the scenes.

“Nazarbayev is not going anywhere, he will be in charge of the country for as long as his health allows,” said Central Asia analyst Andrei Grozin.

Nursultan Nazarbayev (Photo by Aris Oikonomou / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
Nursultan Nazarbayev (Photo by Aris Oikonomou / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Sergey Duvanov, an independent analyst based in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty, said Nazarbayev will continue to rule the country “just with a different title”.

“He will continue to have all the power, but that hectic presidential schedule — government meetings, diplomatic visits, ceremonial occasions — will belong to someone else now.”

Eduard Poletaev, director of the Kazakhstan-based World of Eurasia think tank, was even more blunt.

“No need to expect any change,” he said.

Poletaev said the balance of power in Kazakhstan may not change much in the coming years, comparing Nazarbayev to Deng Xiaoping who was China’s ultimate decision-maker until his death in 1997.

The Kazakh ruler has expressed admiration for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, a personal friend who retained influence over decision-making in the country even after he quit as prime minister.

‘Incredible’ for Central Asia

While analysts had long pointed to the possibility of a phased transition of power in the country of 18 million, the decision “has come as a shock to many in Kazakhstan,” said Joanna Lillis, author of “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan”.

“Clearly Nazarbayev had decided to oversee the political transition and establish his legacy once and for all in his lifetime,” she said in written comments.

Some observers suggested the announcement might have been prompted by a crisis in Algeria where protesters have taken to the streets to call for an end to the long rule of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

“He has taken this decision against the background of what’s happening in Algeria, but he retained key duties,” said Poletaev.

Still, analysts said they were impressed at the veteran leader deciding to step aside voluntarily, unlike some of his Central Asian counterparts who left office feet first.

“You have to hand it to him — this is a breathtaking move. He established a tradition of power transfer,” said Andrei Suzdaltsev, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“And for Central Asia, this is something incredible.”

Leadership transitions in authoritarian Central Asia are the subject of regular speculation due to the region’s deep authoritarian tradition and abundance of oil and gas wealth.

Nazarbayev’s counterpart in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died after 27 years in power in 2016 and was replaced by his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

Turkmenistan’s long-ruling first president Saparmurat Niyazov — who died in 2006 — fashioned one of the world’s great personality cults.

His former health minister and one-time dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov picked up where Niyazov left off, overseeing a system that has no space for independent media or political opposition and sometimes draws comparisons with North Korea.

Model for ‘certain neighbor’?

Many drew parallels between Nazarbayev’s address and the stunning resignation of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999 when he appointed Vladimir Putin as acting chief.

“Take care of an independent Kazakhstan,” said Nazarbayev, echoing Yeltsin’s call to “take care of Russia” in his legendary televised address.

The Kremlin said that Nazarbayev and Putin had on Tuesday spoken by phone and many analysts said that the resignation had been likely discussed with Moscow.

Some suggested that Putin may borrow from the Kazakh leader’s playbook when the Kremlin chief’s fourth term runs out in 2024.

“One wonders whether this is a model for a certain neighbor to the north,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, said on Twitter.