Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev held a working group Jan. 24 to discuss redistributing some of his powers to the country's parliament, a change that has been discussed for a few years. During the meeting, Nazarbayev specified that economic powers should be transferred to the parliament, while the president should retain powers related to foreign policy, defense and state management. The statements are notable, given that the Nazarbayev has had almost absolute control since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Nazarbayev's advanced age (76) and waning health have led to questions about the succession process in Kazakhstan. There is no clear plan in place, though some of the president's family members and several clan leaders have been jockeying to succeed the leader. According to sources, this is exactly why it is in Nazarbayev's interest to shift certain powers from the presidency to the parliament. By strengthening lawmakers and equalizing the distribution of power in the country, Nazarbayev hopes to prevent the rise of a strongman who could threaten the balance of power and to guard against a messy succession process like the one taking place in neighboring Uzbekistan. These desires are also what caused Nazarbayev to reshuffle several key positions last year, including putting former Prime Minister Karim Massimov in charge of the security council and elevating his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to deputy prime minister.
The timing of the move is notable: Kazakhstan is facing rising economic pressure and security concerns. As a major energy producer, Kazakhstan has been hurt by the collapse of oil prices, leading to increased social instability. Oil workers went on a weekslong hunger strike starting Jan. 5 over the closure of an independent union before Kazakh security forces disbanded them. By transferring economic power to the parliament, Nazarbayev could be trying to transfer the responsibility for a weak economy to parliament as well. The power shift from the presidency to parliament is likely to be gradual, as is evidenced by Nazarbayev's comments that foreign and defense policy will remain under his purview. As long as Nazarbayev is alive and in office, he will continue to hold most of the power in Kazakhstan. However, once he steps down, the process to transfer power to other institutions could accelerate and intensify.