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Kazakhstan's Long-Awaited Leadership Succession Begins

5 MINS READMar 19, 2019 | 21:48 GMT
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is pictured here on June 7, 2018, during a visit to Beijing.

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan's president throughout its post-Soviet history. Despite his announced resignation, the 78-year-old leader will continue to wield power from behind the scenes.

(GREG BAKER -- Pool/Getty Images)
The Big Picture

The resignation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev formally triggers a succession process that has been underway for some time. Despite stepping down, Nazarbayev will remain powerful as the grand arbiter behind the scenes and also continue to serve as chairman of the National Security Council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party. As Kazakhstan transitions to its next generation of leadership, it will have to managing its often fraught internal political and economic dynamics as well as playing a regionally significant role. 

What Happened

Kazakhstan's long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, resigned in a televised address on March 19. During the address, Nazarbayev said, "I see my future task as supporting the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the transformations taking place in the country." Nazarbayev also stated that the speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will be appointed interim president on March 20 and will serve in this capacity until a new president is elected.

Why It Matters

Nazarbayev has been in power for nearly 30 years, serving as president throughout Kazakhstan's post-Soviet history, which makes his resignation a historic and unprecedented event. Kazakhstan is a major oil and natural gas producing and exporting state. It also has acted as a key bellwether for political and security trends in Central Asia, ranging from balancing ties between external powers like Russia and China to serving as a transit state for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan's next leader will, therefore, take over a country that is both regionally significant and of key interest to global powers.

While Nazarbayev's resignation formally triggers a succession process, succession plans have been underway for a while now. In early 2017, Nazarbayev began to gradually devolve certain presidential powers to Parliament, most notably over economic policy. In February, he asked Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council to clarify what powers he would retain should he announce his resignation. These developments indicated that a formal succession was only a matter of time for the 78-year-old leader.

What's Next?

Despite his resignation, Nazarbayev will remain the ultimate arbiter of power as long as he remains alive. He will also continue to serve as chairman of the National Security Council and head of the ruling Nur Otan party. The succession process is likely to be a managed and gradual one, with Nazarbayev balancing between various power factions, including family members, the energy and business elite, and the security guard. There are several key members within these factions who will play a role in shaping the post-Nazarbayev landscape, including Tokayev, National Security Committee chairman Karim Massimov, energy oligarch Timur Kulibayev and Nazarbayev's eldest daughter and member of the Senate, Dariga Nazarbayeva.

Nazarbayev will remain the ultimate arbiter of power, and the process of replacing him as Kazakhstan's president will likely be a managed and gradual one.

As long as Nazarbayev lives, each of Kazakhstan's numerous factions — and their respective leadership — has an interest in maintaining stability and policy continuity in order to retain their assets and power positions within the established system. As a result, Kazakhstan's energy policies — including the reforms and planned investment strategy of state energy firm KazMunayGas — are likely to remain broadly intact no matter who succeeds Nazarbayev. The same is true of the country's strong relationships with Russia and China. Both Moscow and Beijing have a stronger interest in preserving broader political stability in Kazakhstan as opposed to backing a particular successor. Nazarbayev's strategy in recent years has been to distribute power to various factions and institutions rather than a single individual with centralized power, such as himself.

That said, the unprecedented nature of a formal transfer of power in Kazakhstan suggests that the succession process could experience some bumps along the road. Kazakhstan has faced persistent economic challenges as a result of low energy prices and issues in its banking sector. Indeed, just last month, Nazarbayev called for the resignation of Kazakhstan's government led by Bakytzhan Sagintaev because of poor economic conditions, which have sparked small but persistent protests in recent months. Whoever succeeds Nazarbayev will face more acute economic issues and social unrest — and they may not have his ability to manage the various power factions as effectively, particularly when it comes to Nazarbayev family members. There is also the question of whether the successor(s) will have the same legitimacy as Nazarbayev, who has built up a status as "Leader of the Nation."

Nevertheless, such power struggles are likely to take place largely behind the scenes, and Nazarbayev's resignation is only the beginning of what could be a drawn-out process for him to actually relinquish true power. Despite all of the fundamental political, economic and security problems in Central Asia, the region has proved its ability to manage potentially destabilizing developments — from Uzbekistan's own presidential succession to border tensions and water disputes — in a manner that avoids major violence or economic disruption. The long-awaited succession process in Kazakhstan, for all its inevitable machinations, will likely side-step a major crisis.

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