Kazakhstan: Real Power Transition Still to Come

While his Central Asian peers died in office, were ousted by revolutions, and saw their legacies dismantled by their successors, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned - the first president in the region to step down of his own volition.

Expert comment Published 22 March 2019 Updated 27 November 2019 4 minute READ
Former Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Former Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Although there were some signs of a looming transition of power, Nazarbayev’s resignation caught many by surprise. Importantly, he followed constitutional procedure to the letter and for the first time in 20 years, did not push for snap elections.

This enforces the legitimacy of his temporary successor and launches the succession process, proof that he chose evolutionary development for Kazakhstan rather than revolutionary.

Nazarbayev’s authority and ability to govern effectively had waned over the last couple of years. With rising political disaffection and an uncertain economic outlook related to the oil price, stagnant growth and inflationary tendencies, it is possible that the president decided to leave in case the situation deteriorated. He did not want his legacy to be tainted by a wrecked economy and weakened power base.

While the resignation of Kazakhstan’s first president is significant, it does not signal any immediate major policy shifts. Rather, Nazarbayev will continue to rule as the elder statesman behind the throne.

As chair of the Security Council he will wield great power domestically and still manage relationships with key neighbours including Russia and China. The real power transition is yet to come and Nazarbayev will be well-positioned to oversee it.

Why Tokayev?

Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev has been appointed interim president until the 2020 election, a safe pair of hands and a loyal lieutenant. An internationally respected diplomat of the old guard, Tokayev has accompanied Nazarbayev throughout his presidency, having served as foreign minister twice, prime minister and speaker of the senate since 2013.

He is considered close to the Kremlin – a key requisite for the job during an era of unprecedentedly difficult relations between the two countries. As Kazakhstan’s security guarantor, Russia will play a key role in the move to a post-Nazarbayev era.

In addition, Tokayev has lived in China and speaks Mandarin, so he is also well placed to look after Kazakhstan’s important but complicated relationship with its powerful neighbour and key economic partner.

However, he is unlikely to stand in the 2020 election. Given his age, Tokayev is not Nazarbayev’s long-term pick – Nazarbayev has made clear that it is time to hand power to a younger generation.

Rather, Tokayev will be charged with managing the transition to a new president. A faithful follower of Nazarbayev but lacking personal ambition within the informal power system, he is a perfect fit in this transition period.

Tellingly, the new President’s first official decision was to propose renaming capital Astana to Nursultan, the First President’s given name. While Nazarbayev’s exit was initially perceived positively by locals and commentators alike, this prompted a souring of enthusiasm due to the absence of citizen participation in the process, something Nazarbayev was criticized for heavily during the last years of his tenure.

Appointing Tokayev interim president was an easy first step for Nazarbayev – the harder question is who will succeed in the long term and how power dynamics in the Central Asian nation will evolve.

President Dariga Nazarbayeva or a ‘trial balloon’?

The period prior to the December 2020 election will see a campaign to set the stage for Nazarbayev’s ultimate successor. After almost three decades spent constructing a personality cult, the population needs to become accustomed to a new head of state.

Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga has been promoted from senator to speaker of the Senate. Therefore, should Tokayev resign before the 2020 elections, Dariga would automatically step in. Her new post will allow her to assume an even more vocal role in Kazakhstan’s day-to-day politics - a perfect platform to acclimatise the electorate to the fact that she may one day lead the country.

While Dariga is an acceptable option internationally, she is unpopular at home. Selling a female president to Kazakhstan’s patriarchal society could be difficult, and a large segment of the population are tired of the Nazarbayev family’s dominance.

Nazarbayev could be using Dariga as a ‘trial balloon’ to gauge how the elite and the Kazakh population react. It is also likely that he has given her diplomatic immunity, shielding her from unfolding global corruption revelations. Other potential candidates for the presidency include the president’s nephew and deputy head of the KNB, Samat Abish.

Alternative centres of power

Nazarbayev will retain his post as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party and member of the Constitutional Council, in addition to his role as chairman of the powerful Security Council, which dictates foreign and security policy and more recently has taken a stance on social and economic issues.

During the most recent convention of Nur Otan, a politburo was elected with eleven members who are deemed most trusted by the president – among them Dariga, Tokayev, ‘grey cardinal’ Marat Tazhin and the new prime minister, Askar Mamin.

The Security Council and the party politburo could, therefore, serve as new informal centres of power while Tokayev will act on Nazarbayev’s behalf.

The restructured Security Council also allows a potentially improved version of the Putin-Medvedev ‘castling manoeuvre’ of 2008 in Russia, facilitating Nazarbayev’s departure from the daily demands of office but allowing him to retain a veto-wielding shadow-leadership role.

This would echo the roles assumed by Deng Xiaoping in China and ‘minister mentor’ Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore as semi-retired high priests of rapidly growing, politically secular, modernist republics.

This is a self-image to which still young and developing Kazakhstan aspires, even if it is far from a reality. In this scenario, if things were not to work as planned, the constitutional order would allow the Security Council’s theoretical prominence to become real.

Role of the security services

The loyalty of the security forces during this transition stage, particularly in a time of rising disaffection, is paramount. The day before Nazarbayev’s resignation, prosecutor-general Kairat Kozhamzharov was dismissed and demoted to senator.

Kozhamzharov’s close ties to the Russian elite might have been viewed as a potential trouble spot in this transition period. His removal could have been a precautionary step immediately preceding Nazarbayev’s resignation.

Also, the newly-appointed prosecutor-general Gizat Nurdauletov is said to be a close affiliate of Samat Abish. Nazarbayev further assured himself of the loyalty of the influential head of the internal intelligence service Karim Massimov’s loyalty by assigning him the title of major-general of national security.

Nazarbayev’s resignation is likely to cause some competition over decision-making in the country as the vertical power structure no longer stands so firmly. Competition for assets between elite business groups and the Nazarbayev family will intensify as Nazarbayev’s eventual departure from the political scene nears.

The power of the security organs in Kazakhstan and the proximity of the head of the security services - the KNB - to Nazarbayev, makes it unlikely any elites will challenge his ultimate choice of president. On the contrary, they are likely to put aside their differences and to reach a ‘gentleman’s agreement’. In addition, Massimov is thought to be in possession of compromising material on elite figures that can keep them in check.

While the next presidential election is due in December 2020, it will likely be brought forward to provide the new president necessary electoral legitimacy over the next few years. Nazarbayev may decide to call earlier elections to ensure that neither domestic opposition movements nor external forces will interfere in his handpicked heir ascending the throne.

Nazarbayev can now work to solidify the political system and provide for a smooth transition of power, giving way to a new era. In the words of Kazakh domestic policy expert Askar Nursha, ‘a new political reality is gradually evolving, in which the president, although remaining the main figure, will cease to be the sun around which other planets rotate’.

The first president’s final legacy issue will be how Kazakhstan moves towards its first elections post-Nazarbayev in the next year. Nazarbayev’s success in the early years was in opening the country to the west and investors, preserving stability and forging positive relations with Russia and China.

As his final legacy effort, Nazarbayev could work to liberalise the political system, allowing independent parties to flourish and provide for Kazakhstan’s first free elections as per the constitution.

But while he resigned elegantly, this is unlikely to be the choice of the strongman first president, whose priority is to safeguard his family’s security and wealth.