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Nazarbayev's resignation and the end of post-Soviet politics in Kazakhstan

The "lifelong leader" of Kazakhstan has resigned, putting an end to a 30-year rule — and opening up space to reflect on the country's development.

Luca Anceschi
20 March 2019
President Nursultan Nazarbayev resigns his position, 19 March 2019
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President of Kazakhstan

This week, people all over Central Asia celebrate Nowruz, a festival marking the beginning of the Persian new year and the spring equinox. It is a celebration of change, with local populations rejoicing for the arrival of warmer air after the long and bitter winter.

For citizens of Kazakhstan, the 2019 spring festival brings rather unexpected change. On 19 March, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only president to rule the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union, resigned in a televised address, announcing the establishment of an interim leadership temporarily fronted by Senate Chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. He will serve as the country’s president until a new election scheduled for 2020. Nazarbayev, meanwhile, will retain a series of influential posts, including chairmanship of the National Security Council and of the Nur Otan party, while remaining a member of Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council.

Nazarbayev’s resignation is a watershed in Eurasia’s recent political history. This week, we have witnessed the departure from power of a man who sat in the last Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and who went on to navigate the tumultuous political and economic transitions instigated by the collapse of the Soviet superpower. Throughout almost 30 years of uninterrupted and unchallenged rule, Nazarbayev shaped Kazakhstan’s politics and, to some extent, its society, in his own image. With his departure, Kazakhstan finally leaves the post-Soviet era: the president personified the last visible connection between the nomenklatura of the 1980s and the more complex power structure of the late 2010s.

The decision to leave the Kazakhstani presidency via a televised announcement is consistent with the spectacular politics which has so often defined Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev. The transformation of the Kazakhstani state into a key actor in the Eurasian landscape has been played out before our very eyes, through the hosting of global events, the acquisition of leadership in more or less important international organisations (OSCE, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and the construction of a new, futuristic capital, Astana - an endeavour that has incarnated, more than anything else, the Nazarbayev dream.

Not lost is also the symbolism of the president’s own hands, which played a central role in the regime propaganda of the last 20 years. Featuring on tenge notes, and in giant handprints at the top of the Bayterek tower in Astana, now they have signed the president’s resignation decree on live television.

Bayterek Tower, Astana | CC BY NC ND 2.0 mariusz kluzniak / flickr. Some rights reserved

Nazarbayev’s resignation is unprecedented in terms of the political norms of post-Soviet Central Asia, where leaders have so far refused to yield power. Here, presidential transitions, with the notable exception of Kyrgyzstan, have often been instigated with long-term leaders dying in office. Although unexpected in its delivery, Nazarbayev’s decision to leave power willingly still represents the culmination of a long process of elite realignment and succession preparation. Recent government reshuffles, legislative adjustments and continuous rumours - to which Senate Chairman Tokayev has contributed in no insignificant way - hinted that something was happening behind the scenes in Astana.

This decision opens up a future that remains uncertain for Kazakhstan, but not for the president himself. Nazarbayev established, throughout his long hold onto power, a very comfortable legislative environment for orchestrating his own resignation. Seen from the president’s vantage point, post-Nazarbayev politics poses no challenge to Kazakhstan’s first family and its many business interests. At a time when the families of other deceased Central Asian leaders are investigated at home and internationally, securing a safe future for his immediate relatives has to be a key factor in Nazarbayev’s decision to step down.

Rather than speculate on Kazakhstan’s future, this week’s events call for a further reflection on the long Nazarbayev era: with Elbasi, or “father of the nation” as Nazarbayev is known, on his way out, it is now important to make informed assessments of the principal legacies bequeathed by Kazakhstan’s first president. To my mind, the policies implemented under Nazarbayev have left a mixed imprint on the construction of post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

Footage from the oil town of Zhanozen, where in December 2011 police broke a seven-month long strike by oil workers. Police killed 14 people in the process, injuring and torturing many others.

On the brighter side, Nazarbayev presided over a relatively successful plan of economic modernisation, defined by the simultaneous emergence of a sizeable middle-class and a qualified bureaucracy. The extensive work of public good provision implemented under Nazarbayev set Kazakhstan apart from the regional norm: albeit predicated on high commodity prices, infrastructural development, especially in urban areas, remains one of the most visible legacies of his long presidential mandate. Balancing between Kazakhstan’s precarious ethnic equilibrium and an active foreign policy agenda is another key presidential success: the idea of a “Kazakhstani” identity translated externally, and very successfully indeed, into the adoption of a Eurasian path for the international representation of Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev.

More problematic were the regime’s failures to diversify Kazakhstan’s economy and liberalise its politics. Kazakhstan flourished in the era of high commodity prices but, as the president leaves office, the country’s structural dependency on the oil sector continues to be a long-term burden on the economic viability of the Kazakhstani state as a whole. Kazakhstan’s political scene, on the other hand, deteriorated quite dramatically throughout the 2010s, after the alternation of reforms and repression that characterised the 1990s and 2000s. Nazarbayev’s refusal to step down in 2011 and 2015 instigated a long goodbye, giving way to an era of ageing leadership in which the central commitment to liberalisation waned, the degree of repression - of media operators, human rights activists, and Kazakhstani workers and trade unionists - became more asphyxiating, and the population’s social and political rights came to be violated with worrying regularity.

In this protracted twilight zone, decision-making at any level was grounded to an unprecedented halt: Kazakhstani politics stagnated for almost a decade while waiting for Nazarbayev to exit the scene. The withering of the Nazarbayev regime contrasted quite dramatically with the policy vigour of post-Karimov Uzbekistan, where the process of authoritarian modernisation carried out by Shavkat Mirziyoyev has revitalised the domestic landscape. And it is precisely in this sense that this week’s resignation may have an immediate impact over Kazakhstani governance: a comprehensive reset of regime dynamics may inject new life into the construction of a new, thoroughly post-post-Soviet, Kazakhstan.

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