Kazakhstan had a capital city called Astana and a president called Nursultan. Now, it has a capital called Nursultan and a president called Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. All this tells a story. That story is about change but continuity. And an embrace of the new but a staunch refusal to shed the legacy of the old. Kazakhstan became upper middle income country, by World Bank definition, because Nazarbayev carried out economic reforms and brought in Western #energy companies to develop challenging oil and gas deposits.
Nazarbayev took the helm in Kazakhstan as its Communist Party chief of the republic in 1989 when it was part of the Soviet Union, and he was first elected its president weeks before the 1991 Soviet collapse gave the country its independence. He has been widely praised for maintaining stability and ethnic peace in Kazakhstan, a large, oil-rich nation south of Russia and west of China. Even though he has faced criticism for marginalizing the political opposition and creating what is effectively a one-party state, the political regime that Nazarbayev has built is more liberal than those in the de-facto dictatorships in the neighboring Central Asian countries.
The idea of changing the name of the capital in tribute to outgoing head of state Nursultan Nazarbayev was suggested on March 20 by Tokayev during an inauguration speech that dwelled heavily on the past.
Tokayev, 65, who has been rapidly eased into his new constitutionally mandated role from his last post as chairman of the Senate, spoke loftily of Nazarbayev as a nation-builder, steward of economic growth and the deliverer of Kazakhstan from Soviet totalitarianism. That last claim was a bold one to make in a nation where opposition to the government gets short shrift.
Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only leader Kazakhstan has ever known since its independence and was its first president. Now, 78-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down in a sudden announcement. But although Nazarbayev has ended his almost 30-year rule, he has not given up power. He is keeping the constitutional status of both leader of the nation and chief of the country’s security council.
Having ruled Kazakhstan with an authoritarian grip since the 1980s, President Nursultan Nazarbaev shocked many when he unexpectedly announced his resignation on March 19. This year marks the 30th anniversary of my term as the supreme leader of our country, Nazarbaev said during a hastily arranged nationwide address. [But] I have made the difficult decision to resign as president of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Nazarbaev is credited by many with turning Kazakhstan the world’s ninth largest country into an energy powerhouse during his long reign, but strongly criticized for trampling upon democratic norms and freedoms while brutally suppressing all opposition to his rule. My generation and I have done everything we could for the country, he said in the TV address. The results are well known to you. Though leaving the presidential post, Nazarbaev will retain many other influential positions in the Kazakh government, leaving many to wonder if he’s really giving up power.
Nazarbaev, 78, will continue to head Kazakhstan’s powerful Security Council, the ruling Nur Otan political party that he founded, and the country’s Constitutional Council. The last Soviet-era president to leave office, Nazarbaev noted during his announcement that he was also granted the lifetime status of Elbasy, or leader of the nation, by parliament in 2010.
He will remain a central political figure until the end of his days. His cult is likely to live for decades as well, with future leaders building their legitimacy on the notion they continue building on the legacy of Nazarbaev. And his position as head of the Security Council, which he noted in his resignation address has serious authority, will allow him to control the country’s foreign policy.
Nazarbaev’s resignation comes just two days before Norouz, the springtime new year’s holiday that is celebrated in many predominantly Muslim countries. The timing could be seen by many as symbolic of a new beginning and give people in Kazakhstan time over the holiday to discuss and digest the big political change taking place in their country. It was both long anticipated and an abrupt change at the same time. Nazarbaev has been considering various options for power transition and has chosen one that will allow him to oversee the succession process and normalize the idea that Kazakhstan can also be ruled by a leader other than himself.
Nazarbaev signaled that he wanted to resign by asking Kazakhstan’s highest court to clarify the conditions under which a president could leave office. He clearly wants to leave but to manage the transition to a new generation rather than serving until his death with unpredictable consequences thereafter. Nazarbaev said during his resignation that he wanted to ensure the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms under way in the country. Let them try to make the country better. Nazarbaev’s resignation comes less than a month after he sacked the government of Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintaev for a lack of economic development. The move also comes just weeks after the early February house-fire deaths of five children in a tragedy that shocked the country and led to criticism of the government and women-led protests.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken with Nazarbaev earlier on March 19 to discuss the resignation. The speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, said Nazarbaev’s resignation was serious and unexpected but said if it was his decision it was necessary. She credited Nazarbaev with being behind the initiative to create the Eurasian Economic Union and said he had bolstered cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan. In separate telephone calls, Russian President Vladimir Putin once again thanked Nursultan Nazarbayev for his personal contribution to the development of allied bilateral relations and to the success of the Eurasian integration project.
Confidence was expressed that the first President of Kazakhstan would continue to actively contribute to the efforts to strengthen cooperation within the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union. The President of Russia congratulated Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on assuming office as the President of Kazakhstan and wished him every success in this responsible position.
The parties agreed to closely coordinate their actions in the interests of stronger Russia-Kazakhstan ties and to organise a visit by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to Russia in the near future.
William Courtney, a former US ambassador to Kazakhstan, credited Nazarbaev with carrying out economic reforms and bringing in Western companies to exploit the country’s energy resources. Minutes after Tokayev was sworn in, he suggested that the Kazakh capital Astana be renamed Nursultan to honor the outgoing president. Tokayev in his speech praised Nazarbayev as an outstanding reformer who is widely expected to continue to wield influence as chairman of the security council and head of the ruling party.
The transition of power may provide with a good opportunity to promote political discourse and to release imprisoned journalists and [allow] peaceful demonstrations and independent political parties to exist. Nazarbaev’s resignation may spark the largely dormant political opposition in Kazakhstan into action. But the opposition has been weakened by Nazarbaev and no political debate has been allowed under his rule, so no strong reserves of opposition forces exist in Kazakhstan or outside the country that could gain significant popularity in the population.
The lack of an opposition may lead to outside countries gaining influence. The opposition in Kazakhstan is relatively weak. This [resignation] will certainly cause it to take notice of some new possibilities. More disturbingly, it may lead some in other countries read Russia but also China to try to get involved so as to dominate the next generation in Kazakhstan.
Meanwhile, police arrested dozens of opposition supporters staging rallies in Kazakhstan’s two major cities on Friday, three days after the surprise resignation of veteran leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev’s foe, fugitive banker and opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov who organised the protests, has accused the 78-year-old politician of planning a dynastic succession that would see his daughter succeed him.
Rallies in the capital Astana and in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, were small, with dozens of participants. A similar number gathered on Thursday, the first day of the protests which seem unlikely to pose a threat to the government led by Nazarbayev loyalists.
Protesters in Almaty carrying blue balloons – the emblem of opposition – mixed with crowds attending Nowruz festivities, a regional pre-Islamic holiday celebrated on the spring equinox, and soccer fans saluting Kazakhstan’s surprise victory over Scotland.
Although there were no slogans, chants or banners, some participants shouted they opposed Astana’s renaming. Tokayev, who assumed presidential powers until the current term ends in April 2020, said on Wednesday that Astana, the capital, would be renamed Nur-Sultan in Nazarbayev’s honour.
The eldest daughter of Kazakhstan’s outgoing long-time leader was appointed speaker of parliament, fuelling speculation that she may succeed her father as president after next year’s election. Dariga Nazarbayeva’s appointment comes a day after her father, 78-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, surprised many by announcing he was resigning after nearly 30 years in office or all of Kazakhstan’s time as an independent nation.
He said it was time for a new generation to rule. Though Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, was officially sworn in as interim president, Nazarbayev is likely to continue to wield considerable influence in the oil-rich country as he remains chairman of the security council and leader of the ruling party. The question who will succeed him is, however, still open.
Tokayev’s suggestion at his swearing-in ceremony that the country’s capital Astana be renamed Nursultan to honour the country’s first and only president indicates that Nazarbayev will retain an unrivalled position as the national leader even after his resignation. The parliament promptly approved the name change. That was further evidenced in the fact that the Kazakh Senate then voted to appoint Nazarbayeva, his eldest daughter, as the new speaker, making her the second most senior official in the country.