Kazakhstan's First President Resigns, Retains Influence

Nursultan Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan’s first president. He held power for 29 years. (The Kremlin)

Nursultan Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan’s first president. He held power for 29 years. (The Kremlin)

The first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced his resignation on March 19. His post will be filled until the next election by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the speaker of the Upper House. One of President Tokayev’s first actions was to rename Astana, the former capital of Kazakhstan, to “Nur-Sultan,” the former President’s first name. Nazarbayev, who had been president of Kazakhstan since 1990, will retain his role as leader of the Nur Otan party, as well as his status as “Leader of the Nation,” which gives him policy-making powers.

This announcement follows a year of economic troubles and demonstrations in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh economy, which is commodity-based, has been recovering since a sharp drop in oil prices in 2014. Less than a month ago, he fired his own government, stating that, “In many areas of the economy, despite the adoption of many laws and government decisions, positive changes have not been achieved.” Furthermore, demonstrators in cities around the nation have “persistently protest[ed]” the government for failing to meet the needs of the people.

Despite the recent troubles that have been plaguing Nazarbayev, his announcement came as a shock to many. Valentina Matvienko, a Russian politician and ally of Vladimir Putin, has called the resignation, “unexpected and very serious,” particularly because Nazarbayev was thought to be a popular leader. He had been elected president five times, and the most recent election saw him take approximately 98 percent of the vote. However, the elections were not free and fair, according to the standards of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, who explained that, “The incumbent and his political party dominate politics, and there is a lack of a credible opposition in the country.”

While at first glance Nazarbayev’s resignation may appear to be a surprising move, some have interpreted it to be quite shrewd. First, even though Nazarbayev is stepping down, he will still retain policy-making power in his role as leader of his party, as well as the title of “Leader of the Nation.” This ensures that he will still have a say in Kazakhstani policies. He even suggested this continuation of power, stating in a speech, “I am staying with you. Caring for the country and its people will remain my concerns.” Furthermore, according to the Soufan Center, a nonprofit security think tank, Nazarbayev, who is 78 years old, witnessed the turmoil that gripped Uzbekistan in 2016 after their authoritarian leader died and recognized the importance of having able successors to lead the country. The Soufan Center further states that as a neighbor of Russia and China, Kazakhstan will be aggressively pursued for its resources and geopolitical value, but with Nazarbayev’s decision to step aside while still retaining power, Kazakhstan is well-equipped to remain stable.