Nursultan Nazarbayev: Strategic withdrawal by increments?

ZOiS Spotlight 15/2019 by Beate Eschment (17 March 2019)

The former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev (centre) © Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Foto

On 9 June 2019, early presidential elections will take place in Kazakhstan. On the face of it, there is nothing new about that: both of the previous votes to elect the country’s head of state, in 2011 and 2015, were held earlier than the law demands. What is new, however, is the certainty that the winner will not be Nursultan Nazarbayev. By Kazakhstan’s standards, this is sensational news, despite the relatively subdued reaction from the public, media and social networks. In reality, it may well be a further move in a long-planned withdrawal from politics.

The resignation that was not

When Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first and only president, announced on 19 March 2019 that he was stepping down after decades in office, there was a tumultuous reaction from the public. However, the shock rapidly gave way to disillusionment or relief, according to one’s political standpoint, for a closer look revealed that while Nazarbayev may have stepped down from the presidency, he has not handed over the reins of power.

Nazarbayev has retained key powers and functions, notably the chairmanship of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, which is not only responsible for issues of internal and external security but also deals with economic and social policy and other matters. What’s more, as First President and Leader of the Nation – both lifetime titles – he has the right to attend cabinet meetings and table his own policy initiatives. But this was no usurpation of power at the moment of his resignation. Nazarbayev is simply exercising the rights and functions granted to him by law over recent years.

In his resignation speech, Nazarbayev also named his successor, or rather the person he can count on to support him: the speaker of the Senate, who, in the event of the early termination of the president’s term of office, takes over as acting president for the remainder of the term in line with the constitution. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is a 65-year-old politician who grew up in the Soviet era and has a wealth of experience, mostly diplomatic. He served as prime minister from 1999 to 2002, foreign minister from 1994 to 1999 and from 2003 to 2007, and Director-General of the United Nations Office and Under Secretary-General of the UN in Geneva from 2011 to 2013. He is also well-connected in Russia and China.

Tokayev has repeatedly shown where his loyalties lie, culminating in his proposal that the capital Astana be renamed Nur-Sultan. Despite unusually vocal criticism at home and numerous derisory comments from abroad, this vision became reality in record time. A policy programme or at least some initial suggestions from Tokayev about what might be done to address the urgent problems facing the country have not been forthcoming, however.

Dual rule

Nazarbayev is obviously determined to exercise his remaining powers and now has his own newly formed administration to assist him, with a budget of one billion tenge (around 2.33 million euros) approved by Parliament. Since early April, he has hosted talks with ministers and other dignitaries and has already chaired one meeting of the Security Council. He also continues to feature prominently on the President’s website.

But Tokayev has taken to the affairs of state as well. Like Nazarbayev, he holds meetings with ministers, travels around the country and, on 3 April 2019, during his first foreign visit as president, was given words of advice by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow. In the eyes of the media and the public, however, he remained very much in the shadow of his illustrious predecessor.

And despite the new line-up, it is this predecessor who retains control over all the key decisions. What’s more, the public does not see him as responsible for the – by no means insignificant – problems currently faced by Kazakhstan, meaning that he can position himself even more effectively as the nation’s father figure. His legal successor, on the other hand, has to contend with outraged mothers of large families demanding the welfare payments they were promised, with furious Uyghurs and Kazakhs demanding that Kazakhstan intervene on behalf of their relatives in Chinese re-education camps, and a disillusioned urban middle class at risk of social decline. Hardly an auspicious starting point for positioning oneself as a prospective candidate in the presidential elections, which were meant to take place in 2020.

Early elections

Just a month after taking office, Tokayev announced a snap election, which he described as “absolutely necessary” to maintain “social and political harmony” and end “political uncertainty”. Observers believe that the future head of state is likely to be nominated by those already in control of the country, namely the ruling party Nur Otan. The dynastic solution, discussed for years, would have seen Dariga Nazarbayeva, the first president’s eldest daughter, nominated as a candidate. However, that seems unlikely, at least this time round. Through a spokesperson, Nazarbayeva made it clear that she would not be running. Other potential candidates such as Imangali Tasmagambetov, Kazakhstan’s current ambassador to Russia, Almaty city major Bauyrzhan Baibek, or the deputy chairman of the National Security Committee Samat Abisch have refrained from comment so far.[1] Nur Otan will nominate its candidate on 23 April 2019 and there is every indication that his name is Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The snap election is to his benefit and he clearly has Nazarbayev’s support. He has featured more prominently in the state media in recent days and is attempting to step out of Nazarbayev’s shadow.

Everything going to plan?

Despite the apparent bombshell of Nazarbayev’s resignation in mid March, it was undoubtedly a strategic move that was long in the making and meticulously prepared. The political powers mentioned above have been formally granted to him for the duration of his lifetime, along with a guarantee of immunity for himself and his family – by no means insignificant. Some of his loyal allies have been awarded key positions. And in a clever psychological move, the Constitutional Council’s decision in February 2019 affirming Nazarbayev’s right to resign was widely publicised.

The possibility cannot be precluded that the early elections were pre-planned as well. Contrary to what much of the media coverage says, Nazarbayev did not state explicitly in his resignation speech that Tokayev would remain in office until 2020; he merely cited the relevant provisions of the constitution. What seems certain is that bringing the elections forward was another cautious step in the Leader of the Nation’s withdrawal from public life, indicating that the decision on who will be the new president is not quite as unimportant as the public reaction would suggest. Let’s hope that after the elections, the political elite will finally turn its attention to the economic, social and structural reforms that Kazakhstan so urgently needs.


[1] As at 12 April 2019


Beate Eschment is a Central Asia expert and researcher at ZOiS. She is also the editor of Zentralasien-Analysen. Her current research focuses on identity formation and interest representation among national minorities in Kazakhstan.