Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first and only president, resigned today after 28 years in office. He’s a living link to his country’s past and present, a transitionary figure who helmed the Republic of Kazakhstan as it withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union and became an oil-rich, independent country. But now is not the time to eulogize Nazarbayev, for not only is he alive and well, but he is still in complete control of the government. He may well be preparing the ground for an eventual succession, but if Nazarbayev has his way, that day is still a long way’s off.
The timing of the resignation is a bit surprising – but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Speaking to the BBC in June 2018, Kazakhstan’s parliamentary speaker, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, said Nazarbayev would not run in the country’s upcoming 2020 presidential election. Tokayev’s remarks are especially telling nearly a year later, considering he is now the country’s interim president. Moreover, Nazarbayev’s decision comes on the heels of sacking his entire government last month, leading many to believe he was looking for scapegoats ahead of snap elections.
That proved to be only partly true. Nazarbayev was indeed looking for someone to blame, but not with an eye toward re-election, for he had already created a new position to help him retain and even deepen his presidential powers. Last July, Nazarbayev signed a law that made him, “by virtue of his historic mission,” chairman of the country’s Security Council for life. (The law had been adopted by Kazakhstan’s parliament in May and approved by the constitutional court in June – the same month Tokayev gave his interview.) The law enhances the authority of the council, making it a constitutional body instead of a consultative one, and states that all Security Council decisions will, as a matter of course, be implemented – even by Kazakhstan’s president.
There are two ways to view Nazarbayev’s resignation. The first is that Nazarbayev believes Kazakhstan is not ready for a democratic transition. Like Russia’s economy, the Kazakh economy is highly dependent on oil exports, which in 2017 accounted for roughly 35 percent of its gross domestic product and 75 percent of its exports. The price of oil has plummeted since 2014, and in an oversupplied market, Kazakhstan’s economic prospects are not very good.
The dissolution of his government is a testament to this grim outlook. Nazarbayev said state programs had failed to produce “concrete results” in terms of job creation, supporting small and medium-sized businesses, and reducing the country’s dependence on oil. The Kazakh currency has lost half its value since 2015, the Kazakh government has repeatedly had to bail out banks, and GDP growth rates are expected to slow in the coming years. A heavier hand may be needed to transform Kazakhstan the way it must be transformed, or so the logic may go.
The second interpretation is that Nazarbayev is taking a page out of the playbook of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who famously shepherded his country from the Mao era to the beginning of the current era. At the end of Deng’s tenure, he too surrendered official power, resigning even from the Central Military Commission in 1989. Had he wanted, Deng could have held onto his positions. Indeed, considering the major economic transition China was about to embark on – and the very real political tensions that Tiananmen Square exemplified – Deng had reason to consider sticking around and supplying his steady and experienced hand to Chinese politics. But Deng chose a different path, passing official power to the Chinese Communist Party’s approved successor while remaining China’s “paramount leader.” It was more important for Deng to break the example of Mao than to retain power for power’s sake – to be the man behind the scenes rather than the man with the title.
But that’s about where the analogy ends. Nazarbayev isn’t exactly stepping back from politics or relinquishing his title – he is simply changing his title. Even though he netted 98 percent of the vote in the last election, Nazarbayev appears unwilling to leave anything to chance. (Considering the potentially destabilizing effects some of his proposed reforms would have, it’s easy to understand his reluctance.) The appointment of Tokayev – a political lightweight with no cohort of his own – appears to validate as much. Nazarbayev will be able to control Tokayev, and his pliability in that regard will help the former president balance with the Kazakh elites in the lead up to the 2020 election cycle. In other ways, Tokayev will represent more of the same. A graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Tokayev used to work in the Soviet Union’s embassy in China, so in that sense, he is exactly the kind of official Nazarbayev can lean on as Kazakhstan seeks to chart as independent a course as it can, sandwiched as it is between Russia and China.
In the end, not much has really changed. Nazarbayev will remain president of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, a body whose portfolio includes sweeping mandates to uphold national security and ensure domestic stability. The 78-year-old Nazarbayev is not executing a transition of power; he has simply consolidated more of it in a different office. Considering Kazakhstan’s strategic challenges – not least of which is fending off Uzbekistan – now may not be the time for new blood. The question of what comes after Nazarbayev is as open now as it was before his resignation. If anything, things are more uncertain.