Analysis | What Comes Next for Kazakhstan?

Analysis | What Comes Next for Kazakhstan?

The Hague — No one expected Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to step down. The 78-year-old is one of the last Soviet-era political leaders who has remained in power for almost 30 years. Despite resigning from the presidency in March, he will remain the power behind the ‘throne,’ continuing to serve as leader of the ruling party, Nur Otan, and as the lifelong head of Kazakhstan’s influential Security Council. 

Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev 
Nazarbayev was first elected in an uncontested presidential election in 1991 and led Kazakhstan’s bid for independence from the Soviet Union. Under his leadership, Kazakhstan joined the United Nations, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the predecessor of the Organization for the Security and Cooperation for Europe) and ratified the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as well as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 

Throughout his rule, Nazarbayev not only labored to sustain strong relations with Russia by joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union along with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, but also coordinated with the West to open Kazakhstan to the wider world. In 2001, Kazakhstan and the United States declared their commitment to strategic partnership and signed the U.S.-Kazakhstan Energy Partnership. Eight years later, France and Kazakhstan signed energy and business deals worth 6 billion USD. In 2015, Nazarbayev also signed an agreement to create the world’s first bank of low-enriched uranium to be managed by the IAEA. 

Perhaps Nazarbayev’s most enduring legacy, however, is the relationship that he formed with China and turning Kazakhstan into an energy powerhouse. The first deal that China and Kazakhstan struck was in 2004. In 2017, more than 12.3 million tons of crude oil had been imported from Kazakhstan to China, representing a 23.2% increase from 2017. The China-Kazakhstan Pipeline runs more than 2,800 kilometers and has been operational since 2006. 

Despite the country’s economic and energy liberalization, Kazakhstan, like China, suffers from international criticism that the country tramples upon democratic norms and engages in political suppression. According to Freedom House, journalists, activists, lawyers and individuals face routine harassment and persecution. Moreover, all Internet users in Kazakhstan are required to install a “national security certificate” which allows the authorities to both block access to certain websites and scan all HTTPS protocol communications. In 2017, when Kazakhstan hosted the EXPO 2017 International Specialized Exhibition, the events were preceded by ‘clean-ups’ of the cities where homeless people were removed from the streets and citizens were required to buy tickets for the EXPO. 

What Comes Next for Nazarbayev
Although the coverage of Nazarbayev’s resignation gave the impression that he was surrendering his political power and control over the state, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He will remain head Kazakhstan’s Security Council, the ruling Nur Otan party and the country’s constitutional court. As Nazarbayev ominously stated himself “I am staying with you.” 

Nazarbayev’s lifetime leadership of Kazakhstan’s Security Council was decided in May 2018, with the Security Council playing an extremely important role in Kazakhstan’s government. The council is a consultative body that advises the government. Moreover, Nazarbayev’s membership of the Constitutional Court is also notable as that court effectively has the power to veto any law

Senate Speaker and Former Prime Minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was named to operate as acting president before the next presidential vote. A day later, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayev, took over Tokayev’s position in the Senate. This, more than rhetoric, illustrated that while Nazarbayev is stepping down, he is still concerned with the interests of his family and intends to remain a key player in Kazakhstan’s politics. His position as ‘national leader’ or elbasy keeps him immune from prosecution from from any criminal prosecution committed in office and implies that his family’s assets cannot be seized. 

Despite his deft political maneuvering, by retaining his position of power within the Security Council, Nazarbayev may have incidentally planted the seeds of future political tension. Tokayev may be a loyalist but he has already appointed Bakytzhan Sagintayev to head his presidential administration, a man who was fired by Nazarbayev only one month prior due to his alleged inability to raise the average household income or improve living standards. 

While there is no evidence as yet to suggest that Nazarbeyev’s bifurcation of power will cause disruption in the short term, Nazarbayev may have inadvertently created two distinct centers of power which may hold divergent views on what is best for Kazakhstan.  

Kazakhstan in the Cards
Because of Kazakhstan’s vast reserves of oil and gas, it is seen by some as the next great game for Western, Russian and Chinese powers to compete in. Under his reign, Nazarbayev managed to play to both the West and East, maintaining strong relations with both Russia and China while speaking the language of human rights to the West. Under any successor, Nazarbayev will surely aim to preserve the delicate geopolitical balance that he strived for years to forge.

Of greater significance, Nazarbayev’s resignation from formal leadership will serve as a model for other leaders the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Russia’s political landscape is quite different from that of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev demonstrated that it is possible to substitute the label of “dictator” for that of a “benevolent leader” without relinquishing power. In other words, he symbolically passed the reins of government and marked the end of his regime while maintaining effective control over the country. For Putin, this could be a model to follow. 

Putin and Nazarbayev are reported to have talked by phone before Nazarbayev resigned. While this may have been a formality in which Nazarbayev was merely informing Putin of his future intentions, it is also likely that their alleged close personal relationship could have other implications. According to Russia’s current constitution, Putin will have to step down from power in 2024 – and may want to rebrand himself as a “benevolent leader” in much the same way. As that date draws closer, it will be interesting to analyze Putin’s strategy for remaining in power.

For Kazakhstan, the next few years will likely involve a search to find a new public-facing leader who can credibly assume former President’s place without posing a threat. As long as Nazarbayev retains control of the security council and ruling party, however, it is unlikely that much will change from the status quo in Kazakhstani governance in the coming decade.


Gabriella Gricius

- International Scholar, Wider Europe Programme & Asia Programme
- Twitter: @ModernFledgling
- LinkedIn: Gabriella Gricius

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Photo Credit:

  1. Astana, Kazakhstan by Ninara, Flickr

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