The resignation of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev didn't actually come as such a surprise. During the past six months, experts have been expecting some kind of a transit of power, suggesting that Nazarbayev could be preparing some platform and a framework for the future architecture of power transition to his successor.
Last year there were first personnel changes, which showed that Nazarbayev intensified the role of the administration of the president and security forces. Moreover, he was doing it not to suit his own rule but rather to provide for that transit stage.
Ultimately, this became clear after he appealed to the Constitutional Court with a request to clarify the position of the Constitution referring to a president stepping down from office. Although when Nazarbayev appealed to the Constitutional Court, he made a remark that he didn't want any early presidential elections.
Even back then, experts suggested that the president could be clearing up the path for his nephew, Samat Abish. It is he who Nazarbayev sees his successor. Abish is an influential figure from Nazarbayev's clan.
However, the idea was that this could happen no earlier than 2020. On February 27, 2019, at a Nur Otan Party congress, chaired by Nazarbayev himself, Nazarbayev gave some instructions that left a clear impression of him planning to remain at the helm of both the country and political force. He talked about the presidential elections scheduled to be held in a few years, and in no way hinted at planning to leave office.
Now he has resigned. According to the constitution of Kazakhstan, the power is transferred to the speaker of the upper chamber of the Senate, Kasim-Zhomart Tokayev. Of course, he is no successor. He is a head of state purely technically.
Nazarbayev seems to be resigning, but on the other hand, he is not going anywhere, while remaining a significant factor and the center of gravity and influence in the future power architecture
Tokayev is only a nominal leader, since Nazarbayev remains the head of the country's Security Council, the body which enjoys significant powers. The constitution of Kazakhstan stipulates the rights and obligations of "the first president-leader of the nation" (this is Nazarbayev's status now). This is a life-long position, that is, Nazarbayev may head the Security Council until the day he dies. In addition, the first president has the right to veto certain decisions taken by both the president and parliament.
Thus, Nazarbayev seems to be resigning, but on the other hand, he is not going anywhere, while remaining a significant factor and the center of gravity and influence in the future power architecture.
First reshuffles have already begun. In particular, Gizat Nurdauletov was appointed general prosecutor. He is believed to be a person close to Nazarbayev's brother and set to become a mentor and political advisor for Samat Abish.
In addition, former akim [head] of Akmolinsky region Malik Murzalin has returned to the presidential administration to become its Deputy Head. Experts say he will be shaping the foreign policy of the future president. In particular, in 2013-2017, he was deputy head of the president's office. A career diplomat and protocol executor, he is expected to ensure the impeccable transition of power to the next president and preparation for the elections – to make sure that it's Abish who becomes president.
Nazarbayev will remain the main active figure and provide a direct transit of power
There are also other clans in circles close to Nazarbayev, which wouldn't like to see Abish's increasing influence and could be a competition for him. In particular, it was about the son-in-law of the president, Mr Kulibayev, and the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Neither would be too pleased over the election of Samat Abish, and perhaps they could join forces in opposition. That's because they control part of the security forces and the army. They could create an actual competition. But that's only if Nazarbayev died. Then the situation would be similar to what happened in Uzbekistan.
However, Nazarbayev is alive and, judging by his long address late February, looks rather healthy. Therefore, obviously, Nazarbayev will remain the main active figure and provide for a direct transit of power.
From my point of view, Nazarbayev studied the experience of a neighboring Uzbekistan, where the power was transferred to Shavkat Mersiyoyev after the death of Islam Karimov. Mersiyoyev had been a prime minister of this country. And although it was a seemingly peaceful transfer of power, there were some real clashes behind closed doors of high offices, which resulted in the elimination of a number of significant figures. Moreover, the new leadership almost completely cut the influence of the Karimov family: his nephews, his wife, his daughter, and his closest entourage were all removed from decision-making.
Seeing the case where young wolves simply cleansed president's entire family, depriving them of any opportunities for financial influence and influence on government decisions, the Kazakh leader decided not to wait for tragic developments, instead ensuring that, following transfer, the power is retained within the Nazarbayev clan.
Therefore, I fully agree with those Kazakh experts who say that Nazarbayev "steps down without going anywhere."
Thirty years having Nazarbayev as president is a rather long term. During this period, Kazakhstan has undergone a certain period of its development, seen changes, while certain transparency processes have taken place, along with a significant economic improvement. In particular, in October 2018 and February 2019, Nazarbayev announced a number of significant social and economic changes. In fact, he's leaving office at a fairly high level of both trust and expectations. He has not been totally discredited despite some growth in dissatisfaction rates and a certain demonization of the Akorda (the presidential administration), the president's institutions, his entourage, and the government. The level of public support slid compared to 2010. Yet the level of income and living standards of the population, confidence in the country's leadership, as well as in the future of the Kazakhs, have been high enough under Nazarbayev's rule, especially over the past five years.
I believe that Nazarbayev's move followed consultations with Moscow and Beijing
In October, Nazarbayev announced a 35% increase of the minimum wage to public servants, while in February he confirmed doubling of minimum wages. That is, he made several steps that create a favorable atmosphere for Abish to win in the presidential election to ensure that the real authority remains within the Nazarbayev clan.
Regarding the foreign policy risks Nazarbayev's resignation could entail... I believe that Nazarbayev's move followed consultations with Moscow and Beijing. It is Russia and China that are decisive powers for the future of Kazakhstan. Therefore, probably, the resignation had been discussed with the leadership of both countries.
Obviously, in the conversation with Moscow, certain assurances were voiced that the Eurasian integration would not be curtailed, that Kazakhstan would not lose its role in the Eurasian Union, that it would not leave the CSTO, that the military-political bloc would remain in place, and that Kazakhstan would continue to play a major role in SCO and a dialogue with China. Therefore, I think that the issues of foreign policy risks were removed.
At the same time, by retiring, Nazarbayev removed from the agenda the issue of "public fatigue" around his figure. We have been seeing recently the rising forces of foreign opposition to Nazarbayev among the Kazakh diaspora as the latter became more revolution-minded. In addition, such major opposition figures as Kaszhegildin or a leader of the democratic movement tried to somehow create mechanisms for criticizing the country's authorities. Having retired, Nazarbayev is leveling out the issues of rallies or protests against him despite the fact that certain protest moods had already been broiling in the country...
On a separate note, we should touch upon the issue of a possible annexation or invasion on the part of Vladimir Putin, as well as intensification of efforts by pro-Russian movements in the north of Kazakhstan. In part, the Kazakhs have resolved the issue through "creeping Kazakhization" and a covert squeezing of Russians and Russian-speakers from official posts at various levels. Besides, Kazakhstan is seeing a demographic boom. So due to successful demographic policies, relocations, incentives, squeezing Russians out of public offices, and cleansing the country of the "Russian element", the Kazakhs managed to partially weaken major risks to their security.
This does not remove the issue of Russia's claims to Northern Kazakhstan. Before 2014, pro-Russian political networks had been working there, but after the start of Donbas war and Crimea annexation, Kazakhstan has taken a number of steps aimed at neutralizing similar threats. This does not mean that Kazakhstan's national security lacks weak spots or that Astana is in full control of the security situation in the country's northern regions. This is not the case, but more or less, the situation remains calm.
It is unlikely that Russia, having secured Nazarbayev's personal certain guarantees and assurances of preserving Eurasian integration and the pro-Russian course, will launch in Kazakhstan some kind of turbulence or "Russian Spring-2". This is unlikely to happen in the near future because Kazakhstan remains Putin's important ally and partner in Central Asia.
Without Kazakhstan, it's impossible for Russia to claim control over the Caspian Sea or Central Asia in general. Who Russia needs is Nazarbayev's successor.
Vitaliy Kulik is a political analyst, chief of Center for Civil Society Studies