Future of Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev: An Assessment
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF

In a historic announcement on 19 March 2019, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev declared his resignation through a state television message. He stated that this decision was not easy, but he wanted to pave the way for the young generation of leaders into Kazakhstan’s politics. With this, he has become second Central Asian head of state conceding peaceful transition after Kyrgyz President Atamabayev. Through a smooth transition of power in favour of one of his most loyal Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Nazarbayev has set a precedent, however, leaving some insinuations behind concerning the future of this oil and hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian Republic.

A day after his resignation, on 20 March 2019, Speaker of the Senate, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was sworn in as interim president to serve the rest of Nazarbayev’s presidential term. The eldest daughter of Nazarbayev, Dariga, was unanimously picked as the speaker of the Senate, which brought her to the second most powerful position of the country after the President. Tokayev is an experienced diplomat and learned politician who has held some of the most essential positions in Nazarbayev Government. In his address, Nazarbayev hailed his capabilities to be his successor, he said, “Alongside me, he has been working since the first days of independence of Kazakhstan. I know him well. He is an honest, responsible and indispensable person. He fully supports implemented policy inside and outside the country. All programmes were developed and adopted with his participation. I believe that Tokayev is the person we can entrust the governance of Kazakhstan”.1 After swearing in, Tokayev’s first proposal was to rename capital city Astana to Nursultan as to honour the founder head of Kazakh state. Earlier, this proposal has popped up many times in Kazakh Parliament, but this time it has passed swiftly.

Presidential elections were scheduled to be held in April 2020. But on 9 April 2019, President Tokaev have announced snap elections set for 9 June this year. He said that after consulting with the Leader of the Nation (Nursultan Nazarbayev) and Chair of the Senate Dariga Nazarbayeva, he took this decision. The reason behind the announcement of early Presidential election is to clear the cloud of political uncertaintity as it could have aggravated tensions among the masses. As President Tokayev in his television address said that he will guarantee that the elections will be free and fair in all manner which seems to be rhetorical. Moreover, early elections have also reduced the chances of any political opponent to formulate the strategy to contest elections. Dariga Nazarbayeva has reportedly said that she is not running for President of Kazakhstan. Rulling party Nur Otan headed by Nazarbayev will announce its candidate within twenty days as reported. Dariga will the top choice of the party although she has said that she would not contenst elections but the final decision will be of his father, the founder head of state of Kazakhstan.

What led to the Power Transition in Kazakhstan?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan adopted a multi-vector foreign policy as due to its landlocked feature it was bound to be dependent on two of its major neighbouring powers, Russia and China. Taking leverage of its geopolitical location at the crossroad of East and West, Nazarbayev turned towards West for economic development and investment along with maintaining warm economic and political relations with Russia and China. It was his far sight and foreign policy approach that Kazakhstan turned out to be a country of global standing ahead of other Central Asian Republics.

There are some significant reasons through which Nazarbayev’s resignation can be evaluated. Firstly, however, President Nazarbayev has elevated the country to a level of global importance and recognition of its economic potential, but it has been facing a number of challenges in recent years in its socio-economic domains. The legitimacy of the autocratic regime of Nazarbayev centred on its performance since Soviet Disintegration in 1991. Raised living standards, political stability, and economic growth are to be taken into account while summarizing the Nazarbayev’s 30 years regime. However, due to the recession in the Russian economy, commodity prices have been falling rapidly, causing slow economic growth from 13.5 per cent in 2001 to 4.1 per cent in 2017.2 Consequently, economic disparity in Kazakh society augmented in recent years which has paved the way for social discontent between those who got mostly benefitted from the economic development and others who have been neglected from this.

Corruption has been one of the significant challenges before Kazakh government placing this Republic at 124th place in the latest corruption Index. 3 It is evident that in an autocratic regime; politicians, Government officials and family and friends of the ruling regime get benefitted most and are mostly involved in corruption. Ordinary people get alienated and frustrated which results in the resentment against the autocratic government. This has happened with the Nazarbayev regime as well. Recently, five children were killed in a house fire in Astana as both their parents were out to earn end meets for their family. This incident has intensified the mood of frustration among the masses against the socio-economic inequality and the government’s inability to take care of this issue. President Nazarbayev immediately took cognizance of this situation and in response, he fired the entire government for being incompetent to provide improved conditions to the citizens of Kazakhstan.

Having witnessed the overthrow of two successive governments in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan through the popular revolutions arising from socio-economic disparity, President Nazarbayev wanted power transition to be a smooth process in Kazakhstan. He may also want new leaders to continue with his authoritarian policies of modernization and economic growth and which is indispensable for centralized power and political control. However, he will also ensure that Kazakhstan provides suitable grounds for investment and marketization.4
Nazarbayev has examined the experience of power transfer in Uzbekistan after the death of its founder autocratic ruler Islam Karimov. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who served as Prime Minister during Karimov regime became President. However, it was apparently a peaceful transfer of power but with some serious repercussions for the family, friends, and favourites of the former Uzbek President. The new Uzbek government under the leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev took some stern actions and removed several significant figures from their positions. Therefore, the power transition in Uzbekistan has been challenging, and the new government has been severely tracing the anomalies done by Karimov and his family. Moreover, as a result, Gulanara Karimov, daughter of the Islam Karimov was accused of severe financial faults for which she has been kept under house arrest.

It has been evident in almost all Central Asian Republics having an autocratic regime that family and relatives mostly serve the most powerful positions in the Government. Seeing the case of Uzbekistan, where new regime sluiced the president's entire family and deprived them of any opportunities for political and financial influence over the government decision making, Nazarbayev decided not to wait for this kind of developments, instead he wanted to ensure that even after the power transition, central control remains with him or within his clan.5 Moreover, strategically, he wanted that if there is going to be a power transition in Kazakhstan, then he rather be the one in charge of it.

Is Nazarbayev Retired?

Having discussed above the plausible scenarios which led to the resignation of Kazakh President, it is required to analyse if he is out of Kazakh politics. The power transition in Kazakhstan has been speculated in recent years, and it was also expected that Nazarbayev would ensure his position as the leader of the nation even after retiring from his Presidential post. In 2017, Nazarbayev introduced some changes in the constitution which reduced the power of the President. In July 2018, he extended the role of Security Council assigning it in charge of controlling all security forces and foreign policy. Since last year he also rehabilitated the government, security and presidential officials. 6 In his address to the Kazakh citizens on March 19th, he said that he would be the head of the Security Council and <Nur Otan Party which brings him at the position of topmost decision making authority. He has also been conferred with the title of Albassy –the leader of the nation which makes him and his family forbidden from arrest and convictions.

Future Scenario

The political transition in Kazakhstan has raised several questions regarding Nazarbayev’s decision and durability in the coming future. Although he picked Tokayev as his successor, it is uncertain whether he is going to be in power after the Presidential elections. As snap elections are announced, it can be predicted that there are some people of Nazarbayev clan who are in the line of succession to become the head of Kazakhstan after elections. And renouncing power at this stint has provided ample time to Nazarbayev to build a suitable environment to headway a real power of transition of his choice.

The real question remains how this second stage of the succession will work out in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has recurrently stated the need for the young leaders to take over the power, which seems to reflect not more than just saying. Therefore, the unopposed election of former President’s eldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to take over as speaker of the chamber after Tokayev took over as President, has driven strong postulations about her chances of ultimately becoming the next head of state. She has long been involved in Kazakhstan’s politics and has also served as a member of parliament and Deputy Prime Minister (2015-16). It is a fact that she is a strong woman and an experienced politician, but it is doubtful that she would be capable of congregating the adherence of rival clans and interest groups without her father’s support. However, After announcement of the early elections by interim President on April 9th 2019, Dariga’s candidature as President o0f Kazakhstan became unclear until the party put her name forward.

Another probable candidature from Nazarbayev’s clan is presented by his nephew Samat Abish, who is currently holding the post of First Deputy Chairman of the National Security Committee. However, he has not been in the forefront, but his candidature may go well with the Nazarbayev’s assertion of securing a way to the young leadership as he is just 40 years old. Not only him but there are some other as well who are somehow connected with Nazarbayev and could be considered to be in power contest in snap Presidential elections. There is also the possibility of contention in power succession in Kazakhstan, however, Nazarbayev is more than capable of taking care of this situation if arises. So, it totally depends on founder head of the state Nursultan Nazarbayev to who will be the next President of Kazakhstan after the presidential elections, but the ultimate aim of this power transition will be to maintain the status quo. 7 With this, it will be ensured that Kazakhstan moves ahead with its domestic and foreign policies, which is to adopt reforms and to advertise its multi-vector foreign policy approach.


This is the undeniable fact that although Nazarbayev has resigned, yet he remains the most important person in the country through the constitutional framework. He will be playing a central role in dictating the socio-economic and political paradigms of Kazakhstan along with directing to the one who succeeds him as President of the country. However, it is also projected that expanding socio-economic disparity in Kazakh society is going to take a troll of the new regime, but taking considerations of old experiences and implying new approach can together work as a catalyst for socio-economic development of Kazakhstan. It is time that we wait for the free and fair Presidential elections as promised by the President Tokayev with a hope that the future leadership with a vision for an equal socio-economic development delivers the desired outcome.

  1. President of Kazakhstan address to the nation on 19th March 2019, http://www.akorda.kz/en/speeches/internal_political_affairs/in_speeches_and_addresses/address-of-the-head-of-state-nursultan-nazarbayev-to-the-people-of-kazakhstan.
  2. World Bank Data economic indicators Kazakhstan, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=KZ.
  3. Corruption Perception Index 2018, https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018.
  4. Edward Lemon, ‘Why Nazarbayev Resigned and What Happens Next’, March 20, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/why-nazarbayev-resigned-and-what-happens-next.
  5. https://www.unian.info/world/10486149-stepping-down-without-going-what-to-expect-in-kazakhstan-after-nazarbayev-s-resignation.html.
  6. https://www.dailysabah.com/op-ed/2019/03/26/nursultan-nazarbayev-last-soviet-leader-or-kazakhstans-founding-president.
  7. George Voloshin, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev Steps Down but Remains the Power Behind the Throne, https://jamestown.org/program/kazakhstans-nazarbayev-steps-down-but-remains-the-power-behind-the-throne/.

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