After 29 years in power, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned on 19 March while he retains a powerful position in what appears to be a planned transition to power.

Nazarbayev will still head the Security Council and remain leader of the dominant Nur Otan party and hand over the presidency to ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, speaker of the upper house of parliament, for the rest of his term, which ends in April 2020.

Nazarbayev will also retain the title Leader of the Nation, which he retains for life. Under the Constitution, he could have remained as president indefinitely.

“I have taken a decision, which was not easy for me, to resign as president,” Nazarbayev said in a TV address, before signing a decree terminating his powers from 20 March. “I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country,” he added.

Tokayev, who has previously served as Kazakhstan’s foreign minister and prime minister, is expected to head Kazakhstan until the scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

Nazarbayev steered Kazakhstan to independence as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. He continued to maintain close ties with Moscow, the West, and China. The massive Central Asian state is rich in energy reserves and has also sought cooperation with the European Union.

“Nursultan Nazarbayev surprised everybody today with the announcement that he is to step down as president of Kazakhstan with immediate effect,” Chris Weafer, head of Macro-Advisory in Moscow, wrote in an emailed note on 20 March. “However, it also appears that he has been at least clarifying the rules for succession in recent months and planning for an early resignation. It appears he prefers a position where he can manage the succession process and to ensure a smooth succession rather than take the risk of waiting, said Weafer, who added, “He will be 79 in July,” but will remain very powerful and influential indefinitely, assuming his health allows.

Regarding handing power to Tokayev, Weafer said that does not believe Tokayev is the favoured long-term successor because the Chairman of the Senate automatically takes over as the leader in the event of the resignation or death of the president.

Tokayev has been considered a possible, if not probable, successor to Nazarbayev for some time and is the more likely permanent successor. Tokayev may serve as acting president until the next scheduled election in December 2020 or he may call early elections, Weafer explained.

“The candidate supported by the Nur Otan party and, presumably, endorsed by Nazarbayev, will win the election. There is no realistic possibility for surprise given the political structures in Kazakhstan,” Weafer wrote.

In late February, Nazarbayev replaced the prime minister, the head of the National Bank, and several cabinet ministers for not dealing with problems in the banking sector and in the social sphere.

Oil has boosted the economy

The positive factor for the economy is the recovery in the oil price coupled with growth in oil production as the Kashagan oil field, which started in October 2016, continues to post higher average oil output, Weafer wrote.

However, he noted that there are persistent problems, including the slow pace of implementing Nazarbayev’s flagship modernisation programme, called Nurly Zhol, which aims to create greater economic and export diversification; unresolved problems in the bank sector, which has cost almost $13 billion in bailouts over the past two years; and public protests against the failure to deliver promised social and economic reforms.