Kazakhstan’s now-former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had ruled his energy-rich Central Asian republic since the late Soviet-era. Having been in power for nearly 30 years, he surprised many in the world community when on 20 March the 78-year-old announced that he would step down as Kazakhstan’s chief politician.
In his televised address to the nation, Nazarbayev said that his decision was partly driven by his desire to help “a new generation of leaders” emerge in Kazakhstan. But what was not mentioned in his announcement was that his resignation means very little in terms of changing the power structure in the country.
Nazarbayev has so dominated the political landscape of Kazakh politics over the last two generations that he will continue to retain his unchecked power as he remains the life-long chairman of the Security Council and the title Elbasy, or head-of-state for life.
During his resignation speech, Nazarbayev enumerated all of the major stages of development of independent Kazakhstan that he oversaw, which was the last of the 15 republics to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991.
“Together we managed to create a successful state from the ruins of the Soviet Union, with a modern market economy, to built peace and stability within the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society of Kazakhstan,” Nazarbayev said in a self-congratulatory tone which reiterated his goal of having Kazakhstan among the top 30 most developed countries in the world.
What should have been front-and-centre in Nazarbayev’s speech was that though he appeared to be withdrawing from public life, his televised announcement was, in fact, an official declaration that his life-long presence in the political life of Kazakhstan’s 16 million people would continue ad infinitum.
Nazarbayev will continue to be enshrined as the unelected, formal authority as “leader of the nation” – a position that is becoming fashionable across the Eurasian landmass where Ayatollah Khamenei can be found reigning supreme in Iran; in Georgia, where a Citizen Cane-like oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has established his a subservient vertical of power that would be the envy of any Asiatic despot; and Jaroslaw Kaczynski of Poland who, first formally and then informally, has dominated the country’s politics since the early 2000s.
“According to the law, I was given the status of the First President – Elbasy. I will also remain the chairman of the Security Council, which has significant power, and leader of Nur Otan, as well as a member of the Constitutional Council. Thus, I will stay with you and see my future task as the provision of the conditions for the coming of new leaders from the next generation and who will continue implementing reforms,” Nazarbayev told a national audience, who were later greeted with the news that Nazarbayev would continue as an eternal presence when the Kazakh parliament announced that it voted to change the name of the nation’s capital from Astana to Nursultan.
This a particularly perplexing move as Astana, which has only been the capital of Kazakhstan since 1998 when Nazarbayev ordered the government to move from Almaty – the country’s traditional administrative centre – to an inhospitable part of central Kazakhstan. The city has since had spend the bulk of the last two decades transforming itself from a backwater steppe town into a futuristic petrol-dollar city of 600,000 whose name makes up half of the national flag carrier’s official moniker.
In his role as Elbasy, which was formally codified by the national parliament in 2010, Nazarbayev has been the life-long right to address the people of Kazakhstan, its state bodies, and all officials with any important initiatives that must, by law, be considered by the relevant government institutions.
The legislation, more importantly, prohibits any person, legal entity, or government body from “impeding the activity” of Elbasy and also bans those who are under him to insult or encroach on his “honour and dignity”.
Nazarbayev’s complete immunity from any type of criminal prosecution is also extended to every member of his family and grants full ownership, that cannot be revoked, to their property, belongings, and legal holdings.
Kazakhstan is one of the key players in the region with a privileged position to pursue a relatively independent economic and external policy that does anger Moscow, due to its vast resources of oil and gas.
Under Nazarbayev’s leadership, the country managed to avoid ethnic conflicts and economic collapse that plagued which many of the other post-Soviet republics after 1991.
Kazakhstan, however, now faces the prospect of its 78-year-old supreme leader remaining as the country’s ultimate authority – a guarantee of continuity – but little else in the way of finding an eventual successor to guide the nation into the next decades of the 21st century.