Explainer: Kazakh President Nazarbaev Resigns, But Is He Really Leaving?

Having ruled Kazakhstan with an authoritarian grip since the 1980s, President Nursultan Nazarbaev shocked many when he unexpectedly announced his resignation on March 19.

"This year marks the 30th anniversary of my term as the supreme leader of our country," Nazarbaev said during a hastily arranged nationwide address. "[But] I have made the difficult decision to resign as president of the Republic of Kazakhstan."

Nazarbaev is credited by many with turning Kazakhstan -- the world's ninth largest country -- into an energy powerhouse during his long reign, but strongly criticized for trampling upon democratic norms and freedoms while brutally suppressing all opposition to his rule.

"My generation and I have done everything we could for the country," he said in the TV address. "The results are well known to you."

Though leaving the presidential post, Nazarbaev will retain many other influential positions in the Kazakh government, leaving many to wonder if he's really giving up power.

Still Holding The Reins?

Nazarbaev, 78, will continue to head Kazakhstan's powerful Security Council, the ruling Nur Otan political party that he founded, and the country's Constitutional Council.

The last Soviet-era president to leave office, Nazarbaev noted during his announcement that he was also granted the lifetime status of "Elbasy," or "leader of the nation," by parliament in 2010.

"So, I am staying with you," Nazarbaev said. "The concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns."

"He isn’t leaving the scene but when a new president is installed, he will lose some of his power," Paul Goble, a longtime analyst of Russian and post-Soviet affairs, told RFE/RL. "I think we are in the midst of a transition that will likely take a year or more but that won’t have the discontinuities which might have occurred had he left by dying."

Erica Marat, an associate professor at Washington's National Defense University, thinks Nazarbaev's presence will be felt in Kazakhstan for some time.

"He will remain a central political figure until the end of his days," she told RFE/RL. "His cult is likely to live for decades as well, with future leaders building their legitimacy on the notion they continue building on the legacy of Nazarbaev."

Nazarbaev announced that veteran politician and diplomat Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, currently the speaker of the Kazakh Senate, would take over presidential duties as of March 20 and serve until the scheduled presidential election in 2020.

As head of Nur Otan, Nazarbaev would likely select that party's candidate for next year's presidential election.

And his position as head of the Security Council, which he noted in his resignation address has "serious authority," would allow him to control the country's foreign policy.

Timing Is Everything

Nazarbaev's resignation comes just two days before Norouz, the springtime new year's holiday that is celebrated in many predominantly Muslim countries.

The timing could be seen by many as symbolic of a new beginning and give people in Kazakhstan time over the holiday to discuss and digest the big political change taking place in their country.

While certainly a surprise announcement for many Kazakhs, others saw it coming.

"It was both long anticipated and an abrupt change at the same time," Marat said. "Nazarbaev has been considering various options for power transition and has chosen one that will allow him to oversee the succession process and normalize the idea that Kazakhstan can also be ruled by a leader other than himself."

The longtime leader had shown his hand about resigning, Goble said.

"Nazarbaev signaled that he wanted to resign by asking Kazakhstan’s highest court to clarify the conditions under which a president could leave office," he said. "He clearly wants to leave but to manage the transition to a new generation rather than serving until his death with unpredictable consequences thereafter."

Nazarbaev said during his resignation that he wanted to "ensure the coming to power of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms under way in the country."

He added: "Let them try to make the country better."

Nazarbaev's resignation comes less than a month after he sacked the government of Prime Minister Bakhytzhan Sagintaev for a lack of economic development.

The move also comes just weeks after the early February house-fire deaths of five children in a tragedy that shocked the country and led to criticism of the government and women-led protests.

Diverse Reactions

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had spoken with Nazarbaev earlier on March 19 to discuss the resignation.

The speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, said Nazarbaev's resignation was "serious" and "unexpected" but said if it was his decision it "was necessary."

She credited Nazarbaev with being behind the initiative to create the Eurasian Economic Union and said he had "bolstered cooperation between Russia and Kazakhstan."

William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, credited Nazarbaev with carrying out economic reforms and bringing in Western companies to exploit the country's energy resources.

But he added that the transition of power would be a good opportunity to promote "political discourse" and to release "imprisoned journalists and [allow] peaceful demonstrations and independent political parties [to exist]."

Marat said Nazarbaev's resignation could spark the largely dormant political opposition in Kazakhstan into action.

"But the opposition has been weakened by Nazarbaev and no political debate has been allowed [under his rule], so…no strong reserves of opposition forces exist in Kazakhstan or outside the country that could gain significant popularity in the population," she said.

Goble said the lack of an opposition could lead to outside countries gaining influence.

"The opposition in Kazakhstan is relatively weak. This [resignation] will certainly cause it to take notice of some new possibilities," he said. "More disturbingly, it may lead some in other countries -- read Russia but also China -- to try to get involved so as to dominate the next generation [in Kazakhstan]."

Possible Successors

While Nazarbaev is not leaving the scene altogether and will still hold many levers of power in Kazakhstan, the country will have a new president.

But just who might that be?

Interim President Toqaev, if he remains in the post until next year, will certainly have a decent chance of getting Nazarbaev's nod to run in the presidential election as the Nur Otan candidate, making him a virtual certainty to win the election.

Toqaev, 65, is a Moscow-educated former prime minister and foreign minister who also served as a UN diplomat in Geneva. In announcing Toqaev as interim president, Nazarbaev said the ex-premier "can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan."

Others suggest new Prime Minister Askar Mamin, 53, the former mayor of Astana who also served as transport and communications minister, could be tapped as Nazarbaev's successor.

Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, has in the past also been mentioned as a possible replacement for her father. The 55-year-old is currently a senator and formerly headed her own political party, while also serving as deputy prime minister.

Another possible future leader of the country is Karim Masimov, 53, who was prime minister twice and also served as Nazarbaev's chief of staff.

"I don’t think we will see another Nazarbaev or Nazarbaeva in the presidency," said Goble. "[Nazarbaev] doesn’t want that from what I can see. What we will see will be someone in the first instance who comes out of his entourage and whom he has groomed."

Whoever ultimately succeeds Nazarbaev as president next year will certainly at least need the approval of the former steel worker and long-time Communist Party member who has ruled Kazakhstan with a steady but iron hand since 1989.