Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev shocked the country and the world on Tuesday when he announced his resignation as the head of state after nearly three decades in power and handed over power to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the chairman of the Kazakhstani Senate and one of the most experienced politicians in the country.
“I made a difficult decision to resign as president of Kazakhstan,” Nazarbayev said Tuesday before signing a document ending an era that began in April 1990, when he was named the first President of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet.
The 78-year-old Nazarbayev was, until Tuesday, the last Soviet-era leader still in office. He did not give a specific reason for his decision.
“This year I will have held the highest post for 30 years,” he said. “As the founder of the independent Kazakh state, I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are under way in the country.”
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became Kazakhstan’s acting president beginning today, a position he will hold until a presidential election is held in 2020.
Tokayev, at age 65, is one of the most popular diplomats Nazarbayev had appointed in the hopes of further finding a viable successor. Tokayev is reportedly a moderate and does not support radical changes in what is Central Asia’s largest country and economy. A former Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, Tokayev served as the country's foreign minister, prime minister, and chairman of the senate.
Despite widespread speculation that he would step down in the coming years due to his old age, Nazarbayev's announcement yesterday was abrupt and caught many by surprise. Meanwhile, many believe that Nazarbayev will exercise a tremendous amount of influence on Kazakhstani politics out of office.
Nazarbayev will continue as leader of the ruling Nur Otan party that dominates parliament and will remain in his lifelong position as the chairman of the security council. In addition, he will retain the title of “Leader of the Nation,” which was bestowed upon him in 2010.
“The issue has already been resolved, that is, Nursultan Nazarbayev becomes the first president, while Tokayev, let’s say, an ordinary one,” says Kazakhstani political expert Daniyar Ashimbayev, according to reports published by Sputnik Kazakhstan.
“Having the status of the first president, Nazarbayev will have wide powers – a seat in the Constitutional Council and the Security Council. That is why the process of power transition will take place under his control, especially since Nazarbayev has made his main assignment. There will be no serious personnel rotations.”
Nazarbayev’s resignation came after he fired the country’s government, citing failures to improve the economy.
In 1989, Nursultan Nazarbayev was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Shortly before the USSR collapsed in late December 1991 and Kazakhstan became an independent state, Kazakhstanis voted in their former leader during the first presidential elections.
Since 1991, Nazarbayev has been re-elected to the office four times: in 1999, 2005, 2011 and in 2015. In 1995, Kazakhstanis took part in a referendum to ratify his proposal to skip the scheduled 1996 presidential election and allow him to remain in office until 2000. Seven years later, parliament passed legislation to remove term limits.