Kazakh president resigns, ending nearly 30 years of rule

ASTANA, Kazakhstan—Kazakhstan will have a new executive leader for the first time since the final days of the Cold War, as Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation on March 19. Nazarbayev has served as Kazakhstan’s top executive since the country’s inception in 1991; his position technically predates independence, as Nazarbayev was Kazakhstan’s leader before it separated from the former Soviet Union (USSR).

            Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will succeed Nazarbayev as the country’s new top executive. Both Nazarbayev and Tokayev are members of the (predominantly ruling) Nur Otan party.

            News reports indicate rumors of Nazarbayev’s resignation were swirling during the past few weeks and months but his March 19 announcement still caught many off guard.            

Address to the Nation

            Nazarbayev told his citizens the decision to step down was a difficult one, but he also believed Kazakhstan made great strides as a country since declaring independence from the old Soviet Republic. Kazakhstan, the resigned president said during his national address, made great strides during his nearly 30-year tenure and the country is on the verge of becoming an advanced nation.

            “Kazakhstan has moved from the agrarian economy to the industrial-service economy. The process of industrialization and urbanization of the country is under way,” Nazarbayev said, adding the largest former Soviet republic (by area) experienced the greatest growth in the oil and gas sector.

            “Kazakhstan has become an integral part of the global economy,” Nazarbayev later said. “We have joined the 50 most advanced countries in the world. The development program [through] 2050 has been developed. Our goal is to be one of the top 30 developed countries.”

            He also touted expanded educational opportunities for the country’s youth and new infrastructure, such as airports, highways and rail.

            Nazarbayev was the leader of Kazakhstan’s Communist Party when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. He assumed Kazakhstan’s leadership role in 1990 and remained in power once it became an independent country in December 1991.

            The now former president is given credit for using Kazakhstan’s rich oil resources to build the country’s economy. He was, however, also criticized for allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, according to a BBC news report on his announced resignation.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, in an address to his country’s citizens, announced his resignation as president of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has been the top executive leader of Kazakhstan since 1990. (Official Kazakhstan photo)

Nursultan Nazarbayev, in an address to his country’s citizens, announced his resignation as president of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev has been the top executive leader of Kazakhstan since 1990. (Official Kazakhstan photo)

Transition of Power

            The now former president took credit for establishing a “modern market economy” in the wake of USSR’s collapse in 1991. He did not provide any specific reasons for his resignation but stated he would help curate the next generation of Kazakh leaders.

            “My next task as the founder of the independent Kazakhstan is to ensure the coming of the new generation of leaders. They will continue the process of modernization of our country,” Nazarbayev said in his resignation address. “The continuity of power in Kazakhstan is constitutional. In case of early termination of powers of the president his powers shall be transferred to the Chairman of the Senate until expiration of his term of office. Then there will be a new presidential election.”

            Kazakhstan’s constitution mandates the country’s top executive is limited to two terms in office. Nazarbayev, however, was exempt from the mandate, as the constitutional directive specifically stated the two-term limit did not apply to Kazakhstan’s first president.

            Nazarbayev was elected to his fifth term as president in April 2015; he reportedly received more than 97 percent of the vote back then, with a few international observers questioning the merits of the election.

            Democratic elections were reportedly implemented in 2011; a presidential election could be in store next year, as Nazarbayev’s term was set to expire in 2020. Tokayev, it is assumed, would be interim president until the expiration of Nazarbayev’s term next year.

Calls for Democracy

            Nazarbayev’s resignation comes almost eight years, to the date, of his Washington Post op-ed, in which he said Kazakhstan is slowly but surely progressing toward democracy. The op-ed’s publication - March 31, 2011 - coincided with his election to a fourth term as president (which was memorialized on April 8, 2011).

            The former Soviet republic was progressing toward democracy, Nazarbayev stated in his 2011 WaPo op-ed - an evolution he considered as significant in light of the country’s condition only 20 years earlier, when the former Soviet Union collapsed.

            “Kazakhstan is becoming an important bridge between East and West,” Nazarbayev wrote in his op-ed. “Civil society is growing, and we are progressing steadily on the path of democratic reform.”

            He added Kazakhstan was “dismissed” as “a remote former Soviet republic,” a country whose “economy lay in ruins” and “had little capacity to provide basic services.”

Nur Otan Party

            Juxtaposing Nazarbayev’s commentary on democracy and Kazakhstan’s current transition of power is the Nur Otan party, which Carnegie Endowment for International Peace stated holds a vast majority of seats in the Kazakh legislature.

            The party was originally established in 1999 and was known as Otan. It was formed as a coalition of three parties and a political movement. Otan became Nur Otan in 2006 and consolidated with three more political parties, giving it 90 percent of seats in the legislature, according to Carnegie.

            Nur Otan, according to Carnegie, means “Light of the Fatherland.” The party’s platform calls for all Kazakhstanis to know three languages )English, Kazakh and Russian) and to have access to low-interest bank funds for education, quality housing and medical services, for example. Other platform issues include law enforcement and election reform, religious tolerance, strengthening of infrastructure and development of “Kazakhstani science.”

            Kazakhstan’s Senate, which has 47 members, is apparently non-partisan and not controlled by any party. The country’s lower house, however, has 81 elected members representing Nur Otan, compared to seven, each, for the Communist Party and Democratic Party of Kazakhstan.

            Nazarbayev, of course, said the world should be patient with Kazakhstan’s pursuit of democracy.

            “It took the great democracies of the world centuries to develop. We are not going to become a fully developed democracy overnight,” Nazarbayev said in his 2011 op-ed. “But we have proved that we can deliver on our big ambitions. Our road to democracy is irreversible, and we intend to provide economic and political opportunities for our citizens.”

Flag of Kazakhstan.

Flag of Kazakhstan.

Country Profile

            Modern Kazakhstan traces its roots to 1991, when it was one of 15 states to emerge from the fallen Soviet Union. Statistics compiled by the World Bank indicate Kazakhstan’s Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, was US$162.89 billion in 2017, up from US$148.05 billion in 2010.

            More than three-quarters of the Kazakh population, which was pegged at 18 million in 2017, has access to the internet, according to World Bank.

            World Bank’s Kazakhstan profile also classifies the country’s income level as “upper middle.” Its three largest cities, in order, are Almaty, Astana (capital city) and Shimkent.

            Islam is the country’s dominant religion, with 70 percent of the country’s citizens following the Abrahamic religion.

            Three branches make up Kazakhstan’s government: executive, judicial and legislative. The legislature is split into two houses: Senate and Mazhilis.

            The country’s history, of course, predates the fall of the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall. Kazakhstan was home to Mongol and Turkish nomads as early as early as the 1200s, with the Russians taking over the region 500-some years later. It became a Soviet republic in the 1930s.

            Kazakhstan is one of several former Soviet republics making up modern Central Asia. Other countries in the Central Asia region are Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some consider Afghanistan to be a part of Central Asia.