The Western analyst consensus is that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down this week after almost 30 years as Kazakhstan’s president, will continue to wield considerable power. And by stepping down, rather than dying in office, Nazarbayev may have set a precedent.
At the very least, the novelty of the longest-serving former-Soviet head of state choosing when to make space at the top (quite possibly for his daughter) has shined a spotlight on other aging leaders who lack clear succession plans.
Nazarbayev may have taken a lesson from the 2016 death of Islam Karimov in neighboring Uzbekistan: If a family is to hold onto power – or at least the worldly possessions it accumulated while in power – it's a good idea to make arrangements before passing away.
Unclear is if that lesson has been absorbed elsewhere. Across the region, authoritarian leaders this week stressed the importance of the status quo.
A phone conversation between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Nazarbayev also stressed continuity. The two agreed to meet in May. The official readout noted that Lukashenko had recently hosted Nazarbayev’s successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and that a “dialogue was held in a constructive manner, which testifies that the continuity of good contacts on a high level between Kazakhstan and Belarus will not be a problem.”
During a phone call with Tokayev, Azerbaijani strongman Ilham Aliyev – who inherited his seat from his father – “expressed confidence that bilateral ties will continue developing and strengthening.”
Beyond discussions of stability, elite reactions to Nazarbayev’s resignation in the former Soviet space almost uniformly shared another feature: silence over the timing and mechanics of the opaque decision-making process in Astana, most likely because it could lead to questions regarding the transfer of power back at home. (Putin may be the notable exception here. As if to suggest the Russian president had given his consent, his spokesman claimed that Nazarbayev had called to chat only hours before his shocking announcement.)
Alexander Baunov of the Moscow Carnegie Center observed that until Nazarbayev’s resignation, post-Soviet Central Asia had experienced only two types of power transfers: revolution and death in office. “Kazakhstan is now trying to create a third model,” he noted, describing this week’s events as “a dress rehearsal for the transfer of power in Russia.”
It’s widely assumed that Putin, 66, will seek to maintain influence after stepping down. He and Nazarbayev share similar authoritarian and economic systems, Baunov said, arguing that “the Kremlin will be able to observe in practice” Nazarbayev’s experiment and see how or how not to perform a political transition.
Russian-language media have actively debated the timing and manner of Kazakhstan’s power transfer, and its implications for Putin. “Preparing the scenario of ‘leaving, but staying’ demands a lot of time,” wrote Maria Zheleznova of Vedomosti, a leading Russian business daily. “This is Nursultan Nazarbayev’s main lesson for Vladimir Putin.”
Whether Nazarbayev could inspire his peers has received considerable attention. Maxim Suchkov of the Russian International Affairs Council tweeted a joke wherein a solemn-faced Nazarbayev says, as if daring his friends on social media, “I pass this challenge to my friends Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko.”
No matter who ultimately becomes Kazakhstan's president, Nazarbayev’s experiment will remain significant, both empirically and rhetorically, for years to come. Other authoritarians confronting transition will be able to legitimize their choice by utilizing Kazakhstan as a positive or negative example. They will be carefully watching what happens next, to see if a Nazarbayev scenario can offer the stability they all crave.
Sarah Dorr is a visiting research fellow in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds, England.
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