What happened in Kazakhstan is something one won’t come across too often in the world politics. The autocratic ruler, voluntarily and without apparent pressure from domestic or external actors, stepped down from office and handed over reins to a successor. The successor is a politician with a wealth of experience – Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Senate Speaker, who previously served as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. According to the country’s Constitution, he will take over as acting president for the remainder of the current presidential term, that is, until March 2020.

Drawn-out transition

Absolutely, one can cite many instances of the voluntary resignation of long-serving, authoritarian heads of state. The recent one is Algeria. However, such leaders tend to quit pressured by the street or hand over power to their family members. The resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev takes place amid political stability and strength of the regime, and his successor, although a loyal and close ally, is not related to him (there was an option, though – experts did not rule out that Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga, would fill his shoes).    

The news of Nazarbayev’s resignation was met with scepticism of the experts – the official and unofficial levers of influence retained by the president are so vast that we can speak about the half-hearted departure and the lack of independence of the successor. Thus, Nazarbayev will still head the Security Council of Kazakhstan, chair the ruling Nur Otan party, retain the post of the senator and the title of the “Leader of the Nation” (“Yelbasy”). Besides, his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva was elected the Speaker of the Senate. Thus, the first president of the republic retains control over security agencies (through the Security Council), parliament (through the party and the speaker), and, moreover, unofficial control over key departments through his cronies.

Nevertheless, we should make two important points. The first one is that only once in the post-Soviet space the head of state, having institutionally ceased being the top state official, would fully retain the political clout. A case in point is Russia during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, and even that was temporary: in 4 years, Vladimir Putin reclaimed the presidency. In all other cases, when nominally leaving the highest office, the political leader would actually cease to be one, and the vacation of office would be an implosion. This was the case in Georgia, after Saakashvili’s ill-fated attempt to prolong his tenure by replacing a presidential republic with a parliamentary-presidential system. This is what recently happened in Armenia. That said, Alexander Lukashenko and Nazarbayev himself, understanding this rule, preferred to increase the number of presidential terms, remaining in the position, rather than building a complex institutional model.

The second point is that, unlike Mikheil Saakashvili and Serzh Sargsyan, Nursultan Nazarbayev is not trying to retain power by reformatting it. There were no formal obstacles to Nazarbayev’s further keeping the presidential office, and the societies of this region perceive the lifelong tenure in power as a norm. This means, his departure should be construed as final.

It is pointless to argue about the reasons behind this decision – those can be related to either health issues, or the burnout, or the opportune moment. One thing is important – Nazarbayev could only make this decision knowing that he had built the political regime where the painless and safe transition of power to his successor is possible.  

Another thing is that, understanding all the risks of the uncontrolled transition, Nazarbayev seeks to mitigate this process as much as possible by building mechanisms for control over the elites during the interim period. Therefore, his departure will be gradual, stretched out for at least a year or even longer.

China with Deng Xiaoping as a spiritual leader would be the closest historical example. However, the Chinese specificity differs from the Kazakh one significantly. In Kazakhstan, there is no analogue of the historically entrenched Communist Party; Kazakhstan’s Nur Otan is less like a ruling party, but more like an instrumental party of the elite, similar to Russia’s United Russia party. And, certainly, Kazakhstan’s vertically integrated system, which developed out of the Soviet model, perceives only the official administrative leader as the chief.

Foreign policy

The country’s foreign policy is not to undergo dramatic changes in the medium term. Firstly, the continuity of the regime will ensure the continuity of the foreign policy doctrine. Secondly, Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is largely determined by its geographic location and national interests. Kazakhstan is interested in developing the institutions of Eurasian integration, but also the European Union, Turkey and, especially, China rank high in its foreign policy.

Astana (Nursultan) is aware of all the benefits of its position and seeks to use it by developing partnerships with all stakeholders. Probably, it is the balance in the Moscow-Ankara-Beijing triangle that will be fundamental in the foreign policy of Kazakhstan under the new president.

In the long term, the Chinese vector is to inevitably strengthen due to the incomparably larger economy of this country. However, Moscow has its own trump cards. First, it is the historically established economic ties. The former province of the empire tends to be bound by economic and socio-cultural threads with the metropole for a long time. Unlike a number of post-Soviet countries in Europe, Kazakhstan is aware of the benefits of these ties and seeks not to break them – on the contrary, to develop them, reformatting them into new economic and political realities.

Second, it is the issue of security. Kazakhstan is located in a turbulent region posing risks associated with both Islamic terrorism and the unstable republics of Central Asia. Unlike other partners, Moscow offers Astana comprehensive cooperation, which includes not only the economic realm, but also the realm of security. Both the society and the elites of Kazakhstan are aware of this, and therefore, whatever scenario the transition of power follows, the strategic nature of relations with Russia will last for a long time.

Roman Larionov – Leading expert of the Center for Political Technologies, exclusively for IAC