Who will succeed Nursultan Nazarbaev once the long-serving president of oil-rich Kazakhstan departs from the political scene?
The issue of succession in Kazakhstan has been the subject of speculation in independent media and among experts for many years. But for the first time, this month Nazarbaev's inner circle signaled that the president himself has been mulling over leadership options for a post-Nazarbaev era.
Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, a presidential political adviser, said Nazarbaev was considering changing the political system from a "super-presidential" to a "presidential-parliamentary" one.
"In the next five years, we intend to create a political system that does not depend on the wishes of only one person but would also be able to function in his absence," Yertysbaev said.
Yertysbaev's comment came shortly after Nazarbaev began his fourth term and third decade in office following a landslide victory in the noncompetitive April 3 presidential election.
So what would a presidential-parliamentary system look like?
Yertysbaev gave a hint when he said that in the future parliament, the current presidential party, Nur-Otan, would be positioned to represent the government and the political elite, state officials, and scientific and academic circles. Yertsybaev said another, business-oriented party, should be created based on the Ata-Meken business union -- a reference to a nongovernmental group that brings together the heads of dozens of major corporations. The head of that union is Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbaev's son-in-law -- whose star has been rising steadily.
'Nazarbaev-Style Without Nazarbaev'
Just days after the presidential election, Kulibaev was made head of the Samruk Kazyna National Welfare Fund, which controls some 60 percent of Kazakhstan's economy, including in the energy, transport, and communications sectors.
Son-in-law Timur Kulibaev
A 44-year-old billionaire oil executive, Kulibaev is married to Nazarbaev's daughter, Dinara, and is already the head of KazEnergy, a private association overseeing over 50 major oil-, gas-, and uranium-producing companies.
Without naming names, Aleksei Vlasov, director of the Analytical Center for Post-Soviet Studies in Moscow, says that in the near future, he expects Nazarbaev to present his hand-picked successor: an individual who would make sure the country is run "Nazarbaev-style without Nazarbaev."
But he makes it clear that he doesn't believe Nazarbaev has any intention of leaving power soon and will not quit until he considers it absolutely necessary.
"That doesn't mean that Nazarbaev has given himself a timeline of 13, 14, or 15 years to leave office," Vlasov tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "I'm sure Nazarbaev sincerely meant it when he recently said, 'I will reign as long as my health allows me.'"
"Only after preparing the scene for the power handover -- I should stress, in the unforeseeable future -- the president will transfer the power and other control mechanisms to the hands of an individual chosen by Nazarbaev himself."
Although the latest election, in which Nazarbaev won over 90 percent of the vote, was deemed to have fallen short of democratic standards by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Nazarbaev seems to be genuinely popular among many Kazakhs.
A February 2011 opinion poll conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute found that 90 percent of Kazakh respondents approved of the way Nazarbaev was handling his job and over 70 percent said they supported his reelection.
Despite being criticized for widespread corruption and a lack of democratic reforms, Nazarbaev is seen by many people as a guarantor of stability and a growing economy.
Unlike its other Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan has not experienced the civil strife, violent uprisings, or widespread poverty that has plagued neighboring countries since their independence.
Under Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan's economy grew more than 9 percent per year from 2000 through 2007 before the global financial crisis and falling oil prices hit the country.
The economy has rebounded well after the crisis, however, and registered 7 percent growth in 2010.
Stability under Nazarbaev has made the country an attractive investment destination for foreign companies, who have so far brought some $150 billion into Kazakhstan's energy sector.
The offices in Astana of fossil-fuels giant KazMunaiGaz
Nazarbaev's critics, however, say the country's prosperity owes more to its natural resources than the president's abilities as a uniquely adept manager.
Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, is blessed with nearly 40 billion barrels of oil and over 1.8 trillion cubic meters of natural-gas reserves.
Bulat Abilov, a Kazakh businessman and politician, says the oil profits are mainly controlled by a small group of political and business elites, including Nazarbaev's relatives.
"The president hasn't brought any new faces to the highest posts," Abilov says. "The political system and the economy remain far from transparent, no one knows what happens to multimillion-dollar credits and investments coming from abroad."
"The question of the fair distribution of wealth is one of the key issues that results in discontent among people. People see they live in poverty in a wealthy country."
Content With Nazarbaev Policies
But there are many who believe the government has used at least some of its energy money to raise ordinary Kazakhs' living standards, improve the education system, and reconstruct cities and roads.
Erkin Asenbaev, who runs a small business in Almaty, says he has a "comfortable life" under the current system. "My son studies in Europe with the state scholarship program, and I'm not super-rich but I could afford a house and everything else we need."
"I don't have any complaint about Nazarbaev's policies and, honestly, I don't want to change anything," says the 39-year-old businessman.
Many ordinary people like Asenbaev -- and, it would seem, the business and political elite -- want to ensure that the system does not fall apart after the departure of President Nazarbaev, the man who has been holding it together for so long.
No matter what happens, it is unlikely that a "quick democratization process" will take place in Kazakhstan anytime soon, says analyst Aleksei Vlasov.
Kazakhstan opposition parties also harbor few hopes that they'll be able to enter parliament anytime soon.
The authorities need an opposition that "does everything they are told," says Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the unregistered Algha party. "It's clear they wouldn't let the real opposition into parliament."
RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondents Sultan-Khan Zhussip and Assem Tokayeva contributed to this report