Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has abruptly resigned after nearly 30 years in office, but will continue to head the ruling party and keep his lifetime post as chairman of the influential Security Council.
"I have decided to end my duties as president," Nazarbaev said in a televised address to the nation on March 19, speaking hours after his office said that he would make an important announcement.
"This year I will have held the highest post for 30 years," said Nazarbaev, 78, who has headed the energy-rich country since before the Soviet collapse of 1991. "The people gave me the opportunity to be the first president of an independent Kazakhstan."
Nazarbaev indicated that the speaker of the upper parliament chamber, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, will be acting president for the remainder of what would have been his term, in accordance with the constitution.
Toqaev is to be sworn in on March 20, and the next presidential election is due to be held in 2020.
Even as he resigned, Nazarbaev pointed out that he has been granted the status of "elbasy," or leader of the nation, a title bestowed upon him by the loyal parliament in 2010.
"I remain chairman of the Security Council, which has been granted serious authority," he said, adding that he is also staying on as chairman of the Nur Otan party and as a member of the Constitutional Council.
"So I am staying with you," Nazarbaev said. "The concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns."
The roles he is keeping could allow Nazarbaev to retain a great deal of power.
In July 2018, the Security Council's status was changed from consultative to constitutional, increasing its authority, and Nazarbaev became its chairman for life.
Many in Kazakhstan saw those changes as a sign that Nazarbaev was seeking to ensure that he would maintain his grip on power if he stepped down as president.
Among other things, the Security Council is responsible for "organizing control over the implementation of laws" on national security and defense.
In a statement, the spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini praised Nazarbaev for driving forward "modernisation reforms, including constitutional reforms," and for playing "an important role in promoting cooperation both regionally and globally, with a particular emphasis on promoting peace, stability and security."
"We look forward to a smooth transition in accordance with the Constitution of Kazakhstan," said the spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic.
Kazakhstan's presidential press service said that Nazarbaev had discussed his decision to step down as president in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that the two leaders " agreed to continue regular contacts in the future.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin had spoken with Nazarbaev by telephone, but didn't say what they had discussed.
Rights activists and critics say Nazarbaev has persistently suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes or referendums, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential opponents.
Nazarbaev was last elected in 2015, securing a five-year term after moving the date of the vote up from 2016 in a move was widely seen as an attempt to strengthen his grip on power.
With the death of autocratic Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 2016, Nazarbaev became the only leader of a former Soviet republic to have held power since before the U.S.S.R. fell apart in 1991.
While his announcement was unexpected, there had been several signs that he might be considering stepping down as president.
In early February, Nazarbaev set off speculation about his intentions by asking Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council to provide an official interpretation of an article from the country's constitution that deals with the termination of presidential duties.
His resignation comes after he dismissed the government on February 21, citing its failure to raise living standards and diversify the economy away from the energy sector.
The move followed unusually persistent protests in which demonstrators in several cities across the country of some 18.7 million have accused the government of ignoring the needs and demands of ordinary people.
The protests were spurred in part by anger and grief over the deaths of five children from a single family in a house fire in Astana, the capital, on February 4.
The predawn fire destroyed a tiny family home in Astana while both parents were away working overnight shifts, killing five girls aged 3 months to 13 years.
Nazarbaev moved the capital of Kazakhstan from Almaty to Astana in 1997 and the city was built up substantially, making it a modernized symbol of his power.
Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, 55, has been seen as a possible successor to her father.
She has chaired the International Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee in the upper house of parliament since September 2016, and before that served as a deputy prime minister.
Toqaev, 65, is a career diplomat who has served as foreign minister and prime minister in the past. Educated in Moscow, he is fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English, and Chinese.
Once a steelworker, Nazarbaev has been the senior leader in Kazakhstan since June 1989, when he became Community Party boss in what was then a Soviet republic.
As president, he has maintained close relations with Russia while courting investment from Europe, the United States, Asia, and other regions to develop Kazakhstan's plentiful oil and natural-gas resources.
The "leader of the nation" status handed to Nazarbaev in 2010 granted him and his family lifelong immunity from criminal and civil prosecution.