NUR-SULTAN -- Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has awarded the presidents of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus a medal named after the longtime authoritarian leader during a summit of a grouping of ex-Soviet republics in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, which is also named after him.
Nazarbaev presented the Order Of The First President Of The Republic Of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbaev separately to Vladimir Putin, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, and Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a May 29 summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EES), a trade grouping that comprises Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia. The medal features a likeness of Nazarbaev's face in profile.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, interim Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and president Igor Dodon of Moldova, which has observer status in the EES, also attended the meeting. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, whose country is not a EES member, took part as a guest.
The awards came less than two weeks before a June 9 snap presidential election that seems certain to confirm Toqaev as president of tightly controlled Kazakhstan, whose energy riches make it one of the powerhouses of the EES along with Russia.
His election would be a key stage in a political transition that appears to have been closely choreographed by Nazarbaev, who resigned in March after 30 years in power but preserved levers of influence by remaining lifetime chairman of the country's Security Council and chairman of the ruling Nur-Otan party.
He also enjoys full immunity from prosecution due to his status as "elbasy," or leader of the nation. The Kazakh capital, Astana, was renamed Nur-Sultan days after Nazarbaev resigned.
Opponents, critics, and rights groups say Nazarbaev, who came to power before the Soviet collapse of 1991, denied many citizens basic rights and prolonged his time in office by silencing dissent and manipulating the democratic process.
The only registered political party that casts itself as an opponent of the government has said that it will boycott the presidential election, suggesting that participating would make it a puppet of the state.
An announcement at the summit's opening said the gathering was meant to mark the 25th anniversary of Nazarbaev's public call for the creation of the EES and the fifth anniversary of the treaty that established it.
Putin proposed naming Nazarbaev the honorary chairman of the EES Economic Commission and the other leaders supported the idea.
The EES was established on the basis of the Customs Union under a treaty that was signed by Putin, Nazarbaev, and Lukashenka and came into force on January 1, 2015.
Observers say Putin seeks to use the EES to bolster Moscow's influence in the former Soviet Union and counter the European Union.
Trade disputes seen as power plays have caused tension within the EES, and Kazakhstan and Belarus have bristled at Russian efforts to make it more of a political alliance.
Russia tried to interest Ukraine in joining the Customs Union rather than sign an Association Agreement with the EU.
But Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who spurned the deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow, was chased from power in February 2014 following months of protests.
Russia then seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and stirred separatist movements in Ukraine's east, where some 13,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian armed forces.