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Nazarbaev's Decision To Leave Office Just Might Be His Greatest Legacy

By resigning voluntarily, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev could set a new precedent for Central Asian transitions of power.
By resigning voluntarily, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev could set a new precedent for Central Asian transitions of power.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced on state TV on March 19 that he will step down, ending nearly 30 years in office.

Nazarbaev might deserve credit for many accomplishments: relinquishing nuclear arms inherited from the Soviet Union; delicately balancing relations with Russia, China, and the West; or developing hydrocarbon potential to help make Kazakhstan post-Soviet Central Asia's wealthiest country.

But his decision to leave office voluntarily might prove his most significant contribution to his country and to a region where previous changes of leadership have occurred only through death, revolution, or other major political upheavals.

Nazarbaev's resignation was not a total surprise. He has spoken often of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as a model. After the funeral of longtime Uzbek leader Islam Karimov in September 2016, Nazarbaev shuffled the Kazakh government twice in less than two weeks, placing individuals thought to be his closest and most loyal aides in top positions. Those people remain in senior posts despite a reshuffling of officials last month to defuse protests over conditions for working mothers.

Earlier in February, Nazarbaev requested that Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council clarify what would happen if a president stepped down. Some took that as a sign he was considering resigning from office soon.

The other Central Asian states will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see how any transfer of power progresses in Kazakhstan.

Two presidents of Kyrgyzstan were chased from power: Askar Akaev in 2005 and Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010. They and their families played no further role in the politics of Kyrgyzstan.

In Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov preserved the system of government that his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, created before his death in December 2006. Berdymukhammedov essentially appropriated the cult of personality that Niyazov had built so that as little as possible remained to remind Turkmenistan's citizens of Niyazov.

Uzbekistan's transfer of power may well be what has most concerned Nazarbaev. Karimov, that country's first president under independence, is still officially revered, but most of his family has fallen on hard times since losing the protection that came with being a relative of the president. Moreover, successor Shavkat Mirziyoev has launched his own reforms, and the blame for the mess Uzbekistan found itself in when Karimov died is increasingly being placed on Karimov's policies.

By resigning voluntarily, Nazarbaev could set a new precedent for Central Asian transitions of power.

If a genuine handover were to happen smoothly, and if Nazarbaev and his family continued living unmolested in Kazakhstan, that could convince other Central Asian leaders that they, too, could leave office without fear of repercussions.

Kazakhstan's constitution has been rewritten several times to ensure the rights of the "first president," and Nazarbaev will no doubt remain powerful, even without the title of president.

Other countries, notably Tajikistan, have followed that example.

Resignation, whether titular or genuine, marks unfamiliar territory for Central Asian leaders.

Much now depends on how successfully Kazakhstan can proceed from here.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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