ASTANA -- Former President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter was elected speaker of Kazakhstan's upper parliament house a day after her father announced his resignation, thrusting her into a highly prominent role just over a year ahead of the next scheduled presidential election.
Darigha Nazarbaeva, 55, was chosen in a unanimous vote by Senate members on March 20, hours after outgoing upper house chairman Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev was sworn in as interim president of the Central Asian country. Under the constitution, he is to remain in office until an election that is due to be held in April 2020.
Nazarbaeva has long been seen as a possible successor to her father, who is retaining his positions as head of the ruling Nur Otan party and lifetime chairman of the country's Security Council, as well as his status as "Elbasy," or leader of the nation.
The 78-year-old Nazarbaev, who had ruled since before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and tolerated little dissent, is expected to continue to wield powerful influence in the country of 18.7 million.
Nazarbaeva has chaired the International Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee in the Senate since September 2016, and before that served as a deputy prime minister. She will now hold the No. 2 spot in Kazakhstan's political hierarchy and would become acting president if the president were to die or become incapacitated.
Nazarbaeva was recommended by Toqaev, 65, a Moscow-educated former prime minister and foreign minister who took the oath of office at a joint session of the parliament's chambers, the Mazhilis and the Senate. The interim president said that Nazarbaev's "respected opinions" will be key in making "strategic decisions" and proposed that the capital, Astana, be renamed Nursultan after him, a request that was swiftly approved by parliament a little later in the day.
"It is necessary to immortalize the name of our great contemporary -- the first president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbaev -- in the following way: Our capital must carry the name of our president and be called Nursultan," Toqaev said. "Nursultan Nazarbaev remains the only father of the nation for life."
Toqaev also proposed erecting a monument to Nazarbaev in the capital and naming central streets in every town and city in the country after him.
Nazarbaev moved the capital of Kazakhstan from Almaty to Astana in 1997 and the windswept city on the steppe was built up substantially, making it a modernized symbol of his power.
In announcing on March 19 that Toqaev would be interim president, in accordance with the constitution, Nazarbaev said that his successor "can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan."
Toqaev served a total of 10 years as foreign minister, was prime minister from 1999-2002, and headed the Senate for two long stints, in 2007-11 and from 2013 until his promotion to the presidency.
He has also served as director-general of the UN office in Geneva and is fluent in Kazakh, Russian, English, and Chinese.
The U.S. State Department on March 19 expressed confidence that the “strong” U.S. relationship with Kazakhstan will continue after the resignation of Nazarbaev, who met with President Donald Trump at the White House in January 2018. Washington looks forward to "continuing our work with Kazakhstan on a wide variety of issues," a State Department spokesperson said.
A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, praised Nazarbaev for driving forward “modernization 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.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke to Nazarbaev by phone the day he announced his resignation. senr Toqaev a congratulatory telegram on March 20. According to a Kremlin statement, Putin told Toqaev that he is known in Russia as "an experienced statesman who has made a large personal contribution to strengthening" the "strategic partnership" between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Putin called for joint efforts to further develop constructive bilateral ties and for "partnerlike interaction in resolving current issues on the international agenda," saying that such cooperation "is doubtless in the interests of our brotherly peoples" and would promote regional stability and security.
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. Rights activists and critics say he persistently suppressed dissent, prolonged his time in office through undemocratic votes or referendums, and used the levers of power to neutralize potential opponents.
As president, Nazarbaev maintained close relations with Moscow, helping create economic and security groupings that include Russia and other ex-Soviet republics, while also courting investment from Europe, the United States, China, and other regions to develop Kazakhstan’s plentiful oil and natural-gas resources.