Kazakhstan president steps down after 29 years
But Nazarbaev will retain many influential posts in the government, leaving many to wonder if he was really giving up power.
“This year I will have held the highest post for 30 years,” the strongman leader said. “As the founder of the independent Kazakh state, I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are underway in the country.”
Nazarbayev, who was elected for a fifth five-year term in 2015, said the Speaker of the upper house, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, would serve as the interim president until the 2020 election.
He will continue to head the Security Council, the ruling Nur Otan political party that he founded and the Constitutional Council.
“So I am staying with you,” Nazarbaev said in his televised address. “The concerns of the country and the people remain my concerns.”
After the break up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan inherited a nuclear arsenal. With the collapse of the USSR, the newly formed country had over 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads and was home to one of the Soviet Union’s major nuclear testing grounds, Semipalatinsk, where the Kremlin’s first atomic bomb was tested.
Nazarbayev oversaw the transfer of the nuclear warheads to Russia, and his country renounced nuclear weaponry, a history he recounted in his book, “Epicentre of Peace”, using the incorrect use of the word epicentre. While the Kazakh subjects never had operational control of the weapons, Nazarbayev cast himself as a visionary who reduced the threat of nuclear proliferation.
Erica Marat of Washington’s National Defence University said Nazarbaev’s presence would be felt in Kazakhstan for some time.
“He will remain a central political figure until the end of his days,” she said. “His cult is likely to live for decades as well, with future leaders building their legitimacy on the notion they continue building on the legacy of Nazarbaev.”
Last month Nazarbayev, the last Soviet-era president to leave office, fired his government, citing a lack of economic development despite Kazakhstan’s energy resources.
The economy of Kazakhstan; the world’s ninth largest country, has struggled to recover from a 2014 fall in oil prices and western sanctions against Russia, a major Kazakh trading partner.
Under Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule, Kazakhstan was transformed into an energy powerhouse but he was criticised for trampling upon democratic rights and freedoms while crushing opposition to his rule.
Nazarbayev appointed 53-year-old Askar Mamin as prime minister and announced a major spending plan on social programmes and state salaries.
Nursultan Nazarbayev. Picture credit: Kremlin