On March 19, Kazakhstan’s president of over 30 years unexpectedly announced his retirement. Nursultan Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since 1989 and is the only longstanding leader in the former Soviet bloc to retain power for three decades–a feat that is equal parts impressive and unsettling. Yet despite Nazarbayev’s showmanship–going so far as to sign the resignation papers on live television–this change is not as dramatic as it appears.
Although Nazarbayev’s announcement came as a shock, it is likely his succession plan been in the works for months–if not years. After the sudden death of Uzbekistan’s longtime leader Islam Karimov in September 2016, Nazarbayev watched as power was hastily transferred to Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Uzbekistan seemed unprepared to handle the president’s death and debates arose over whether Karimov truly envisioned Mirziyoyev as his successor. Even today, there is a lack of evidence proving Karimov wanted his prime minister to fill his vacant role. To Nazarbayev, a leader of similar authority and longevity, it became essential that he engineer the transfer of power early enough that he could personally appoint his successor and influence their political activities; his declining health was the likely trigger for his swift resignation.
The staggering degree of authority that Nazarbayev retains bolsters the idea that his resignation is simply a political move to control his own succession. Despite ceding control of the presidency, Nazarbayev still possesses special legal status that grants him substantial post-retirement powers: he still has the right to interfere in policymaking, is immune from prosecution for actions committed in office, and his and his family’s assets cannot be seized. He will maintain control over the Nur Otan party, the predominant political group in Kazakhstan. More importantly, he is now chairman of the National Security Council for life, where he will lead a powerful constitutional advisory group that determines Kazakhstan’s foreign and domestic policies.
And who is the lucky candidate to take Nazarbayev’s place? Kazakhstan’s elections are not held until the end of this year, and it is unclear whether his successor will emerge from his close circle of political advisors or from his family. Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, was just appointed as Parliament speaker, fueling rumors that she might succeed her father; she is now next in line to the presidency behind Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, the constitutionally appointed interim leader. Other younger lieutenants may also be up for consideration.
Nazarbayev’s transition provides an unprecedented display of succession patterns in autocratic states. In Russia, Vladimir Putin could easily mimic this transfer of power by hand-picking a successor and moving to a powerful government position. Nazarbayev has created a tempting alternative to dying in office, in prison, or during a coup that will likely be imitated by autocrats across the globe with detrimental impacts on the growth of democracy and political integrity in developing nations.