OPINION — Nazarbayev quit presidency to distance himself from protests

By James Kilner, editor of The Bulletin

MARCH 22 (The Bulletin) – The message from Nursultan Nazarbayev’s unexpected TV address on March 19 was that he has no intention of relinquishing real power in Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev perfected the art of the grand empty gesture by saying that he would step down as Kazakhstan’s president but retain power through his position as chairman-for-life of the Security Council. He will be the ultimate backseat driver.

And, just in case anybody missed this message, stand-in president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s first two jobs in power were to propose renaming Astana as Nur-Sultan and then to promote Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga, to be Speaker of the Senate.

It is now all-but-certain that, after years of speculation, we are looking at dynastic succession in Kazakhstan. The Bulletin has always argued that this was the most likely course, and last week’s political posturing moves us a step closer to a second Nazarbayev presidency.

There is precedent for this in the region. Ilham Aliyev took over as Azerbaijan’s president from his father, Heydar, in 2003. There is also precedent of sorts in the Western modern political system when George W. Bush became president of the United States in 2001, eight years after his father, George Bush snr, had been president.

Dariga will likely take over as the real successor to her father in March next year after a presidential election.

Perhaps more intriguing is the timing of Nazarbayev’s resignation. He has spoken airily of leaving by the 2020 presidential election but he had given no indication this year that he was planning on quitting so abruptly. His resignation address was designed to make him look in control. Instead, it looked like an uncharacteristic moment of weakness. Nazarbayev has been rattled by anti-government protests that have refused to die down over the past couple of months.

Eager to appear as the man-of-the-people, fighting their corner against government incompetence, Nazarbayev last month sacked his government and ordered a $5b investment into jobs and services. These measures failed to stop the protests, though and Nazarbayev was ruffled. His usual ploy when things go wrong — blame, fire, invest — hadn’t worked. Worried that protests were damaging his personal brand, Nazarbayev did the only thing he could. He distanced himself even further from the government by quitting it.

Nazarbayev’s presidency has become a casualty of street protests and the frustration of ordinary people in Kazakhstan.

— This opinion piece was first published in issue 404 of The Bulletin — the weekly newspaper for Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

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