Kazakhstan: A new dawn?

Kazakhstan: A new dawn?

Nursultan Nazarbayev’s strong and sombre governance has long set him apart in a region of crumbling dictatorships. Recently Kazakhstan’s leader opened a surprise new chapter in his country’s history; resigning from the Presidency after three decades to assume his new position of Chairman of the Security Council and leader of the ruling party.


Broadly speaking Nazarbayev proved himself an effective leader who combined business acumen with shrewd stakeholder management. For all the autocracy, Nazarbayev steered the country through the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union and went on to build strong, oil-rich ties with China, Russia, and the West. Kazakhstan emerged the stablest of all its neighbours. Multi-ethnic peace also flourished. The elegance of his transition, however, masks newer tensions: growing opposition, stagnant oil prices, 50% devaluation and rising inflation.

2011’s Zhanaozen massacre where police killed 14 striking oil workers still haunts politicians. The death of five infants in a house fire last month as their parents worked all hours might have lit the fuse. Leaving with dignity now was preferable to revolt. The analogous semi-departure of Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, who Nazarbayev greatly admires may well have paved the way. Carnegie Scholar Alexander Gabuyev also draws interesting parallels between Nazarbayev and Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. The two ruled neighbouring countries for many years until the latter’s untimely death in 2016.

The Karimov family’s subsequent downfall set a chilling precedent. Blood ties are sacred in Central Asia and the prospect of Nazarbayev’s name being erased from power may well have sewn the impulse to manage succession carefully.

How much will change?

Very little. As Chairman of the Security Committee and leader of the ruling party Nazarbayev retains all of the privileges without any of the tedium of day to day administration. His family’s immunity to prosecution remains intact. He also secures his control over all foreign and security matters. His daughter Dariga will become speaker of the Senate and trusted lieutenants will take over all key positions. Former Prime Minister Karim Masimov will remain Head of the Security Committee. Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital, will henceforth be known as Nur-sultan.

Who will succeed Nazarbayev?

That honour falls to Kassym Jomart Tokayev. Although unlikely to outshine his predecessor, Tokayev is a strong choice of a technocrat. A career diplomat and fluent Mandarin speaker, he is well placed to govern the country through the new Great Game waging between China, the US, and Russia over Central Asia’s vast potential. Astana has long trodden a complex path; beholden to Russia for military support and reliant upon China for investment. Still, if the necessity ever arises, Tokayev is easily removable.

A New Dawn for Kazakhs?

Doubtful. Anger is rising in the country. Multiple arrests were recorded in rallies against Astana’s renaming. The mood of celebration is mixed with fear. Fear of the unknown, of rising crime and deeper deprivation. Fear that nationalism might spread in Nazarbayev’s absence.

The real crunch moment will be the 2020 elections. Democracy is still only fledgeling in Kazakhstan and with Dariga Nazarbayev primed behind the throne, the result may well be preordained. Nevertheless, the growing civil opposition could become emboldened in this next uncharted phase. Stimulus may also come from Uzbekistan whose new ruler Shavkat Mirziyoyev is successfully courting the international community. Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s once right-hand man, has strengthened ties with the US, freed political prisoners, lifted burdens on entrepreneurs, curbed the remit of the dreaded secret police and launched a far-reaching campaign to eradicate forced labour. Whether this lasts is unclear – Washington is known to be impressed.


So far, Nazarbayev’s resignation has been masterfully executed. In so doing he eases the pressure on him to go and only enshrines more deeply the powers to which he has grown accustomed. However, the move signals a genuine fear of an uprising. Popular frustration with negligent, repressive regimes is gaining momentum. If Mirziyoyev’s reforms last, hope may spread. If foreign investors arrive, Kazakhstan would have a strong incentive to follow suit. The West would be wise to capitalise on events and counteract China’s creeping influence. Kazakhstan’s fate, for now, stands at a crossroads.

About Author

Rebecca Emerick

Rebecca joined Global Risk Insights from leading executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. She previously spent three years living and working in Russia following a degree at the University of St Andrews. She is bilingual in English and Russian and conversational in French and German. Rebecca takes an active part in the London Russia emigre cultural scene and focuses on analysis for Russia and the CIS region.