Acting President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev delivers a speech as he takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan, March 20, 2019.
Acting President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev delivers a speech as he takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan, March 20, 2019.

WASHINGTON - A day after Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation, the Central Asian nation south of Russia and northwest of China watched on live television as the outgoing president, seated at a position high above the stage, looked on as former chairman of the country’s Senate, Kassym-Jomart Kemelovich Tokayev, was sworn in as the country’s leader

Tokayev immediately took action “to immortalize the name of our great contemporary” by renaming the capital city and main avenues of cities and townships across the country after Nazarbayev, as well as erecting a monument in his honor.

Another Nazarbayev on the rise

The physical monument won’t be the only reminder of the longtime ruler’s continued presence, according to observers.

FILE - This file photo taken, Nov. 4, 2015, shows
FILE - This file photo taken, Nov. 4, 2015, shows Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Dariga Nazarbayeva at Buckingham Palace in London.

On the same day Tokayev took over the presidency, Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who has held different roles within the Kazakh political establishment, was elected chairman of the Senate. The position is the first in line to assume the presidency should the current president step down or be removed, according to the constitution.

Some experts see Nazarbayev’s exit as “less a graceful bowing out” than a maneuver to exert continuing control over the country’s political process, as Joanna Lillis, a Kazakhstan-based journalist who authored “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan,” put it.

William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corp. whose diplomatic career included serving as U.S. ambassador to both Kazakhstan and Georgia, categorizes the rise of Dariga Nazarbayeva as “a setback for political development in Kazakhstan,” adding “opaque attempts to put in place dynastic rule unlikely to be popular or to endure.”

In an interview with VOA, Courtney, who credits Nazarbayev with helping his country achieve “diplomatic and nonproliferation superstar” status, raising Kazakhstan’s living standards and maintaining an openness to the outside world, thinks “it is important now for Kazakhstan to begin allowing more open political debate and discussion.”

Some of the early steps “to build confidence and foster consensus,” in his opinion, “ought to include releasing imprisoned journalists and allowing peaceful demonstrations and independent political parties.”

These steps will constitute a test of whether the Nazarbayev era is fading or “only taking on a different structural form,” Courtney said.

Stepping up instead of down

Even before Wednesday’s announcements, some experts warned Nazarbayev’s exit from the presidency is a step upward instead of downward, pointing to the “Singapore model” in which that country’s longtime ruler and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, stayed behind the scenes as “president mentor” as his son, Lee Hsien Loong, rose to the nation’s top leadership position after an interlude in which a non-Lee governed Singapore.

Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, warns the “president mentor” model’s transcontinental reach may not end in Kazakhstan, but “is also likely to be used in due course in Russia by Vladimir Putin.” 

Nazarbayev’s announcement to relinquish the presidency took many by surprise. Some experts believe that, despite his seeming intention to place his children in line to the presidency, Nazarbayev could have a largely positive legacy.

Bruce Pannier, who has traveled in Central Asia extensively since 1990 and writes a blog for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, tells VOA that Nazarbayev “enriched himself at the expense of his countrymen, rooted out legitimate political opposition and seriously curtailed the activities of independent media, Kazakhstan is not a free country.”

However, Pannier credits Nazarbayev with holding the multi-ethnic state together in the post-Soviet era that has witnessed much tumult in and around the region, and by balancing relations with Russia, China and the West, “which is no easy feat.”

As Kazakhstan, along with many other nations in Central Asia and beyond, celebrate Nowruz, the start of spring and the beginning of a new year by the ancient Persian calendar, some experts caution that overdependence on Nazarbayev’s legacy may not bode well in seasons to come.

“The sheer volume of joyful reactions (following Nazarbayev’s announcement that he was stepping down as president) was startling and may be worrying news for those seeking to ride off the coattails of Nazarbayev’s legacy,” warns David Trilling, managing editor of Eurasianet.

As former President Nazarbayev said in his farewell speech, delivered this past Tuesday, each generation has to tackle its own problems.