Kazakhstan’s Presidential Transition

Amid rising discontent, can “Father of the Nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev control the succession narrative?


On 10 June, Kazakhstan awoke to a new president, for the first time in its history. Taking 70% of the vote in a snap election was Kasym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat who became interim president when Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down in March after 30 years in charge. However, the 78-year-old former head of state retains the title of Leader of the Nation and remains final arbiter of the country’s foreign and security policy.

Scattered protests and hundreds of arrests took the sheen off the choreographed handover. Dozens of social media and independent news websites experienced an internet blackout. In a surreal twist, several people were detained for holding blank pieces of paper or even, in one case, a direct quote from the Kazakh constitution.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, a self-exiled former minister wanted for embezzling billions from a bank he chaired, had called people onto the streets and gleefully takes credit for the unrest. However, despite attempts to reinvent himself as a pro-democracy fighter, Ablyazov is too tainted by credible allegations of corruption to command broad support. But he is a convenient foil for authorities to deflect real grievances among a population struggling with falling wages, rising poverty and declining prospects for young people. Robust economic growth has failed to translate into higher wages or dislodge persistent underemployment. As recently as February, Nazarbayev dismissed the government following public protests over rising poverty and social exclusion.

For all the difficulties facing the country, no serious actor has emerged to challenge the elite settlement that has existed since the country’s independence in 1991. For nearly three decades, Nazarbayev presided over an intricate balance of powerful clans. While unquestionably authoritarian, the system ensured political stability and social cohesion among Kazakhstan’s diverse ethnic groups, and the election will do nothing to change that arrangement.

Does that make Tokayev’s inauguration a transition in name only? Not quite. A loyalist with no independent ambitions, the new president will certainly attempt to preserve the three pillars that have made Kazakhstan a regional success story.

1) a managed market economy coupled to a restrained political authoritarianism

2) a finely balanced friendship with Russia, China and the West – all with their own, often conflicting, agendas for the region – without sacrificing sovereignty

3) a (largely) sustained harmony between ethnic Kazakhs and the large Russian and Uzbek populations.

A fluent Chinese speaker educated at Russia’s elite diplomatic academy, Tokayev is well positioned to navigate the contentious pull of Moscow and Beijing. But when it comes to the domestic front, he is no substitute for Nazarbayev’s astute and wily dirigisme. His death could easily upset this equilibrium, and Tokayev lacks the charisma or political nous to forge a new consensus.

Tokayev’s main purpose, then, is to help cement and legitimate the succession process begun by Nazarbayev and give him time to handpick his permanent successor (Nazarbayev has previously mooted his daughter Dariga as a possible heir, and her appointment as speaker of the senate is viewed as a springboard for the top job).

Yet a dynastic handover remains far from assured, particularly should the present malaise coalesce into a broader rejection of the status quo. A patriarchal society, Kazakhstan may also not be ready for a female leader. Finally, Dariga may fall victim to a palace coup from insiders like Imangali Tasmagambetov, a charismatic former prime minister who was made ambassador to Russia in 2017 – reportedly to curb his political ambition. Though unlikely to throw his name in the ring for now, he remains the greatest threat to such a succession.

For now, Tokayev will stay the course. This means a commitment to the government’s fretful privatisation drive even as the state (and its key figures, such as Dariga, who controls the telecoms sector) will maintain a say in strategic sectors of the economy. Any reforms will be offset with populist sweeteners, such as pension hikes. Kazakhstan’s foreign policy will continue to be a balancing act between a security partnership with Russia, economic interdependence with China and friendly relations with the West.

In installing Tokayev, Nazarbayev has ensured control over the succession process. Yet the mass arrests and continued ripples of dissent suggest that, as is always likely in the former Soviet Union, events may yet overtake him.