Who will lead the nation of 18 million that occupies a chunk of steppe the size of Western Europe, set between Russia, China and the Caspian Sea, and with immense hydrocarbon reserves?
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily and unexpectedly stepped down on March 19, after almost 30 years in power and five victories in elections that have been widely criticised as non-free and unfair.
Well, almost stepped down – the 79-year-old autocrat retains his honorary title of El Basy (National Leader), remains a lifelong head of the Security Council, whose authority was boosted to nearly-presidential last year, and still heads the ruling Nur Otan (Light of Motherland) party.
“Formally Nazarbayev is not president, but in reality, he is in power,” Dosym Satpayev, a political analyst based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s financial capital, told TRT World.
However, his decision is unparalleled in the history of post-Soviet Central Asia, where presidents either rule with an iron-fist for decades (in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) or are overthrown and banished by popular uprisings (in 2005 and 2010 in Kyrgyzstan).
The stagnant and predictable world of Central Asian politics has been shattered, and the question on everyone’s lips is: who will lead the nation of 18 million that occupies a chunk of steppe the size of Western Europe, between Russia, China and the Caspian Sea, and has immense hydrocarbon reserves?
Nazarbayev, whose fifth presidential term expires in April 2020, provided no clear answer and did not declare a snap election, keeping average Kazakhs, observers and politicians in Moscow, Beijing and Washington in the dark about his possible successor.
He weeded out and marginalised the opposition and populated the halls of power with uncharismatic bureaucrats, and some experts think that he deliberately keeps his options open.
“As a man of utmost experience, with an extremely developed instinct of staying in power, [Nazarbayev] is playing several games at the same time,” Andrey Grozin, a Moscow-based Central Asia expert, told TRT World.
After Nazarbayev’s step-down and according to the Kazakh constitution, Senate Speaker and former prime minister Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev became acting president.
The bespectacled 65-year-old is a career diplomat who speaks fluent Mandarin and wants to switch the Kazakh language from Cyrillic script to a Latin alphabet.
He helped Nazarbayev shape Kazakhstan’s policy of multi-vectored political alliances that lets it carefully balance between Moscow, Beijing and the West, attracting hefty investments and reaping political dividends from all sides.
Given Tokayev’s unconditional loyalty to Nazarbayev, some observers place their bets on him as his successor.
“There is no one who can rule Kazakhstan better than Tokayev,” Daniil Kislov, a Moscow-based political analyst, told TRT World. “He is an experienced diplomat, administrator.”
However, Tokayev’s diplomatic career may have inadvertently cut his presidential ambitions short – he worked abroad in the early 2010s as a top United Nations official, while Kazakh law requires that a presidential hopeful needs to have resided in Kazakhstan for at least 15 years.
Less than 24 hours after Nazarbayev’s announcement came another surprise. Dariga, the eldest of his three daughters, was named as the new Senate speaker – formally becoming the second most powerful Kazakh official after Tokayev.
“I deeply understand the role of parliament in the political and social life of our nation, especially during this pivotal moment in our history,” she said in televised remarks.
Nazarbayev has long groomed 55-year-old Dariga for succession.
She headed a state-run media conglomerate in the 1990s, when Kazakhstan was seen as Central Asia’s beacon of democracy and market reforms. Since the mid-2000s, she has served as lawmaker, parliament chairwoman and deputy prime minister and played a key role in the Nur Otan party.
If Tokayev chooses – or is urged by Nazarbayev – to step down, Dariga automatically becomes acting president.
The price of being considered a possible successor is high – and Dariga knows it all too well.
She was married to Rakhat Aliev, a powerful security official and businessman who was seen as Nazarbayev’s heir in the early 2000s. But he fell out with his father-in-law, fled to Austria and was found hanged in a jail cell in 2015 while awaiting extradition to Kazakhstan on murder charges.
The charges followed the 2006 contract-style murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev, his bodyguard and driver. Earlier that year, Zamanbek Nurqadilov, another opposition figure critical of Nazarbayev, was found at home with two bullets in his chest and one in his head.
Several more opposition leaders have been jailed or were forced to leave the country – and the current list of successors includes Dariga’s cousin.
Some Kazakhs point to top security official Qairat Satyboldy, Nazarbayev’s nephew. The burly, imposing 48-year-old is Deputy Head of the Committee for National Security, Kazakhstan’s main KGB successor agency. He is one of the leaders of the Nur Otan party and an avid enthusiast of kokpar, or Central Asian horse polo, a game many Kazakhs think embodies their nomadic heritage.
“He is an influential figure that resembles [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, because he hails from a security agency,” analyst Satpayev said. “It is hard to say whether he will become a public figure that will take part in the presidential election. But he is very likely to remain a figure who will play a role during the transit of power."
Last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appointed Nazarbayev, a former steel worker and Communist functionary, as head of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1990. After the 2016 death of neighbouring Uzbekistan’s longtime President Islam Karimov, he became the only leader of an ex-Soviet nation to have held power since before the 1991 Soviet collapse.
More than a half of Kazakhstan’s current population was born during Nazarbayev’s rule, which has shaped the lifestyle and worldview of several generations, experts say.
“Since the early 2000s, they have lived in a world of political stability and relative material affluence, developing a strong consumerist culture,” Marlene Laruelle of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, wrote in a preface to her 2019 book on young Kazakhs.
But Nazarbayev’s political longevity made many young Kazakhs indifferent to politics – and enraged the politically active minority.
“He’s always been there, no matter what, losing his marbles and touch with reality, not knowing what’s going on in real life,” Nurlan, a 21-year-old university student from Almaty, told TRT World on condition of anonymity because he fears expulsion. “We need someone new, someone younger, someone more real.”