Does Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Exit Mean Change for Kazakhstan?

Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo Credit: kazinform.

By: Kristina Drye, Columnist

On March 19, 2019 the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, announced that he would be resigning his position immediately. The unexpected move has cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s future. After serving as the country’s president for the past 30 years, there is hope that Nazarbayev’s resignation will lead to change for Kazakhstan’s domestic institutions. But hopes that the change will result in a more democratic state are overly optimistic. Nazarbayev’s resignation and Kazakhstan’s tenuous economic situation suggest that political and economic instability will continue to be draped with a veneer of authoritarianism.

Nazarbayev is credited with navigating Kazakhstan through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and beginning of the 21st century. He was the last remaining leader in the area whose leadership straddled both the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. While some analysts have described his rule as “smart authoritarianism,” in which authoritarianism results in economic growth and stability, there are cracks in the narrative of Kazakhstan as a post-Soviet success. [i] Nazarbayev tended to view democracy as an end and not a means, noting in his most recent presidential election that democracy is the destination, not the way.[ii]

At a glance, it is true that Kazakhstan has performed well compared to its fellow post-Soviet states. The economy has grown to 20 times its value from 1991, and it is now considered an upper-middle income country.[iii] But Kazakhstan depends largely on oil and does not have an economy diverse enough to withstand external shocks to its resources. As resource values rise, so does Kazakhstan’s economy. As resource values fall, as they have recently, so does the economy. Reform efforts by Nazarbayev’s administration can only go so far when the economy does not accommodate a diverse portfolio that includes a robust non-oil sector.

Politically, there is also tension. Nazarbayev found pride in the diversity of his country and the lack of conflict within it. In 2016, Nazarbayev compared Kazakhstan to Ukraine, observing that Ukraine’s economy was half the size of Kazakhstan’s because the country lacked unity.[iv] But the political institutions betray strong controls on opposition. In almost every election, Nazarbayev won with nearly 100 percent of the vote while jailing those who expressed criticism. In 2011, sixteen protestors died in clashes with the police as they protested the oil industry. In response, Nazarbayev declared a state of emergency that gave police unlimited authority, including arrest, torture, interrogation, and lethal force.[v] Despite signals by the government that opposition will not be tolerated, protests have expanded in the past decade. In 2014, protests included those over the devaluation of the Kazakh currency, the tenge[vi]; land reform measures[vii]; and demonstrations over the deaths of five children in a fire in Astana.[viii]

There is evidence that Nazarbayev recognized these warning signs. On February 21, 2019, Nazarbayev fired his entire cabinet for failing to diversify the economy and boost income.[ix] Many suggest that he resigned at a time that would allow his historical legacy to be one of success, his exit an act of theatre to avoid being assigned responsibility for Kazakhstan’s decline. Regardless of his reason, Nazarbayev’s public exit is not a true one. He will remain the Chairman of the Security Council and the president of the leading political party, Nur Otan.[x] He also holds the Kazakh titles of First President, Leader of the Nation, and Elbasy (in Kazakh, this is akin to “Head of the Nation”). These titles provide Nazarbayev with the lifelong ability to initiate policy, with respective state institutions obligated to consider the proposals. His title of First President also means that he will still head the Assembly of the People of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as well as be a member of the Constitutional Council. Lastly, he and his family and all their assets, including bank accounts, have full immunity from prosecution.[xi]

It is unlikely that Kazakhstan will experience significant political change despite optimists’ hopes that Nazarbayev’s retreat from public life will result in a development from a decidedly authoritarian regime to one with more democratic features. Kazakhstan’s political and economic systems have been built to control, not to develop with the country. Transparency International measures corruption in Kazakhstan at a 31 on a scale of 100, with 1 being the most corrupt and 100 being least corrupt. This indicates the strong presence of an elite structure.[xii] This elite structure, which will retain the influence of and control by the former leader that developed and institutionalized it, will almost certainly ensure that any development to democracy for the country of Kazakhstan is stopped in its tracks. Though the leader has resigned, the country is unlikely to see progressive change.


[i] Pisareva, Dinara. “Making Sense of Nazarbayev’s Abrupt Resignation in Kazakhstan” Atlantic Council, March 25, 2019.

[ii] “Назарбаев оценил свою работу на посту Президента” Tengri. March 20, 2016.

[iii] “Kazakhstan” World Bank Group.

[iv] “Kazakh Leader Evokes Ukraine as Land Protests Spread” Reuters, May 1, 2016.

[v] Kilner, James. “Kazakhstan Extends State-of-Emergency” The Telegraph, January 4, 2012.

[vi] “Kazakh Protesters Picket National Bank After Currency Devaluation” Radio Free Europe, February 12, 2014.

[vii] Abdurasulov, Abdujalil. “Kazakhstan’s Land Reform Protests Explained” BBC News, April 28, 2016.

[viii] “Hundreds of Mothers Protest in Astana After Five Girls Killed in House Fire” Radio Free Europe, February 6, 2019.

[ix] Nazarbayev, Nursultan. “A Statement from the Head of State” Official Site of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, February 21, 2019.

[x] MacFarquhar, Neil. “Longtime President of Kazakhstan Surprises Region by Resigning” The New York Times, March 19, 2018.

[xi] Kassenova, Nargis. “What’s Next for Kazakhstan?” Asia Times, March 25, 2019.

[xii] “Kazakhstan” Transparency International.

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