Once upon a time in Nursultan


Eurasian Union

Once upon a time in Nursultan

On March 19th, one year before the end of his term, the officially proclaimed “Leader of the Kazakh Nation” and their president for three decades, Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned. The news came as a surprise to most regional and international analysts and politicians. And while everybody was wondering who was going to replace him, he made it clear that the speaker of the Senate and his close ally, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, will act as the head of state until new elections are held next year. Hence, can we truly expect a fresh wave of changes in Kazakhstan soon, or is this just a staged transmission of power?

Text: Viktorya Muradyan
Cover photo: Tigran Mehrabyan / Pan photo



The last Soviet-era leader

Although his resignation was quite surprising not only for the region, but also for the world, the reasons behind it are quite understandable. During the last three decades Nazarbayev proved himself as a true diplomat who merited respect of the many world powers in spite of the fact that he was an authoritarian leader. At the age of 78, he was the last Soviet-era president who was still in power. The only way to organize a successful transition of his legacy to his loyals or family members was to step aside now. He preferred not to repeat the fate of another Soviet-era leader, the president of the Uzbekistan Islam Karimov. After Karimov died in 2016 while still being at the office, the Uzbeks jailed his allies.

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Mikhail Gorbatchev, the first and last Soviet President

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Mikhail Gorbatchev, the first and last Soviet President


For Nazarbayev, being remembered as a president who stepped aside on time (more or less) adds more credit to his international reputation and to the success of his successor. For the Kazakh people, who have had the same ruler for around three decades, any change in the political landscape, even the smallest one, is considered as positive.

Another reason behind his resignation is the fact, that the country’s GDP has been shrinking since 2013. It is still struggling from the fall of the oil prices in 2014 and from the wave of sanctions against his principal trade partner, Russia. These developments caused people to complain about poor social services and low living standards. Nazarbayev fired his entire Cabinet calling them a group of “cowards” earlier in February because of the inability to address social problems. His government was working on policies to raise public-sector employees’ salaries. But that, of course, couldn’t be enough to recover the economy.

After all, he preferred to be remembered as a President who boosted the Kazakh economy and not the one who failed it.



Nazarbayev’s legacy in Kazakhstan

The one-time steel worker and Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic leader since 1989 preserved his power when Kazakhstan declared its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Kazakhstan was the largest republic in the USSR after Russia. It has rich resources and possesses key nuclear sites. Since then, the country has made a huge economic jump which brought with it the status of the strongest Central Asian country. The international image of the country suggests that Kazakhstan is a stable, predictable and wealthy state.

Since the independence of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev managed to attract investments worth billions of dollars from foreign energy companies and multiplied the outcome of the country’s oil industry.

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Vladimir Putin

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Vladimir Putin


Another important implemented measure offered by Nazarbayev was the demographic policy after the collapse of the USSR. The national immigration policy intended to call back ethnic Kazakhs inhabiting abroad. As a result, the number of ethnic Russians living in the North after the collapse of the Soviet Union has greatly fallen, while the number of mostly Muslim ethnic Kazakhs has grown. Consequently, the country has become much more nationalistic. The change of the capital city from Almaty to Astana (that was renamed Nursultan after his resignation) in 1997 was also a part of the well-thought and provident regional strategy.

Compared to the other Central Asian leaders, he was able to perfectly balance his foreign policy channeling Russia, China and the West. Nazarbayev was able to implement profitable trade deals with India, Pakistan, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Japan and even the European Union ($28.6 billion during January-September 2018). In general, the country has a very strong pro-free trade attitude and uses the platform of the EEU in his negotiations. Meanwhile, Russia and China continue to remain as the key trade partners of Kazakhstan.

But while focusing hugely on the economic growth, Nazarbayev has “forgotten” to develop democratic governance. None of the Kazakh elections have ever been considered as free and fair by the international community and observers, as usually Nazarbayev won with nearly 100 percent of the people’s vote. He has never actually had credible political opponents, mainly because he used to jail them and the media representatives, who criticized his authoritarian regime. The level of corruption in the country was usually very high. Moreover, the international community has also blamed him for fostering the personality cult.


Nursultan in the world

Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest country is at the crossroads of the Russian, Chinese, European and even the American interests. Nazarbayev made Kazakhstan the country, that almost every world power wants to have ties to. While interacting with politically and economically rivaling countries, Kazakhstan builds its relations with every partner separately. That is, indeed, the key to their effective positioning.

Nazarbayev’s success outside of Kazakhstan is highly correlated with the factor, that he has had a control in all domains of his country’s life. While his eldest daughter was his biggest support in the Senate, his other daughter, Dinara, alongside her husband, controls the country’s biggest lender Halyk Bank.


What does his resignation mean for the region?

Although there were some signs indicating the possible resignation earlier this year, no one could see this coming so soon. And while this decision puts an end to a very special era in the region, which is the era of the Soviet-time leaders, it is some kind of a red flag to Russia, where Putin’s power stays incontestable for 20 years. The region has been recently undergoing a lot of Western influence and simultaneously strengthening its ties with China. In 2017, Nazarbayev changed the official script of the Kazakh language from Cyrillic to Latin, which provoked the fury of some Russian officials.China has been viewing Kazakhstan as a key player in the One Belt, One Road global infrastructure program, which is considered as the New Silk Road.

Kazakhstan is also an important ally of the United States in its anti-terrorism combat in the Central Asia. During 2005 and 2018, American companies owned a 13 percent share in the foreign investments in Kazakhstan.

For now, one thing is clear: Kazakhstan will continue to follow the same course to protect its well-established status in the region and the world. As the statement published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website says, "Kazakhstan will preserve the peaceful foreign political course based on the principles of multivectorness, balance and pragmatism”.


Armenian - Kazakh relations

The diplomatic relations between Armenia and Kazakhstan started in August 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Armenia has an Embassy in Almaty and Yerevan hosts the Embassy of Kazakhstan. Two countries share partnership in 3 international and regional organizations including CSTO, OSCE and the post-Soviet CIS. The Armenian community living in Kazakhstan reaches up to 25,000 people.

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Nikol Pashinyan

Nursultan Nazarbayev with Nikol Pashinyan


But the relations haven’t always been smooth, especially after Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the CSTO. During the pre-accession negotiations, president Nazarbayev insisted that Armenia join the union with the UN-recognized borders “not to provoke the Comrade in Baku”, meaning the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. After the arrest of the Secretary General of the CSTO Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, which happened after the Velvet Revolution in Armenia and Serj Sargsyan’s resignation, Kazakhstan and Belarus started to promote pro-Azerbaijani Gen. Stanislav Zas’s candidacy as the new Secretary General, neglecting Armenian efforts to keep the presidency until the end of the term. Fortunately, earlier this year, the CSTO decided to suspend the appointment of the new Secretary General until the end of 2020.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that Kazakhstan is a part of, has released a statement labeling Armenia as an “aggressor”. It is not even surprising to recall, that Kazakhstan, alongside with Belarus, has been constantly promoting Azerbaijan’s membership in the EEU despite the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In addition to that, one of the largest air companies in Kazakhstan, SCAT Airlines suspended the Astana-Yerevan-Astana direct flights (operating since May 2017) from January 15 until May 15, 2019. Meanwhile, there has been no official clarification from the Kazakh side on this occasion.

Although Armenians tend to consider Kazakhstan as a “strategic partner”, it is clear that the strongest link between the countries is the trade, and not the security priorities or the shared vision of the region. Mainly thanks to the EEU, in 2018, the trade between Armenia and Kazakhstan was around 12 million USD, which was 50 percent higher than in 2017, and it is expected to grow in future. Furthermore, Kazakhstan remains a major market for Armenian jewelers and agricultural products.

It seems that the relations between Armenian and Kazakhstan are becoming slightly warmer with their new President. Both parties want to deepen cooperation and work on the common agenda. In June, Armenia’s Ambassador in Kazakhstan discussed with their healthcare Minister the possible cooperation in the healthcare sector. In early July, Armenia’s PM had a telephone conversation with the Kazakh President Tokayev discussion the future developments in frames of the Eurasian Economoc Union, the upcoming FTA with Singapore, as well as the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council to be held on October 1 in Yerevan.


What’s next for Kazakhstan?

In spite of his resignation, he will continue to carry on positions as the President of his party Nur Otan and the head of the country’s Security Council. After the speaker of the Senate Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became the interim president of the country, the eldest of Nazarbayev’s three daughters, Dariga, replaced Tokayev in the Senate. Dariga Nazarbayeva was the former head of the Kazakh Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Defense and Security. Being the second in the hierarchy to govern the country, the former Senator Dariga most probably at a certain point will take on the lead of the country to continue his father’s legacy. In this case, Kazakhstan will become the second Post-soviet country (after Azerbaijan) to have a dynastic governance.

Dariga Nazarbayeva

Dariga Nazarbayeva


On the 9th of June, Kazakhstan held the long-awaited early presidential election and Tokayev won with almost 70% of the votes, while his rival, Amirjan Kossanov, only scored 15% (yet the best performance by the opposition since independence). Although Tokayev considered  the eections as a “competition”, the resuts were not accepted unanimously. Hundreds of protestors called the elections results not credible. As a result, 500 people were detained in the police departments of Nur-Sultan and Almaty. The Human Rights Watch called this political transition “an illusion” calling out the violent reaction of the Government to the peaceful protests. In general, the international observers did not give a positive feedback on the elections. In its prelllimenary repor, the OSCE stated that the election "was tarnished by clear violations of fundamental freedoms as well as pressure on critical voices. There were widespread detentions of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities. Significant irregularities were observed on election day, including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed".



Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

Born 17 May 1953.

In 1970, Tokayev joined the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. In his fifth year, he was sent to training courses at the Soviet embassy in China for six months. Upon graduation from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1975, Tokayev joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and was posted to the Soviet Embassy in Singapore. In 1992, Tokayev was appointed as a Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Kazakhstan. In 1993, he became First Deputy Foreign Minister and in 1994 he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. In March 1999, he was promoted to the post of Deputy Prime Minister. In October 1999, with the endorsement of the Parliament, he was appointed Prime Minister by Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Tokayev held the post of Foreign Minister for ten years (1994–1999, 2002–2007).

On 19 March 2019, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation. According to the Constitution of Kazakhstan, in case of early termination of powers, the Speaker of the Senate becomes President until the next election. On 20 March 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev officially took office as President.


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