The power struggles in the corridors of Nur-Sultan following the protests in Kazakhstan have proven that the Nazarbayev’s piloted transition that started in 2019 has not been successful.
In March 2019, the then president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan for 28 years stepped down from the presidency. Elbasy, or the Leader of the Nation as he is also known, chose Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, then chairman of the Senate, as his successor. Nazarbayev’s approach differed from that of other authoritarian regimes in the region and paved the way for a new type of power transition, one that would take place directed by him while alive and, risking being a contradiction, was not actually a full transition.
Despite his resignation, Nazarbayev still held on to important roles such as that of chairman of the Security Council and chairman of the Nur-Otan party. Tokayev was then seen as a transitory figure in charge of the day-to-day running of the government, while Nazarbayev stayed in the background. Such a move was an innovative one.
A few years earlier, in 2016, the Uzbek president Islam Karimov had died, opening a fight for power that was won by his Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Like Nazarbayev, Karimov had rose to power during the last years of the Soviet Union, and kept his post in the newly independent Uzbekistan after the collapse of the USSR. After Karimov’s unexpected death, uncertainty reigned in the corridors of Tashkent as to whom would succeed him. Karimov’s notorious daughter Gulnara, who had already fallen from grace during his father’s last years, paid dearly for her actions after Mirziyoyev came to power and is still in prison.
Earlier than that, in 2006 the Turkmen first president Saparmurat Niyazov, who shared a common career with Nazarbayev and Karimov, died suddenly amid rumours of an unnatural death. Although his family was not persecuted by the next regime, they were pushed away from power.
Having seen what happened to the legacy of their former colleagues and their families’ fortunes, Nazarbayev decided to choose a new approach. He would not die as president but would rather control things after leaving Ak Orda. Up until this year, the piloted transition seemed to work for him, although not so much for the Kazakh people. Despite some trouble with his daughter Dariga, Nazarbayev retained power in Kazakhstan and was often the point of contact for foreign leaders when dealing with Nur-Sultan. However, that all crumbled as a result of the protests that have shaken Kazakhstan in 2022 and the power struggle that have followed.
It is still unclear what is actually taking place in Kazakhstan, but different theories point towards a struggle between president Tokayev and Nazarbayev’s inner circle. Elbasy’s piloted transition has most likely fallen apart. He might have controlled Tokayev all these years up until this week, but it would seemed he has not been able to do the same with his family and associates, if indeed that all this has taken place without Nazarbayev’s permission.
When Nazarbayev handed the presidency to Tokayev it was suggested it could be a model that could suit Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nazarbayev was no unexperienced politician, and his solution could provide an answer to autocrats looking to, at least nominally, give up power and gradually sink into the background. However, given the current events, Putin should look elsewhere for inspiration.
It does seem that two of Kazakhstan’s neighbours, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, will attempt a similar style of piloted transition. However, in their cases the presidents will be succeeded by their own sons. That, coupled with the reduced size of the elites in both nations compared to Kazakhstan may yield different results.
For all his political experience and shrewdness, Nazarbayev seems to have failed in his last great task: that of devising a strategy to ensure his legacy endures and his family’s and associates’ future is protected.