Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, seen in Brussels on Oct. 19, 2018. (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said Tuesday that he was stepping down, touching off a potentially perilous period of transition in one of the world’s most geopolitically fragile regions.

Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest country, since it became an independent state with the collapse of the Soviet Union. On Tuesday, he said in a nationally televised address that after nearly 30 years in power, it was time to leave the presidency.

But Nazarbayev, 78, said he would remain head of the country’s security council, leaving him with broad influence over Kazakhstan’s security apparatus. Senate Chairman Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will take over as president until the next election, currently scheduled for 2020.

“I’ll remain with you,” Nazarbayev said. “The concerns of the country and the people will remain my concerns.”

Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vasilenko, in a phone interview from the capital, Astana, said: “The now-former president wants to ensure the smoothest transition of power. . . . The main principles of his domestic and foreign policy will remain intact.”

Analysts expect Nazarbayev, who also will continue to hold the title of “Leader of the Nation,” to remain the most powerful person in Kazakhstan even after he steps down. His effort to do so will be watched closely in the region, not least by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally required to leave his post in 2024.

 

 January 2018: Trump welcomes 'highly respected' president of KazakhstanPresident Trump met with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Jan. 16, 2018. Nazarbayev said March 19 he will step down after almost 30 years leading. (The Washington Post)

“What happened here is essentially a change in the signage,” said Talgat Mamyrayimov, a political scientist based in the Kazakh city of Almaty. Nazarbayev “will continue to rule the country.”

But Nazarbayev’s resignation comes at a time of flux in Central Asia, adding more political uncertainty to the demographic and geopolitical change sweeping the region’s former Soviet republics.

Russian officials have voiced concerns about what they describe as growing nationalism and Western influence in Kazakhstan, stoking speculation about the possibility of pro-Kremlin separatist movements in Kazakhstan’s more ethnically Russian north. China has been expanding its political and economic influence across Central Asia, seeing Kazakhstan as pivotal to its massive One Belt, One Road global infrastructure program.

Underscoring that geopolitical balancing act, Nazarbayev noted in his speech Tuesday that Tokayev had studied in Moscow and spoke good English and Chinese.

Nazarbayev talked to Putin by phone Tuesday, the Kremlin said, illustrating their close personal relationship. But Nazarbayev also has sought to balance Russia’s longtime dominance by drawing in Chinese investment and building ties with the West. In 2017, he ordered the official script of the Kazakh language to be switched from Cyrillic to Latin, an expensive undertaking that infuriated some Russian officials.

Nazarbayev has sought to modernize his oil-and-gas-rich nation’s economy, even building Astana virtually from scratch in the northern Kazakh steppe. But his domestic leadership has been decidedly authoritarian, with political dissent and media freedoms severely limited.

“On the ruins of the U.S.S.R., we managed to build a successful Kazakh state with a modern market economy, and to create peace and stability inside multiethnic and multireligious Kazakhstan,” Nazarbayev said in his speech.

Analysts expect Nazarbayev to pick a successor who would then win a tightly controlled election. Mamyrayimov, the political scientist, said he viewed Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, as a favorite to take over as president.

But with Kazakhstan’s demographics rapidly changing, more nationalist, religious or pro-Western groups could pose a challenge to Nazarbayev’s succession plan. The number of ethnic Kazakhs, whose language is related to Turkish and who are largely Muslim, has rapidly grown. The share of ethnic Russians, whose numbers roughly equaled those of the Kazakhs when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, has sharply fallen.

“Total state control in our country will most likely strengthen in order to clear the political field of potential competitors,” Mamyrayimov said.

 

Anton Troianovski  is The Washington Post's Moscow bureau chief.

He previously spent nine years at the Wall Street Journal, most recently as Berlin correspondent.