Nursultan Nazarbayev said he would step down as president of Kazakhstan, the oil-rich central Asian country he has ruled for three decades, while holding on to control of the ruling party and powerful government bodies.
In a televised address to the nation, Mr Nazarbayev, the last leader still in power from the days of the Soviet Union, said he would resign on Wednesday. He will install Kassym Jomart Tokayev, the chairman of the Kazakh senate and a loyal ally, as acting president until the end of the term in 2020. Kazakhstan, in effect a one-party state, is due to hold presidential elections by April next year.
“I remain with you as a citizen of the country, as a person who loves his people, his people,” Mr Nazarbayev said. “I see my future task in ensuring power transition to the new generation, who will continue the transformation taking place in the country.”
Mr Nazarbayev, who is 78, will remain the chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party and the country’s security council, which after a constitutional change last year has powers as extensive as those of the presidential administration and the government.
As a result, Mr Nazarbayev would ensure a stable transition of power, said Stanislav Pritchin, an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“It is hard to imagine there will be any sort of conflict between the new head of state and Mr Nazarbayev as head of the security council. Most likely this is going to be synchronised work which will allow the country’s new head to gain political weight and gain experience as a country leader,” Mr Pritchin said.
Mr Nazarbayev’s resignation followed his dismissal of the country’s government in February. He has no obvious successor although many observers think his daughter Dariga, a senator, is among the candidates.
Mr Nazarbayev became Communist party secretary of Kazakhstan in 1989 when it was still a Soviet republic. Since independence in 1991, it has largely prospered under Mr Nazarbayev’s pro-market policies. The economy grew tenfold and poverty fell, allowing Kazakhstan to avoid the ethnic and social tensions that have plagued many of its neighbours.
More recently, however, the economic miracle faded as oil prices tumbled, and living standards were squeezed by repeated devaluations leading to higher inflation. Income disparities and poor public services continue to blight large parts of the country.
“With the collapse of the oil price, the tide went out, revealing a lot of governance and social problems,” said Kate Mallinson of Prism, a political risk consultancy.
Increasing political ossification after three decades of one-man rule has fed public disenchantment and triggered tensions between rival factions anticipating an eventual transition to a new leader.
“The presidential resignation signals the start of a new era in Kazakh politics but limits the prospect for deep-seated reforms, which are needed to reignite the economy,” said Camilla Hagelund, principal analyst at Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy. “Economic stagnation and the changing popular mood have likely contributed to Nazarbayev’s decision to resign.”
Mr Nazarbayev spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin soon after his address. The two leaders remain close and Kazakhstan was one of the founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union, a club of post-Soviet countries. But Mr Nazarbayev has also nurtured ties with China.
Mr Nazarbayev secured 97.7 per cent of the vote in the last presidential election in 2015. No election that the country has held since independence has been deemed free and fair by western observers, and his Nur Otan party controls all the levers of the state.
“I am highly convinced the Nazarbayev epoch is not finished either for Kazakhstan, where he will retain other positions . . . or for the whole [former Soviet Union],” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s Federation Council, or upper house of parliament.
Get alerts on Central Asia when a new story is published