Kazakhstan's Political Succession: A Scenario Resembling Russia?


Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been ruling the country since 1990, is now in his late seventies. His advanced age has prompted much discussion about his political legacy and how he might handle the transfer of power to a potential successor.

Nazarbayev appears to have ruled out that a member of his family will succeed him, but has so far remained silent about other options.

However, several recent steps taken by Nazarbayev have led many political observers to speculate that he may be planning a so-called ‘Russian scenario’, referring to the pre-planned resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president in 1999, and the positioning of Vladimir Putin to assume the role of acting president. Proponents of the Russian scenario in Kazakhstan typically argue that there is no other politician in Kazakhstan which would be as popular as Nazarbayev or whose candidacy would forge consensus among politicians and the public. According to this argument, Nazarbayev has no other choice than to appoint a successor.

Recent law amendments and appointments made by Nazarbayev, seem to indicate that he is pursuing a dual succession strategy:

  • Nazarbayev seems determined to make the succession process free from any influence from members of the country’s political elite. For that reason, he has been making persistent efforts over the past two years to reshuffle his ‘old guard’, i.e. members of his inner circle. For example, Nurtay Abykayev, head of Kazakhstan’s Security Service retired in 2015. Imangali Tasmagambetov, another  close Nazarbayev associate has been ambassador to Russia since 2017, distancing him from political manoeuvring and lobbying in Kazakhstan. By contrast, Adilbek Zhaksybekov was made head of the presidential administration in 2016. This position, entailing close coordination with the president, allows Nazarbayev to control Zhaksybekov’s activities.?
  • Nazarbayev has also taken steps to ensure that he retains influence over politics even after his resignation. Since 2010 he has had ‘Leader of the Kazakh Nation’ status which gives him immunity from prosecution and provides him with a broad set of powers after his resignation which are enshrined in the constitution and other laws.

Who might succeed Nazarbayev under the assumption of the Russian scenario? This is clearly an area where one can only speculate. A number of names are advanced as possible successors, including Karim Masimov, the current head of the Security Service, as well as Imangali Tasmagambetov, Adilbek Zhaksybekov and others. There are pros and cons associated with each of these ‘candidates’. In the end, it seems likely that President Nazarbayev, like President Yeltsin, will decide whom to entrust his political legacy. It is also probable that Nazarbayev will remain some kind of mentor for his successor and wield significant influence over Kazakhstan’s politics even after his resignation.  

The Russian scenario seems to be associated with significantly less political risks than any other option. With Nazarbayev as a mentor, his successor should be able to handle the power transfer smoothly. Risk Advisory’s Russian Eastern Europe and Eurasia practice regularly monitors the situation in Kazakhstan and provides client updates when there are significant developments in the country.

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