Acting president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 20 2019. Picture: REUTERS/MUKHTAR KHOLDORBEKOV
Acting president of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev takes part in a swearing-in ceremony during a joint session of the houses of parliament in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 20 2019. Picture: REUTERS/MUKHTAR KHOLDORBEKOV

Astana — Kazakhstan’s new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, handed the key post of senate speaker on Wednesday to a daughter of his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who unexpectedly resigned a day earlier after three decades in power.

Nazarbayev stepped down late on Tuesday in what appeared to be the first step in a choreographed political transition that will see him retain considerable sway over the Central Asian nation of 18-million people.

His daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva’s promotion — which was former speaker Tokayev’s first major move after being inaugurated — raises her profile as a potential successor. Under Kazakhstan's constitution, the senate speaker assumes presidential powers in the event of the president's resignation or death.

Tokayev, a career diplomat fluent in Russian, English and Chinese, will serve for the rest of the presidential term ending in April 2020. He promised on Wednesday to continue Nazarbayev's policies.

"[Nazarbayev's] opinion will have special, one might say priority, importance in developing and making strategic decisions," Tokayev said in an inauguration speech, adding that the Kazakh capital, Astana, must be renamed Nursultan.

It remains unclear whether the Moscow-educated former prime minister will run for a full term as president in 2020. Nazarbayev praised him on Tuesday as "a man who can be trusted to lead Kazakhstan".

Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stands next to a horse during a visit to Kokshetau Region in northern Kazakhstan. Picture: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV
Kazakhstan’s former president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stands next to a horse during a visit to Kokshetau Region in northern Kazakhstan. Picture: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV

Key candidates

Nazarbayev, who has no obvious long-term successor, had run the vast oil and gas-rich country since 1989 when it was a Soviet republic, routinely winning elections with more than 90% of the vote.

But country-watchers have considered his eldest daughter Dariga a succession candidate since she founded her own party in the 2000s — which later merged with Nazarbayev's Nur Otan.

Nazarbayeva has in the past led Kazakhstan's main television station and served as a deputy prime minister, while also devoting time to her passion for opera — which she has performed publicly.

She made no mention of the upcoming elections in her brief acceptance speech on Wednesday.

Another extended family member, Nazarbayev's nephew Samat Abish, is also regarded as a candidate after his meteoric rise through the ranks of state security, where he has held the number two post since 2015. Abish, however, keeps a low public profile.

The head of state security, Karim Masimov, although not a family member, has also become very close to Nazarbayev, to whom he frequently referred as "my president", having served as his chief of staff and twice as prime minister. The current prime minister Askar Mamin, was Masimov's classmate in the 1970s.

Policy risks

Some analysts believe there will be collective succession, a troika- or politburo-style arrangement, after Kazakhstan amended its constitution in 2017 to reduce presidential powers in favour of legislators and the cabinet.

"What we expect to see in coming years and decades is a gradual transformation towards a system that is less reliant on one strong figurehead," said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital.

But there are doubts whether such a structure would survive for a long time, given the recent examples of neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, where new leaders moved quickly to eliminate other key players.

In any case, major concerns for investors will be uncertainty and a shift from long-term structural reforms towards populist policies, which began in 2018 when the government unexpectedly froze utilities tariffs, putting companies' long-term investment plans at risk.

In February, Nazarbayev ordered the cabinet to tap the country's rainy-day fund for $3.6bn in order to boost public sector salaries and social aid payouts and develop housing and infrastructure. 

Reuters