Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has announced his resignation, after nearly three decades in office. The former Communist Party official is the last of the leaders who were running the 15 Soviet republics when the USSR collapsed in 1991.
In a nationally televised address on Tuesday local time, Nazarbayev, 78, alluded to Kazakhstan's transition to independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union, precipitated by the signing of the Belovezh Accords and a botched coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
'I have decided to terminate my powers as president,' Nazarbayev said, according to a transcript of remarks carried by Russian state news agency TASS. 'This year marks my 30th year in office as the supreme leader of our country. I was given the great honor of my great people to be the first president of independent Kazakhstan.'
Nazarbayev is not as well known internationally as the man who runs the country to Kazakhstan's north: Russian President Vladimir Putin. But he has dominated political life in his country in a way that even the Kremlin leader cannot match.
Thirty years in power
The Kazakh President vaulted to power as the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh SSR, geographically the largest of the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. With independence, Nazarbayev found himself running a country that sat atop vast reserves of oil and minerals, drawing the attention of both international energy companies and policymakers in Washington.
Kazakhstan also inherited a nuclear arsenal. With the collapse of the USSR, the newly formed country had over 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads on its territory. The country was also the home to one of the USSR's major nuclear testing grounds, Semipalatinsk, where the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb.
Nazarbayev oversaw the transfer of nuclear warheads to Russia, and his country renounced nuclear weaponry, a history he recounted in his book, 'Epicenter of Peace.'
While the Kazakhs never had operational control of those weapons, the Kazakh leader was able to cast himself as a visionary leader who had reduced the threat of nuclear proliferation.
The President also cast himself as a relatively enlightened ex-Soviet leader, at least in comparison with some of his more despotic Central Asia neighbours. Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, for instance, presided over a bizarre personality cult that included a rotating gold statue and renaming days of the week. Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan
was known for brutally incarcerating and torturing his political opponents.
Still, Nazarbayev ran Kazakhstan like a classic autocrat. The State Department's 2018 human rights report
noted Kazakhstan's 2015 presidential election, in which Nazarbayev received a whopping 98% of votes cast, 'was marked by irregularities and lacked genuine political competition.'
Nazarbayev will remain in the picture
Nazarbayev's powers as president are to be transferred to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, chairman of the Kazakh Senate, until the expiration of the current electoral term. But don't expect Nazarbayev to stay out of the picture: The Kazakh leader said he would remain the chairman of the country's Security Council. He retains the title of Elbasy (Leader of the Nation).
The Kazakh leader's aspirations to grandeur often sound like the stuff of parody: Take, for instance, his relocation of the capital to Astana, a futuristic city
on the frozen steppe of northern Kazakhstan. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen
made a career of poking fun at (a very fictional version of) Kazakhstan.
But Kazakhstan is also located in a region that is changing quickly, and unexpectedly. Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in former Soviet Central Asia, has undergone a political thaw after the death of Karimov. Peace talks have raised hopes of an end to conflict in Afghanistan
, which borders several countries in the region.
And then there's Kazakhstan's strategic location as a potential new trade corridor between China and European markets. Nazarbayev has welcomed Chinese investment in new infrastructure as part of Beijing's One Belt, One Road initiative
. That initiative, sometimes described as the creation of a 21st-Century Silk Road, also has potential to spur great-power competition in the region.