On March 19, Kazakhstan’s president, the 78-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev—the region’s longest-serving leader and last holdover from the Soviet era—finally announced his resignation. By stepping down as president but keeping several levers of power, he is attempting a new sort of political transition among post-Soviet states. The experiment will be watched not just in Kazakhstan, but in Russia as well.
Nazarbayev will retain the influential job of chairing the country’s Security Council and the honorific title “leader of the nation.” The symbolism of that title was reaffirmed with the announcement on March 20 that Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, would be renamed Nursultan to bear his name.
A similar scheme has been discussed in Moscow as an option for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is obliged by the Russian Constitution to step down from his post when his fourth presidential term ends in 2024 (if not before), but does not want to leave the corridors of power entirely.
The Kremlin now has an excellent opportunity to observe a handover of power under controlled conditions much like its own. The two countries are more than just neighbors; they closely resemble each other.
Kazakhstan’s and Russia’s economies have similar structures and GDP per capita, which means that their citizens’ wealth, requirements, and complaints are also comparable. The two political regimes are also similar. There is tighter control in Kazakhstan, whereas Russia is somewhat more free, but both are examples of electoral authoritarianism, in which the legitimacy of the head of state is affirmed by multiparty but noncompetitive elections.
Both Kazakhstan and Russia are multiethnic and multireligious societies in which the official “Eurasian” ideology incorporates European and so-called traditional, conservative values. Both countries tolerate small pockets of free media and relatively free discussion online.
Over the next few years, the Kremlin will be able to observe what happens in practice when the informal authority of the nation’s leader and the post of president—the main instrument for creating that authority—are separated. Think of the power and wealth of Russia as a safe-deposit box and the leader as the man who has its key. Now imagine that an extra key is made and two leaders can open it. This is the challenge of dual control that a divided system creates.
Russia already experienced a division of power at the top when Dmitry Medvedev served as president from 2008 to 2012, after Putin had already served two consecutive presidential terms, the maximum permitted by the constitution. But there was one crucial difference: Under Medvedev, the possibility that the former president might return to the presidency was always in the cards. In Kazakhstan today—and in Russia in the future—that will not be happening.
Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, chairman of the Kazakh Senate and a former foreign minister, will assume presidential duties until elections are held, but he is not seen as a full-fledged successor.
So far, Nazarbayev’s plan is not for early elections to be held, but for Tokayev to occupy the post of president until April 2020, when Nazarbayev’s last term was due to end. Nazarbayev will use this drawn-out transition period to hand-pick—from the Security Council under his own leadership—a proper successor, whose identity he himself perhaps does not yet know.
There is nothing to stop Putin from doing the same thing. This strategy, however, carries two risks. In situations like this, even elections that are just formalities—the public anointing the next tsar—begin to acquire meaning. For one thing, the recipient of the second key to the safe-deposit box—the heir—cannot be too weak or obscure. Otherwise people may not vote for him, or may do so without sufficient enthusiasm. That would undermine the legitimacy of the entire transition. This is particularly important for Russia, where authoritarianism is built on a somewhat less stable foundation and the direct support of Putin no longer guarantees the victory of a candidate in local elections.
Second, in societies like Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s—in which people are used to recognizing authority in individuals and offices, but not to democratic institutions—a swanky office, helicopter, security detail, and car zooming through the capital city with a flashing light end up creating their own informal authority, all the more so if the person in the fast car has the title of president. Russian voters have a saying that’s relevant here: “First get into power, and then we’ll vote for you.”
By the end of Medvedev’s presidency, returning to the Kremlin was not an easy task for Putin. It caused both a minor schism among the elite and large-scale street protests. In the Kazakh version, divisions among the elite are quite likely. To return to the safe-deposit box metaphor, a loyal guard is bound to spring up around the holder of the second key with access to national wealth and power; that guard’s interests lie in the second key holder becoming the main leader, eclipsing his predecessor.
The transition is of course also a big test for Kazakhstan as it seeks to refurbish its international brand. The main competitors among the former Soviet states today are generally considered to be Russia and Ukraine. It is a contest of political projects between Europe and Eurasia, and between democracy and authoritarianism. Kazakhstan is in a different competition with Russia, to see which can do authoritarian modernization the best—and potentially become a post-Soviet Singapore or South Korea.
Kazakhstan has scored well so far in this competition, opening an English-language university, setting up an economic zone under English-style common law, sending government officials to the West to study, and replacing the Cyrillic script with a Latin alphabet. And of course no one has introduced sanctions against Kazakhstan.
The smooth (and timely, by Asian standards) departure of its leader is another way for Kazakhstan to demonstrate to the world that it is a civilized and modern country, where a president who has been in charge for 30 years still manages to look good. Their government is more accountable and admirable, the Kazakh government may wish to hint to the rest of the world, than Putin’s, who has only been in power for almost 20 years, yet who will now inevitably outlast his neighbor to the south.