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Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev resigns but retains key posts

Strongman set to keep influence over resource-rich nation after three-decade rule

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as Kazakhstan's president in a surprise move on Tuesday, yet the last standing Soviet-era ruler appears poised to continue influencing the Central Asian nation's development for years to come.

"I have adopted a difficult decision for myself to resign as president of the Republic of Kazakhstan," the 78-year-old Nazarbayev told the nation in a televised address, saying this year will mark three decades of his leadership.

"As the founder of the independent Kazakh state I see my task now in facilitating the rise of a new generation of leaders who will continue the reforms that are under way in the country," he added.

The speaker of the Senate, the upper chamber of the Kazakh parliament, will act as interim president until an election is held, according to the country's constitution. 

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, 65, has assumed presidential powers and will hold office until the next election.

The resignation of Nazarbayev stunned Kazakhstan watchers and ordinary citizens. Nazarbayev had repeatedly said he would stay in power as long as the nation continued to entrust him with the presidency. The leadership transition comes as the resource-rich economy struggles with low commodity prices.

There have long been signs that Nazarbayev was paving the way for his resignation, including changes to the law in 2010 that allow him to influence state affairs after his retirement and his installation last year as leader for life of the country's Security Council, said Joanna Lillis, who has reported on the region since 2005. She is the author of the recently published book, "Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.

"Still, his sudden departure after nearly 30 years in charge of Kazakhstan -- since before it became independent in 1991 -- has surprised many," she said, "because a lot of people thought that even if the legal mechanisms were in place for him to step down, he would be reluctant to let go of his tight grip on power after so long."

"I think the reason he has resigned in his lifetime, and while he still appears quite fit physically and mentally at least as far as we can see, is to secure his long-term legacy," Lillis said. "He wants to control the narrative about himself, just as he has always done throughout his career."

The sudden deaths of Nazarbayev's former communist comrades -- Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan in 2016 and Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov of Turkmenistan in 2006 -- led to the dismantling of their legacies by their successors. Nazarbayev might wish to secure his image as the founder of modern Kazakhstan, just like Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

"That's a smart move, really, because if he dies in office, anything could happen," Lillis said. "Even if he had hand-picked a successor, he couldn't guarantee that the person ... would actually become president, or that the new leader would assure Nazarbayev's legacy in the long term. And that's something that matters greatly to him at this point."

"By stepping down, Nazarbayev ensures he can remain in control of the transition, and of the aftermath, too, because he has powers to take part in the running of the state for as long as he lives -- and I believe he will use them to the fullest for as long as he is able," she added.

In his resignation speech, Nazarbayev cited leading Kazakhstan's transition from being part of the totalitarian Soviet Union to becoming a democracy, and of building a strong economy and ensuring the well-being of his people.

Kazakhstan's economy has grown, and the population's socioeconomic well-being has improved. But the economy is dependent on an oil industry subject to state interference, corruption continues to be rife and real wages and living standards remain low for many people. Many villages in rural Kazakhstan lack running water.

Nazarbayev last won re-election with 98% of the vote, in a poll with no genuine opposition, and his political foes have faced convictions. The country's rubber-stamp parliament is dominated by his ruling Nur Otan party and other pro-presidential parties.

"History goes in circles," said an Almaty-based analyst who requested anonymity for the fear of reprisal. The analyst drew parallels between the one-party Soviet system and the current political situation in Kazakhstan, as well as the low oil prices now and in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union fell apart.

Kazakhstan's economy suffers from low commodities prices as well as from Western sanctions against Russia for Moscow's activities in eastern Ukraine. Kazakhstan is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

"However, there's no denying that many people still admire Nazarbayev as the father of the nation," Lillis said. "And while his legacy is mixed, many will remember him reasonably fondly -- albeit not the dissenters and journalists and human rights campaigners who have suffered grievously under his rule."

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